BY BRIAN LIBBY
For much of this year, conversations about architecture have been about what we’re losing or might lose: the historic buildings small and large being torn down or threatened . Be it National Register-listed landmarks like the Portland Building and Memorial Coliseum, beloved industrial relics like the Portland GasCo Building and Centennial Mills, or countless old houses across the neighborhoods, 2015 has been a time of crisis. And that’s to say nothing of the alarm we all felt this year after a New Yorker article reminded us how the entire city could become, in one seismologist’s description, “toast.”
Looking back at 2015, I wanted to instead focus on what we’ve built and restored. So I have chosen eight projects that stood out as exemplary in their designs or were otherwise noteworthy in a larger neighborhood or city context.
Tilikum Crossing & CLSB
For the first time in 35 years, Portland got a new bridge. And the nation took notice, as this was the first multi-modal span in the United States that does not include private automobiles. The cable-stay bridge, designed by Donald MacDonald Architects of San Francisco, has quickly become beloved. I may be yet to encounter a single person who doesn’t have good things to say about its look. That’s especially encouraging because initially it was aesthetics that had me troubled. Before TriMet (the bridge’s builder) hired MacDonald, their previous consultant, Boston’s Miguel Rosales, proposed a more unique design that, to my eyes at least, was also more attractive. Called the “Hybrid Bridge,” it was a hybrid of cable-stay and suspension-bridge types, and it looked like a contemporary version of Portland’s most beautiful bridge, the St. Johns. MacDonald’s is a traditional cable-stay design, which means it is a much more common type. But if the type was not unique, MacDonald and his team did a great job executing it. Tilikum Crossing has a slender elegance. Free of large feeder highway lanes and onramps because it doesn’t allow private automobiles, its proportions are clean and concise. Riding a bike over the span, it can seem a bit steep, but it’s unquestionably a positive addition to the city and the skyline.
Adjacent to the new bridge is the new Collaborative Life Sciences Building, by Los Angeles firm CO Architects (with an assist from Portland’s SERA Architects), which establishes a beachhead of sorts for Oregon Health & Science University’s expansion into the South Waterfront. The CLSB comes with impressive sustainable credentials, as seen by its inclusion in the prestigious Top Ten Green Projects List from the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment. Its forms are a bit of a mishmash, as the design wraps a variety of medical treatment and training facilities as well as a large auditorium around a central atrium. But this the first of many steps that will utterly transform this section of the city, as OHSU embarks on a series of buildings (related to its raising a billion dollars to fight cancer) clustered near Tilikum Crossing and the Zidell Marine Company develops its Zidell Yards parcel.
Pacific NW College of Art – Schnitzer Center
It’s hard to believe that 15 years have gone by since the opening of the magnificent Weiden + Kennedy headquarters, a circa-1908 cold storage warehouse that a design by Allied Works transformed into a kind of secular cathedral of wood, concrete, and a bevy of natural light. For much of the ensuing years, Brad Cloepfil’s firm did much of its highest-profile work outside of Portland, designing acclaimed art museums in St. Louis, New York, Seattle and Denver. But the new Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art & Design, the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s new home, was a transformation almost equal to what Cloepfil and Allied did with W+K. The architects had a much grander old piece of architecture to work with this time in a circa-1919 former federal building and post office, and the small details may not have been as pristine thanks to a design-build delivery system. But there’s no doubting that what Allied Works did here was a smashing success, and as with the Weiden project, it wasn’t so much the architecture they added as what they took away. With a massive atrium carved into its interior, the Schnitzer Center is already one of the most compelling architectural spaces in the city.
Hassalo on Eighth
As we contemplate the massive growth and population increases hitting Portland, much of the conversation, especially in 2015, has focused on the downside: old houses being demolished, traffic on the increase, and the cost of living skyrocketing. But as housing comes to the Lloyd District in a big way, starting with the multi-building Hassalo on Eighth development, we can see the ability of a neighborhood to be changed for the better. The Lloyd District has never felt like Portland in the past, being dominated by a shopping mall, chain restaurants and stores, parking lots, and almost all large-scale buildings. Hassalo’s buildings are big too, but residential is precisely what the Lloyd District needs, giving it more of a walkable feel and removing some of that sense of a neighborhood shutting down sometime around 5 o’clock. Designed by GBD Architects, the buildings seem handsome if something short of extraordinary, but the place-making is first rate, as is the sustainable design. In the years ahead, Hassalo will be joined by many more apartment and condo towers. It will start to feel a little more like the Pearl District or South Waterfront in that way. It may not be as pleasant as some of the smaller neighborhood high streets like Alberta or Belmont, but it’s a hell of a lot better than a dying mall surrounded by a sea of asphalt.
