BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last week Nike announced the names of four new structures that will comprise the expansion of its Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, which adds approximately 3.2 million square feet of office, mixed-use and parking facilities to the campus, all designed by three Portland firms: ZGF, Skylab Architecture and SRG Partnership (with landscape design — no small aspect of this campus — by PLACE).
The renderings of these buildings have been public for just over a year and a half, but given the company's tight-lipped nature when it comes to controlling message, only now are we learning the names and what each building's role will be.
As it happens, the naming of these buildings isn't something the company can take lightly. When I first visited the Nike campus in 2001, they were just getting ready to dedicate was then called the Lance Armstrong Fitness Center. It sat not far from a child care center named after Joe Paterno. Both buildings were renamed in 2012, and I'm not sure they want to go through that again.
The largest structure, at more than one million square feet and the equivalent of three city blocks, is the Serena Williams Building. Expected to open in 2019, its design seems to be led by Skylab Architecture. I say "seems to be" because Nike isn't saying which firm designed which structure, and the firms are bound by a strict non-disclosure agreement. But the only picture Skylab put on its Instagram feed was of this building. And to my eyes at least, it seems to look akin to Skylab's vocabulary, not so much the controversial Yard building but more like its predecessor, the unbuilt Weave Building, with a simple geometric interplay of linearity and triangularity.
There are also two structures that appear to be designed by ZGF. There is the Sebastian Coe Building, a six-floor, approximately 475,000 square foot structure named for the British distance-running icon, which will add about 475,000 square feet of office space. There is also the Michael Krzyzewski Fitness Center, its name being not an unintended explosion of consonants but a tribute to the Duke University coach who leads college basketball in all-time wins; this 47,000 square-foot facility will include workout studios, exercise equipment and locker rooms. Both of these buildings have a sense of lightness and kinetics in how they appear to lift or cantilever off the ground, making their mass seem reduced and giving them a striking sculptural form. The architectural language also seems somewhat comparable to ZGF's design of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex at the University of Oregon, which was bankrolled by Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
There is one more project that's part of this expansion, and its opening is the closest. The NYC Garage, a parking garage that seems to have been designed by SRG Partnership, is themed around the New York City’s sporting heritage, with each level featuring graphics for championship New York sports teams. (One presumes it will thus include a few different shades of blue, a lot of pinstripes, and a tiny smattering of green or orange.) Besides the parking spaces, there is also a covered outdoor courtyard for community gatherings, special events on campus and sports activities. One might say a parking garage is the least interesting or significant of these projects, but it's also perhaps the biggest opportunity to enliven an otherwise unremarkable or unappealing architectural form. Herzog & De Meuron, arguably the world's top architecture firm, made headlines by imbuing a parking garage in Miami with a high level of design. With Nike the focus is more on graphics than program, but as with the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex's parking garage, where visitors are delighted by a host of Oregon Ducks quasi-graffiti, there's still a chance to make an unmemorable space memorable, and that certainly counts for something.
This is not the first time Nike has expanded. After the campus opened in 1990, the Nolan Ryan Building completion just two years later marked its first expansion, and in 2001 an expansion doubled the company's footprint. Over the last decade there have been incremental smaller projects. But this is certainly the biggest expansion in 16 years. What's unfortunate is that this expansion comes at a time when Nike, long dominant in the athletic-apparel industry, has lost some of its mojo.
The company's stock is valued today on the NASDAQ at $61.58, down from its peak of $67.16 in November 2015, after going nowhere but up in the prior decade. In September of this year, the company announced it was eliminating about 1,400 jobs worldwide, 745 of which were based at its Beaverton campus. It's all relative, of course, because Nike still dwarfs is primary competitors: Adidas and Under Armour. But it's not the kind of celebratory environment to unveil an expanded World Headquarters. However, by the time the Serena Williams Building opens in 2019, a rebound could well be underway.
When discussing the Nike campus, I also think back to something former Portland mayor Charlie Hales said to me about the company's headquarters in a 2001 interview, as part of a Metropolis article I was writing about the contrast between the Nike and Adidas headquarters. (Adidas's American headquarters is located in North Portland in the former Bess Kaiser Hospital on Greeley Avenue — as urban a setting as Nike's is suburban.) "It's great architecture, but it's terrible place making," said Hales, then a City Council member. "Nike's corporate campus is the ultimate well-designed, well-executed, attractive suburban pod. It's offices surrounded by parking lots inside a berm across the street from a trailer park and down the street from strip malls."
That, of course, was 16 years ago. Is it still fair to say Nike is an isolated outpost in suburbia? Yes and no.
