The American Institute of Architects Portland announced their annual awards for design excellence at a celebration held Friday evening, Oct. 27, at Revolution Hall in Portland's east side.
Thoughtful was the word of the night to describe the type of architecture being designed by Oregon firms, and being exported beyond the state.
Of the three judges, Allison Williams of AGWms_studio, ZoÃƒ« Prillinger of OPA, and William Leddy of LMS Architects, Prillinger and Leddy both used the word "thoughtful" to sum up the good things they see going on in the state, much of which work is concentrated in Portland.
The gist of it was that much of the work they saw — first on paper and on screens, then on a two-day tour of Portland — was more than the usual box plopped down on a flat surface. All the buildings were sensitive to context and history, used interesting materials and took into account aesthetics as well as energy performance.
This Time of Trump
U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer tried to gee up the assembled AEC crowd by telling them they were "the shock troops of livability."
"In this time of Trump, we need you to help people envision the future," he said. By way of example he said that when light rail was being expanded around Portland it was the architects who kept in mind what was visible outside the train window.
He also pointed out that in the rush toward self-driving cars, the commonest job for men without a college education is "driver." On a tangent, Blumenauer noted that food and farming were in the remit of designers and land use planners, and that with the Farm Bill expiring in 2018, to look out for his bill in Congress in three weeks, which he has written with whole food expert Michael Pollan.
The biggest prize of the night went to Kengo Kumar and Hacker's Portland Japanese Garden Cultural Crossing Expansion. In fact, William Leddy went to far as to call it "the most amazing project on the west coast." He had just seen Kuma's Nezu museum in Japan and thought Portland was getting "the better deal."
Leddy praised it for being honoring three traditions at one: classical and contemporary Japanese, and Pacific Northwest.
The judges talked of "four modest, human-scaled new buildings designed to merge into the dramatic slopes of the Washington Park terrain, in combination with the tall vertical lines of Pacific Northwest conifers."
Leddy praised the beautiful choreography of entering the garden via the winding path, which was there before the addition. Noting that the line was around the block on an October morning, he predicted "a Bilbao effect" for Portland.
That latter refers to the Frank Gehry's extension of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in northern Spain in 1997, which now attracts one million visitors a year.
According to the Economist, "Visitors' spending in Bilbao in the first three years after the museum opened raised over $110 million in taxes for the regional government, enough to recoup the construction costs and leave something over." Since the Cultural Crossing was privately funded, this could be architecture as economic development for Portland.
Allison Williams of AGWms_studio said the Cultural Crossing "took our breath away" and was now the gold standard by which Portland Buildings would be judged. "When you do your next museum, it will be all about hoping you can be this good," she told the crowd.
The judges favored some seemingly quirky projects. One was the Treeline Stage at the Pickathon music festival. Credit went to the PSU School of Architecture and Diversion Design-Build Studio. The other was a simple wooden screen erected in a museum at the University of Oregon. The wooden framework was designed as an open-ended kit of parts system, and was used at the inaugural Josef Albers exhibition. The judges liked the lenticular look of the slats, how the geometries changed as walked by, and they were impressed by the level of wood craftsmanship.
An unbuilt citation award went to Sunnyside Veterinary Hospital, designed by Guggenheim Architecture and Design Studio. The modern barn concept was inspired by the City of Happy Valley's rural history. But as ZoÃƒ« Prillinger of OPA told the Business Tribune afterwards, the project was beset by "petty rules" in the local jurisdiction. "It's an example of a degree of care, and inventiveness, but they ran up against the community and the Happy Valley dumb design guidelines. It was ridiculous to see such uninformed people interfering, and such well-trained people's best intentions interfered with."
Prillinger also praised the wooden exhibition divider at the Josef Albers exhibition for its beauty. "They're not caving into developer pressure," she said of the young designers. "That in itself is a form of resistance."
Pearl West is a Hacker project on Northwest 14th Avenue which was built speculatively by Walter Bowen's BPM Real Estate. It now houses several clients, chief of which is Wacom, the electronic drawing tablet company. Allison Williams of AGWms_studio raved about the "timeless, restrained sophistication" of the building, which uses the vernacular of the neighborhood (warehouses) in a way that "assumes the community can read these subtle architectural moves." She said it was "never heavy-handed" the way the bits between the windows get thinner toward the top of the building.
Holst Architecture built Olympia Place, some student housing in Amherst, Massachusetts, adjacent to the University of Massachusetts campus. It is tall with odd angles, and was praised for its "exciting geometries" and its "risk taking." It certainly looked like nothing you'll ever see at the University of Oregon or Oregon State.
Architecture Building Culture built another small project, Laura's Place, in Portland, as supportive transitional housing for women who have graduated from Central City Concern's Letty Owings Center and are in recovery.
Again, Prillinger saw it as a modest building done thoughtfully. "Unlike Bill who was at the U of O and Allison who has done work here, I don't know Portland. But what I'm seeing is people are quite idealistic about architecture and they hold it to a higher standard. There's a degree of thoughtfulness in the design that is expressed in many ways."
Another project that could become an unmissable stop for anyone going through Bend is the Pavilion. It's a public sports center in summer and ice rink in winter, whose 30,000 square-foot canopy seems to float in the landscape. It has the feel of Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland. "The roof is the thing, the (glass) walls disappear," said "The desire for the environment to flow under the roof is what architecture is reduced to."
Two projects took the focus beyond this little corner of the northwest. One was the U.S. Embassy Compound in Paramaribo, Suriname (north of Brazil) by ZGF Architects. It used screens and shifting planes of the tropical vernacular to cover up the fact that it is a bunker surrounded by more fortifications than a medieval castle.
The other was the Yellowstone Youth Campus by Henneberry Eddy. The judges said the campus's 10 buildings will "serve as the future home for multiple youth programs currently operating in Yellowstone. Inspired by the dramatic landscape and rich cultural history of the region, campus buildings reflect a contemporary expression of vernacular architecture of the West."
How green are Portland architects really? In the Architecture 2030 competition standard, only two of the 50 submitted projects achieved energy net zero. The goal is for buildings to either meet or exceed the Architecture 2030 Challenge advocating for all new buildings, developments, and major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030. The winner was the Yellowstone Youth Campus by Henneberry Eddy.
It wouldn't be an AIA Portland awards show without at least one win for local darling Works Progress Architecture. Their oblong duplex Doppelganger won a built project citation award. By pushing rectangles in and out like a wooden puzzle, two homes were created that interlink instead of sitting side by side on the lot.
"The concept evokes the nature of "doppelganger" — catching a glimpse of yourself out of the corner of your own eye," wrote the judges.
Thoughtful without the ego
Bill Leddy told the Business Tribune that the quality of design he was seeing in the Portland area was "awesome" and put some of it down his sense that architects in Portland communicate with each other. "They get together as a community and talk," he said, meaning face to face rather than just on social media. "They do things in a way that's more authentic and less fraught with ego. In San Francisco, everyone is so guarded."
He discovered, as a student at the University of Oregon, the power of the potlatch tradition. "That Native American tradition of a communal discussion, it happens here around design. Its open, transparent and generous, and I think it's in the DNA of Oregonians.
Talking about the intensive judging process, he said "Huge kudos to AIA Portland for sponsoring thoughtful discussion about design excellence. I've been on many juries and this has been the most thoughtful celebration of design excellence I've experienced."
Leddy added, "These are unsettling times, and we architects face a historical moment with issues of climate change, social equity and social justice. The challenge is around how we can create an opt-in future for ourselves, and architects are in the middle of that challenge."