The Central Eastside has always charted a different path than other burgeoning neighborhoods like South Waterfront and now the Lloyd District. There are no apartment and condo towers here, as this remains an industrial district. But what we refer to as industrial has expanded quite a lot, with a host of creative agencies and design firms. Over the past decade, the Central Eastside has become a very vibrant place, with some of the city’s best restaurants in the shadow of the freight trains regularly passing through. And many of those old warehouses have been given new life, such as the Olympic Mills Commerce Center and the Eastside Exchange. Yet new buildings here are relatively rare, and when they do come the architecture tends to ape the old structures. Not so with Framework, a new building from Works Partnership Architecture. The firm has been working in the Central Eastside for over a decade, responsible for many of those aforementioned warehouse renovations. But Framework is as light and transparent as those buildings are heavy. And it’s a leading example of a new generation of timer-framed buildings in Portland, including one with the same name, Framework (by Lever Architecture), set to break ground in 2016.
“The sleek, minimal structure pits four stories of glue-laminated timber beams atop a concrete base, a ship-in-a-bottle analogy of sorts that adapts and significantly slims the traditional warehouse structure seen in this part of Portland. With thin glass walls and open floor plans, it s a truly bare bones structure that takes advantage of advances in timber construction to maintain the material palette while reducing bulk,” wrote Curbed‘s Patrick Sisson. Indeed, part of what’s noteworthy about Framework is that it’s part of a new generation of timber-framed buildings. But what’s most special here is the building’s transparency and refined elegance. Six years ago, Works Partnership transcended its reputation for warehouse conversions with the eye-catching bSIDE6 on East Burnside. Framework is a continuation of that language, and a refinement, and it makes one all the more excited for some of the large-scale projects to come from this award-winning firm.
Fivesquare and Garden House
For all the time we spend castigating developers and builders for tearing down old houses at an alarming rate, these people are not malicious so much as they’re responding to market demand. People want bigger houses than they did a generation ago, even if they don’t have as many children. They want not just bedrooms but personal gyms and workout rooms and home offices. But you don’t have to tear down an old house to get that, and if you expand a home, there’s no law that says you have to make the new addition look like the old house. The solution that Lever Architecture crafted for an expanding classic Portland foursquare house is not one everybody would choose. With a modern cube sitting atop the traditional two-story architecture, the Fivesquare, as it’s called, often stops passers-by dead in their tracks. But the architecture is honest about the times in which its different parts were designed and built, and the cube atop this project keeps it from seeming oversized like a full third-floor addition would have. Within blocks of this residence, in Southeast Portland just south of Division Street, there are many examples of neb-historic new residential construction, and it’s quite ugly. Not so with this little gem.
And if there is one type of single-family residential architecture that is taking off these days, it’s the accessory dwelling unit – commonly known in the past as the granny flat. These detached backyard homes used to be subject to restrictions and system development charges that saw their numbers remain tiny for decades, but in 2015 they were built all over the city. Earlier this year when I attended a tour of so-called tiny houses, including not only ADUs but trailer-mounted micro housing, each stop had a line out the door. Portland, like so many cities, just isn’t building the middle-class and working-class housing we need. But the Garden House, designed by Waechter Architecture and co-winner of the top-level Honor Award at the AIA/Portland Design Awards held last month, is an example of how the ADU can not only be a smart solution but a beautiful one. Viewed from outside, the house looks like an arrow pointing upward, thanks to its cantilevered second floor and pitched roof. Architect Ben Waechter is a master at reducing design to its bare essentials, combining materials in an economic way that makes both building envelopes and the individual rooms inside them feel elegantly simple. I love the idea that someone living in a tiny space like the Garden House can experience residential architecture as exceptional as a massive West Hills mansion. The square footage pales in comparison, but the location, on SE Clinton Street, couldn’t be better. I’ll take that over the winding, icy, sidewalk-less West Hills anytime.
Even the best architects need the right clients, ones that will not only provide the right funds but will challenge them to push the envelope. That has certainly been the case with Holst Architecture and developer Eric Lemelson, first on last year’s Karuna House outside Newberg (which was the first in the world to meet three different rating systems’ criteria – LEED Platinum, Passive House, and Switerland’s Minergie) and now on the One North development.
