BY BRIAN LIBBY
For the past few years, each September the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has made the otherwise vacant former Washington High School on SE 12th Avenue a lively landmark for its annual Time-Based Art Festival (better known as TBA). This year marks a departure, as PICA returns to its nomadic roots occupying a different warehouse or industrial building with each new fest. The organization, with the help of GBD Architects and other volunteer partners, is creating its temporary Works nighttime performance and attendant food/drink space in the former Con-Way warehouse at NW 22nd and Raleigh, its soaring girded ceilings providing space for multiple stages, bars, and art.
The Con-Way retrofit is a return to PICA's method before their three-year stay at Washington High, in which each year a new warehouse or industrial building would be transformed. A past Works design by BOORA Architects, for example, was included in mega-publisher Taschen's 2006 Philip Jodidio book Architecture in the United States, alongside works by starchitects like Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Richard Meier, and Stephen Holl.
"Washington High School very quickly felt like home," says PICA's Patrick Leonard. "We always joked that it was the only space we ever occupied that was actually designed for people—but that comfort came part and parcel with a really inescapable aesthetic presence. This year's space in NW is a big, blank canvas—a soaring-ceiling box ready for anything. There's no ready-made auditorium, but that means we can build out our stages to spec. We're working with GBD to play up that sense of space inside the building, so I think people are going to be really struck by the experience. And, in many ways, it feels like a true homecoming to get back to our warehouse roots and introduce a new generation of audience members to that energy."
But the temporary Works space inside the Con-Way warehouse is not PICA's only architetural sojourn. Last year the institute moved into offices inside the long-vacant building downtown at 415 SW 10th, which is known for its distinctive checkerboard-like facade of multicolored panels. PICA occupies the top floor of this three-story building, owned by developer Richard Singer.
"Moving into the West End and the iconic 415 building has been a transformative experience for PICA," Leonard says. "When we heard that the building was available, we jumped at the opportunity to move in—all of us had our eyes on it for years and we loved the burgeoning neighborhood around it. Some of our closest friends and partners had recently opened within these few blocks, including the Ace, the Mark Spencer, Frances May, and Radish Underground to name a few. Even our old 'roommates,' Literary Arts [formerly located, like PICA, in the Wieden + Kennedy building], found a new home around the corner on SW Washington. The West End felt like a natural fit for the organization and our values—I think it really embodies a lot of what people imagine when they think of "Portland," from the independent retailers and creative restaurateurs to the innovative business models of developments like the Ace and Union Way."
"Since our opening, we've been bolstered by how many new visitors we get: everyday it seems we have international travelers who wander in from the street or long-lost supporters who have just rediscovered our programs," he adds. "It's been wonderful to have an expanded space for artists and exhibitions, as well as just having the capacity to welcome and host audiences, whether in our library with a book and a cup of coffee, or out on our deck with lunch from the food carts. Already, we've transformed this space to fit every need we could imagine, from gallery installations to dinners to lectures to parties to a full dance performance with rolled-out marley and stage lighting. And we've only been here for one year!"
The building is far from renovated. Though its facade is colorful and distinct, it's a relatively cheap old building and is not yet suitable for, say, a highly finished class-A office space. Don't expect a law firm to move here. Yet whether it's because of the building's colorful look, its increasingly coveted location in the West End near a variety of attractions, or how the building offers frontage on two streets (10th and 11th Avenues) as well as a roof deck, for an organization like PICA it seems ideal.
This year's TBA Fest runs from September 12-22 at various venues throughout the city. But unlike in past years, when PICA lacked its own year-round exhibition space, the organization now has the ability, via the 415 building, to continue programming year-round. What's more, having a dedicated gallery space helps its visual art program, under the excellent curator Kristan Kennedy, to remain a core component of PICA along with its many performance and theater-oriented events during TBA.
Through September 29, for example, PICA's exhibit space is hosting a show by artist Anna Craycroft called C'mon Language! The exhibit looks like a kindergarten classroom, and indeed it's modled after Reggio Emilia-designed schools, which emphasize learning by self-documentation. Visitors are invited to draw on the drawing boards placed there or attend a long series of workshops, discussions and lectures there throughout its duration.
I've long been a fan of 415 SW 10th, and when I've written about it in the past the building has elicited rather strong feelings on both sides. Some write to me to express a shared effection for its facade: not just the colorfulness itself, but the hue of its red and green panels as they have aged over time. Unfortunately, some of those panels have been replaced with panels of new colors, but the effect is still simple and strong. For me, whatever architectural pedigree or detail it may lack, it's that rare building that makes me smile when I see it. Still, many when I've written about 415 have registered their near astonishment, reminding me that it's not only a building long vacant and in considerable disrepair, but even its facade panel system could not have been more ubiquitous in its time.
In the first decades after World War II, the United States saw thousands of buildings constructed, many not only done on the cheap but without any architectural detail, and often using materials that weren't meant to last as long as, say, traditional ones like stone or brick. Indeed, there used to be countless buildings even in Portland that looked a bit like 415 only without the color. But nearly all of them are gone. But I wouldn't necessarily argue for keeping this building out of a duty to history. The affection is more purely aesthetic. Sure, it's not going to be confused with something by Mies or even, say Holst, which once desined a completely re-imagined facade for this building. Yet particularly given the zeitgeist of Portland and Portlandia, it's not hard to imagine the building, with PICA's help and validation, earning a new generation of admirers.
After all, this is a city that recently, as part of the PDX Bridge Festival festooned the Broadway Bridge with a gigantic knitted quilt for its upcoming 100th birtday. If you think about it, that multicolored bridge blanket looks an awful lot like the facade of 415 SW 10th. As PICA seems to acknowledge, perhaps no other work of architecture in the city captures that kind of quirky sense of affection.