BY BRIAN LIBBY
About ten years ago, I began making trips to the Oregonian building on a regular basis while contributing freelance visual art reviews to the paper between about 2006 and 2009. Every time I went inside, it seemed hard to believe it was really a Pietro Belluschi-designed building. Sure, the elegantly streamlined limestone exterior seemed Belluschi-like, but inside the ceilings were low and the interior was dark. It felt downright oppressive, not like the grand and well-lit spaces for which this legendary architect was known.
Recently, though, a tour of the in-progress renovation to this circa-1948 Belluschi work (now known as 1320 Broadway), being developed by Seattle-based Urban Renaissance Group into creative spec offices for tenants like Amazon and Elemental Technologies, revealed its architecture to be far more compelling and beautiful than what I saw in the 2000s. The renovation, designed by Allied Works, won't be finished until early next year, but even though only core and shell work are thus far completed, the design and construction team has already revealed the great spaces that have been in hiding for the past few decades.
If you'd like to get a glimpse of the Oregonian building, the Architecture Foundation of Oregon is hosting a fundraiser and tour there tomorrow - Tuesday, July 26 at 4:30PM.
This has never been my favorite Belluschi building. Even aside from the interior, from the street it's not as beautiful to my eyes as a masterwork like the glass-wrapped Equitable building. But it's a different beast, an elegant box wrapped in limestone and granite. And now it has an interior again that reflects the maestro's vision: Quite simply, Pietro Belluschi designed an Oregonian building that began with a wonderful double-height lobby that its owners got rid of and installed a drop ceiling. But that was just the start of the under-utilized and hidden away spaces here. In the back of the building, where the printing presses used to be, is a triple-height space, and on the fourth floor is another double-height space that used to house the KGW TV studio. And then there are the roof decks.
Newspapers and journalists are supposed to be all about uncovering and telling us what we might not otherwise see. But in this case, the story of the hidden-away work of great architecture was practically staring them in the face, or floating above and below them, and went undiscovered. It's almost as if there were a body buried somewhere in the building that the murderer didn't want detectives to uncover, so it was tucked into a dropped ceiling. Really it seems to have been the energy crisis of the '70s that did it. The Oregonian was certainly not alone in this regard. But touring the building, it's jaw-dropping how much better it is than anyone has seen in a long time.
The restoration of this Belluschi building, one of his largest in Portland (perhaps second only in scale to the Equitable Building), would be exciting enough given the architect's place at the top of the pyramid amongst local architects of the past century. But as it happens, the former Oregonian headquarters restoration is being overseen by the top firm of our time, Allied Works.
This is not the first time Brad Cloepfil's award-winning firm has renovated or expanded a Belluschi building. About 11 years ago, Allied designed an expansion to a Belluschi-designed home in Portland's West Hills, owned by then-Weiden + Kennedy advertising agency creative director John C. Jay, (which I wrote about for Metropolitan Home magazine). But something John Jay said to me when I was working on the article seems relevant here, as it relates to why Allied is right for this job in a way that goes beyond the novelty of Belluschi-meets-Cloepfil.
"The joke I always use with him is that he’s great at nothing," Jay said back in 2007 in our interview. "He has a tremendous feel for negative space—the site lines and the feeling of spatial relationships."
Indeed, if one thinks about the signature Allied Works-designed projects in Portland, such as the W+K building or PNCA's home in the Beaux Arts 511 Broadway building, it's all about how the designs carve out space from heretofore dark, confining architecture to reveal light and volume.
With that in mind, last week I sat down with three Allied Works architects closely involved with the renovation: Kyle Lommen, Thea Von Geldern, and Philip Balsiger.
"It was brutal," Lommen said of the pre-renovation Oregonian building as our conversation began. "The kind of workspace that existed, it was almost like punishment. They just came through the building and laid acoustic tile ceiling everywhere and knocked out all the double height spaces. What was going on in the world when they said, we don’t want any daylight?"
"Which was providing natural light into all these spaces," Von Geldern added. "These are pretty deep interior spaces. The opportunity to bring light into that interior was there. There’s basically one floor plate that goes all the way through. Everything else is a double height somewhere. Only the third floor goes all the way through.
"Really our first step was just to expose what was there initially," Lommen continued. "There was a very tight budget, so there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. But the bones offered so much."