I’ve written about One North a lot lately, be it for this blog or a recent New York Times article, and I’m impressed how the architecture seems to be a continuation of the Holst visual language even as it pushes things in a new direction. Holst’s work at One North is a curvy delight. The firm has won acclaim for a succession of projects in the past, from the Belmont Street Lofts and Clinton Condominiums in Southeast to 937 and the Bud Clark Commons in the Pearl District and Old Town, respectively. But this project makes me more excited about Holst’s future than I’ve been in years. And it continues the bumpy history of North/Northeast Portland and the Williams-Vancouver corridor in particular, where vacant lots have abounded for decades but where tall buildings have brought about an utter physical transformation. Much of what has happened on Williams is lamentable, with ugly cookie-cutter residential buildings towering over single-family homes. But this project seems like a success story, not only for the eye-catching facade but also in how the developers (including not only Lemelson but co-develper Nels Gabbert and Ben Kaiser, the latter of whom designed and developed the adjacent Radiator Building) donated a new public courtyard on the site to the city.
Hotel Eastlund and the Society Hotel
Speaking of Holst Architecture, the firm’s re-imagining of the former Red Lion motel on SE Grand Avenue in the Lloyd District was another highlight of 2015, earning raves for its interior design in particular but also really subtly but effectively altering the heretofore bland exterior. This area is not a pleasant place to walk, with Grand and Martin Luther King Boulevard acting as the city’s east-side highway with a combined six or seven lanes of automobiles whizzing by. But as Portland grows, it needs hotels, and this is an example of how to do it right. Portland also needs a headquarters hotel, and the battle to build one after many years of court challenges may soon be won, which would bring a much larger structure just across the street from the Eastlund. But that hotel, for all the good it might do in increasing Oregon Convention Center business and maybe even an NBA All Star Game, seems in its renderings to be quite an eyesore. Cheers to Holst for doing it right. That said, my favorite hotel project of the year, which I wrote about in a recent post, was the Society Hotel, which renovated a 19th century cast iron building in Old Town. As overseen by architect Philip Sydnor of Integrate Architecture, the project is laudable in its light touch. Thinking back on my visit there several weeks ago, my mind forms a mental picture comprised of brick, wood and white sheets.
What do these 10 projects say collectively? In a rapidly growing city, they show major development happening in certain central districts, like South Waterfront, the Lloyd District, and the Central Eastside. In the case of Tilikum Crossing, they show a city continuing to plan for growth with not only a new bridge but a new MAX line. They also show a city with close-in residential neighborhoods seeing unprecedented popularity, but with it questions of gentrification and affordability. For all the media articles championing Portland this year for its food or its urban design, there have been many mourning a kind of death for a city that once attracted young creatives here in droves in large part due to the low cost of living. For that reason, pressure has grown on local elected officials to do more to address rampant inequality and growing numbers of people being priced out of the city. For all of the new development – and make no mistake, construction cranes dot the skyline – it feels like very little of it is solving a real housing need. And even if we built hundreds or thousands of housing units for the homeless and for our lowest-income residents, the middle class will still increasingly feel pinched. To an overwhelming degree, the 10 projects I’ve highlighted are for the haves and not the have-nots: nice hotels and houses, commercial buildings, an art school. Yet it’s worth noting that the list includes a major investment in infrastructure, which can help the less fortunate most of all. TriMet certainly has its failings, but the new bridge and MAX line will help more people stay mobile without owning a car.
As we move into 2016, I think of a city with so much going for it: a thriving urban culture that’s greatest challenge may be its popularity. But Portland is also crossing some kind of line from a small, almost provincial city to one with bigger-city problems. Architecture and architects certainly can’t solve all of them, but the industry does have a role to play, be it as designers or enlightened advocates, in shaping the city and its future. These ten projects may vary in their aesthetic beauty or their functionality, but they all contribute in some kind of positive way, whether it’s towards the vibrance and density of a neighborhood or in the physical and social connections these projects enable.
- ^ Donald MacDonald Architects (www.donaldmacdonaldarchitects.com)
- ^ Miguel Rosales (www.rosalespartners.com)
- ^ Brian Libby (www.flickr.com)
- ^ Alene Davis Photography (www.alenedavis.com)
- ^ CO Architects (www.coarchitects.com)
- ^ SERA Architects (www.serapdx.com)
- ^ Allied Works (www.alliedworks.com)
- ^ GBD Architects (www.gbdarchitects.com)
- ^ Works Partnership Architecture (www.worksarchitecture.net)
- ^ Joshua Jay Elliott (www.joshuajayelliott.com)
- ^ Curbed (www.worksarchitecture.net)
- ^ Lever Architecture (www.leverarchitecture.com)
- ^ Waechter Architecture (www.benwaechter.com)
- ^ Holst Architecture (www.holstarc.com)
- ^ Leah Nash (www.leahnash.com)
- ^ this blog (chatterbox.typepad.com)
- ^ New York Times (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ recent post (chatterbox.typepad.com)
- ^ Integrate Architecture (www.integratearch.com)