I'd argue it's possible to live in Beaverton today and live a more walkable, cultured life than it was in 2001. Because of the gentrification that has happened in central-city Portland, Beaverton is actually considerably more diverse than it used to be. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 1990, 87.7 percent of Beaverton residents were white, but by 2013, that figure was down to was 63.2 percent. And there are increasingly clusters of transit-connected density where a person can walk to the grocery store or the movies. On the other hand, I think of all the times over the last five years I've driven my partner to medical appointments at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, adjacent to the Nike campus; looking to kill time while she saw the doctor or received treatment, I was often frustrated at how unwalkable the surrounding area felt. It often took me 15 minutes of walking to reach a drive-in coffee stop that technically was a block away; and when I got there, it was a novelty to the baristas that someone had made it there on foot.
As it happens, I think a lot or possibly a majority of Nike's Beaverton-based employees live in Portland. That means the daily grind of inching along Highway 26 in traffic, or perhaps taking MAX paired with a 25-minute walk or a bus ride. Earlier this decade, Nike even considered building a satellite campus in Portland proper, but ultimately decided to double down on its Beaverton headquarters.
Even so, it's not as if Nike is the only big company that chose to locate in the suburbs, and it's not the charge of ZGF, SRG or Skylab to make the Nike World Headquarters feel part of a walkable place or to reference in any way the architectural context outside that grass berm forming the campus's property line. And if one forgets the question of the Nike campus's distance from central-city Portland, there is arguably something interesting about the opportunity the company has had on that huge campus to create its own little world.
When it first opened in 1990, the campus, designed by Thompson Vaivoda (now TVA Architects), gained international recognition as a model for corporate campus design. It wasn't just office buildings and parking lots but something more like a college campus: a place with trees and greenspace and even a lake, albeit a human-made one. Even so, the Nike campus at times can, like other special corporate headquarters such as Vitra's headquarters in Basel, Switzerland or Adidas's main headquarters outside Nuremberg, Germany, feel like a laboratory for place-making and even architecture. In Nike's case, it's a place of office buildings but also big athletic fields and winding trails. And it's a place where modern sporting culture as we know it was practically invented, where designers like Tinker Hatfield and others created shoes and other products coveted around the world. You can't help but feel the creative energy.
As it has evolved, the Nike campus has also become more and more dense, perhaps in parallel to the city around it. Surface parking lots have shrunk or disappeared, and while parking garages aren't always great place-making either, the company has prioritized the preservation of open space. I can't help but wonder if, should the company remain a giant in the industry, a future Nike World Headquarters might have parking buried under ground in order to reclaim even more land for its buildings.
But what would be truly revolutionary is if the campus could someday become more connected to its surrounding environment. Why not let the public walk in and out of the campus, for example, like they could walk around a corporate headquarters immersed in the city? Why not introduce housing, or shops? It would be a net-positive gain for Nike itself, perhaps encouraging more employees to live nearby. And it could lead to a whole walkable neighborhood not just surrounding the campus but part of it. Back when I interviewed Charlie Hales 17 years ago, he presented the grass berm surrounding the campus as a kind of personal affront to the community, suggesting it was a way of saying, "Keep out." When I passed on Hales' comments to Robert Thomson, TVA's co-founder, he strongly disagreed, saying the berm was a way of providing a prettier face to the community than parking lots would have. Either way, why not open the Nike campus to the community with open arms?
I keep saying Nike's campus is in Beaverton but actually a decade ago the company went to court to make sure it wasn't part of the town. Back then, led by mayor Rob Drake, Beaverton was trying to annex the Nike World Headquarters so it would officially be part of the city and not just Washington County. Nike won that battle, citing in county government a more "hospitable climate for businesses," as Julia Brim-Edwards, Nike's senior director for government and public affairs, put it at the time. Maybe the company avoided paying some taxes or a bit of red tape, but that posture does not exactly strike me a textbook example of good corporate citizenship. And you know what, guys? Legally this may not be the case, but for all intents and purposes, you are undeniably located in Beaverton.
All that said, I quite like what I've seen from these renderings and photos — which are the closest I can get until Nike decides to let media take a tour. One never knows what a building is like until you walk inside, and get a sense of how the architecture is working for the occupants. And yes, architecture is inseparable from context — if not legally than in every other way. Yet our area seldom builds ambitious corporate architecture; we lack a community of affluent Fortune 500 companies to enable that kind of opportunity. And Nike has always been invested in place-making, even if it's not urban place-making. Founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman were shaped and made who they are by their time on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, and indeed, it's not such a bad model for how buildings and landscape can come together as an alternative to the asphalt and chaos that can sometimes dominate urban life. These buildings figure to enhance that ongoing experiment.