What's also interesting about the Oregonian building is its position in the downtown core, prominently located along Broadway but in between the hot spots of the main shopping and dining areas to the north and Portland State University to the south. In that way, the building can be a connector. "It’s really activating that end of town and connecting the PSU side to downtown," Von Geldern said of the renovation. "There are tenants who were interested in the property, but had to see that vision that this part of town is going to move. But the building really unlocks the city: it gives this view that’s familiar but you haven’t seen before."
Indeed, as I toured the building, I was surprised by how familiar downtown buildings can seem fresh again when seen from new viewpoints. In the back of the building where the triple-height printing press room used to be (which the renovation caps at two stories because the first floor was actually the basement), for example, there was a perfectly framed view of the Wells Fargo tower, the KOIN Center, and the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building. On the fourth-floor roof deck, one could look up or down Broadway for seemingly miles.
If much of the renovation design was about taking space away, Lommen says a lot of effort went into the lobby and how it could strike the right balance between open-volume grandness and a degree of intimacy. "We tried to do something that once we opened the volume up added some richness and scale," he explained. On the lower portion of the lobby, equivalent to the first floor, the design added long, vertical slats of wood that are inset with polished stainless steel placed at an angle. "From different vantage points when you look at the wall it’s opaque, and from others it opens up and the reflection begins to break down the surface and scale of that wall," Lommen added. "The mirrors are oriented so when you walk in you see more and when you walk out you see less."
For lighting, the lobby includes a series of hanging oval-shaped lamps suspended from the board-formed concrete ceiling. Looking up at them, I was reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterful Johnson Wax building with its ceiling of lilly pad-like circular shapes. "We tried to find a way to light the room at the scale of the room, and trying to leave as much clutter off the ceiling," Lommen said. The architects found a way to embed electrical conduit in the columns, which brought power to the light fixtures and made it possible to "not have anything on the ceiling except the sprinkler pipe. The concrete was so beautiful we wanted to do other things to keep as much possible of the ceiling."
If the wide-open volumes of the Oregonian building were only able to be re-unveiled after the paper moved out, Balsiger cautioned that it never would have been built this way in the first place if not for The Oregonian's specific needs. What's more, he pointed out a major influence on Belluschi, the Turun Sanomat building building by Alvar Aalto in Turku, Finland. "Alto was a huge influence on Belluschi," Balsiger explained. "The Turun Sanomat is a newspaper building with a cafeteria, a printing press. All of that was part of the original design to create these spaces that we now get. It’s a great message to companies: why don’t we make spaces like that to work in?"
"You can’t afford to build big spaces like this anymore," Von Geldern answered, noting the realities of class-A office space economics. "Space is expensive. You can have double height but today it would often be just a single bay. To have a public space of this volume that can hold 300 people, it’s incredible."
One of the best parts of the renovation besides uncovering the multi-story volumes was to add back the transparency that Belluschi sought, particularly the ground-floor windows on the entry side. "This whole front façade was closed," Balsiger said. The architects added new entrances on the north and south sides of the building, but most importantly, they restored the nearly floor-to-ceiling glass. "It’s really bring a new face of the building to Broadway," he added. "We definitely made a choice to make it feel as transparent as possible. It’s about seeing into it."
Over the past 15 years, Allied Works has completed a lot of noteworthy projects around the country, from the Museum of Arts & Design in New York to the Seattle Museum, the Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. In this case, the Oregonian building may wind up being less of a signature Allied Works building in a certain sense, because any architect with half a brain would bring back the same multi-story spaces that Cloepfil's team did. Yet one also has to appreciate the confident sense of balance Allied has brought: to resist putting a heavy-handed fingerprint of its own on the building, but also not so reverential as to resist sensible changes for the future. That lobby in its original form, for example, was even larger than what will exist post-restoration. But the architects wanted to maintain a human scale.
"There’s always a question: what makes this an Allied Works project? It’s nice to do a light touch and still have it feel like ours," Von Geldern said. "Good bones, good space, good light: we can work on the public-space piece of it and sort of walk away."
"You don’t have to scream your name," Balsiger added. "What’s been fun too is to have a conversation with the architect, which I think this project tries to do. You hear what the original building is saying, but times are different. How do you continue the conversation?"