Let there be light
The five-story atrium at the center of Portland State University's new Karl Miller Center, the rechristened and expanded home of its School of Business, is a reminder that such wide-volume, light-filled spaces may be the most quintessential Oregon architecture.
It's easy to forget after another hot summer, but for much of the year we need indoor spaces places with enough glass to let us soak up natural light without getting wet. Most often that happens hanging out over cappuccinos in one of our city's countless coffee bars, or in retail enclaves like Powell's books. But the Karl Miller Center is something more: a little cathedral of light.
Designed by the renowned Stuttgart, Germany firm Behnisch Architekten with an assist from Portland's SRG Partnership, the Karl Miller Center is admirably sustainable, with a LEED Platinum rating anticipated for its combination of passive cooling, green roof and Forest Stewardship Council-certified cedar cladding. The greenest move any project can make is re-using an existing structure, which the Miller Center does with the original late-'70s School of Business building. The architects then created an additional 43,000 square feet of space by constructing a new building next door.
But the design is really all about that atrium in between the two buildings.
For students and faculty, that five-story volume topped by a glass canopy brings natural light deep into the most interior classrooms. Yet even more importantly, it's a place for students to gather.
On a recent tour, the School of Business's dean, Cliff Allen, confided that PSU students are sometimes so desperate for a place to go between classes that they'll sit in their cars in the parking garage. I can't think of a sadder scene for a university otherwise transitioning from middling commuter school to vibrant urban university. But that's all the more reason the Karl Miller Center is welcome.
Obviously, this isn't the first atrium in Portland. Another PSU-connected project, the Collaborative Life Science Building in South Waterfront by Los Angeles firm CO Architects, offers a similar multistory atrium crisscrossed by catwalks. And our best local architectural work of the past 25 years, the Wieden + Kennedy building in the Pearl District by Allied Works, imaginatively carved an atrium into old warehouse. But neither is well connected to the outside streetscape — remaining hidden to passersby.
Both the Broadway and Sixth Avenue entrances to the Karl Miller Center atrium, on the other hand, feature glass facades (one at a striking diagonal), thereby opening up to rest of the university and to the city and acting as invitation. Coupled with the small covered plazas created by cantilevering upper floors of the new addition over the first two stories, the Karl Miller Center design also creates modest yet generous outdoor public space.
Portland State's campus has always been enjoyable to visit along the South Park Blocks. But its Broadway-facing side has always been a bit oppressive, built right up to the street and squeezing hundreds of students onto small sidewalks. But the Karl Miller Center, like PSU's nearby Urban Plaza, creates a new front door for the university that, especially now, invites one to linger, be it to study or to socialize.
From now on, when I visit PSU during the rainy seasons, I'm going to get there early and bathe in the atrium's light.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at: portlandarchitecture.com