BY BRIAN LIBBY
The students and professors have not yet moved in. No art projects line the walls, and hard hats are still required. But the opening of the Pacific Northwest College of Art's new Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design is just a couple of weeks away, which prompted a recent media tour.
It's too early to pass judgment before any of the final details have come together, but as soon as one enters the circa-1918 Italian Renaissance-style building, originally constructed as a post office, it's easy to see how the architecture has changed, becoming something much more open and full of light yet without compromising the wonderful bones of the historic original structure. While much of this is done by carving out new spaces to spread illumination, a lot of it happened by uncovering the skylights that were already there and removing the drop ceilings added in previous ill-advised renovations. Besides the carving out, there's also a simple unveiling and enabling of the orignial.
In any case, the Schnitzer Center has the chance to become a great architectural space in Portland, and a compelling return to form locally for Allied Works after spending much of the past decade-plus doing its most ambitious work in other cities.
Entering the building from the east or west, a show-stopping moment even before renovation has always come as one walks down the central spine, along a series of travertine columns with an intricately detailed ceiling in gold trim above. But whereas that central hallway and elevator lobby was dark before, now it is bathed in natural illumination.
Just off the hallway is a three-story atrium, revealing a kind of core sample of the architecture. Large metal cables, swooping in a curvilinear fashion and resembling nautical ropes, hold the mezzanine and third floor in place. At the top is a glass ceiling and, just to the north, the third floor ceiling is comprised of several huge sawtooth skylights. Despite all the heaviness of the original architecture, there is so much light that it almost feels like a quasi-outdoor setting, or perhaps a greenhouse or winter garden.
This primary atrium in the middle of the building is flanked on the east and west entrances by a pair of smaller two-story openings, revealing and drawing from large arched windows that had previously been blocked inside by drop ceilings. Everywhere you go on this ground level in particular, it's tall, wide-open interior spaces, something almost completely opposite from before the new renovation. The arched windows too are now an unmistakable part of the architectural experience again. However much midcentury plans for drop ceilings and fluourescent light compromised this building, clearly the original architects, San Francisco's Lewis P. Hobart and Washington, DC's James A. Wetmore, wanted to take advantage of natural light as much as possible.
This building was completed the same year that World War I ended, and like Memorial Coliseum across the river, it's not insignificant or merely a physical gesture for a public building to be transparent and full of light. It's not just about being able to do without artificial light. In the right public buildings, natural illumination can also have a symbolic effect, becoming an almost spiritual expression of openness.
The Schnitzer Center's architect, Allied Works (led by founding partner Brad Cloepfil), first gained national and international prominence 14 years ago with completion of the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters in the Pearl District. In many ways, that project and the new Schnitzer Center posed a similar intervention, in that a historic building was enlivened in its renovation by what was taken away. In each case, an atrium cut into the middle of the building provides a striking gathering spot while permeating the surrounding interior with natural light.
But the projects are as different as they are similar. W+K was an old cold-storage warehouse, with little inside that was precious and in need of preservation. That project also seemed to juxtapose of heaviness and lightness: big concrete forms and wood beams paired with a series of catwalks and perimeter rails that uses very thin wire and felt light as a feather. For the Schnitzer Center, there were historical flourishes inside and out to restore such as the travertine walls and terra-cotta tile floors.
But another difference may be that the Schnitzer Center's interstitial materials feel a little heavier, specifically the cables helping to hold up the mezzanine and support the atrium. They look great, adding a sense of curve and maybe even a touch of whimsy. One could almost look at them as drapes, unveiling the theater of students and faculty moving about on three floors. But the cables, at least to my eyes or at least in this late-construction phase before completion, look thick and industrial, almost like they came from a bridge.
Honestly I'm not enough of a structural engineering expert to tell you if lighter cables were possible and the heavy cables are merely an aesthetic choice, or whether these are the thinnest cables possible for this job. And it's not a given that thinner cables would have looked better. As constructed, the supports have a striking presence, not simply disappearing like thin wire might have but instead expressing clearly the union of these floors of activity and their occupants through an engineering intervention with the cables.
Besides the interior architecture, it's also worth pausing to consider how the renovation of 511 Broadway into PNCA's Schnitzer Center will impact the surrounding blocks as well as the Old Town and Pearl District to either side (Broadway serves as the border between them).
Across Hoyt Street, the newer but still outmoded post office building may soon be going away, freeing up hundreds of thousands of square footage for redevelopment. The Schnitzer Center also sits on the edge of the North Park Blocks. With the ArtHouse residence hall at the other end, PNCA is now bookending this greenspace, making it a natural part of the campus, just as the South Park Blocks do for Portland State University. One can't help but wonder if the city-owned vacant lot across Broadway from the Schnitzer Center might now be targeted for redevelopment. And in a broader sense, perhaps the PNCA project can help enliven Broadway, which is a kind of Main Street for downtown Portland but on this north side of Burnside doesn't feel that way. It's too bad that there's such a dichotomy between Old Town/Chinatown to the east of Broadway and the Pearl District to the west. The fabric of historic buildings is a huge resource, but too much of Old Town seems to be social services and bars, while the Pearl seems to have lots of galleries, restaurants and shops but few resources for those in need.
It would be asking too much of the Schnitzer Center to stitch these neighborhoods together and mingle their functions, yet given its place on Broadway as a newly relevant public building, somehow one can't help but have civic hopes for the impact of the architecture.
I'm still looking forward to getting a sense of the completed building in a few weeks, but a lot of the pieces are already in place, and enough of the Schnitzer Center is complete to see how it will be a gathering place, not just for students and faculty but the entire community — and a powerful fusion of old and new Portland.