Concept-driven architecture and design impresses out of town jury.
A new generation of architects and design firms is coming on strong in Portland, making high-quality buildings whose modesty conceals great thoughtfulness.
Names such as Waechter Architecture and Beebe Skidmore won big at the awards, alongside more established firms such as Bora Architects and ZGF Architects.
At the 2016 AIA Portland awards ceremony held November 16 at Revolution Hall, it was no surprise that host Robert Hoffman praised the acoustics of the concert hall. Not just because Listen Acoustics who did the work was a major sponsor, but because the project owners had chosen the heavy, expensive doors that can block out a band sound checking in the afternoon from the offices in the rest of the building, which is a former high school. Hoffman's message was that Portland architects spend money in the practical things rather than fancy finishes, with the final goal of comfort and livability.
The jury of three working and teaching architects from Boston amplified that sentiment by saying that the craft in Portland was of a very high standard.
"The craft is so much better here," said Elizabeth Whittaker, Founder & Principal at Merge Architects.
"It's very hard to get good builders (in Boston), especially on infill projects," said Tim Love, founding principal at Utile Architecture & Planning Design.
Although the jury made their decisions based on looking at anonymous photos, renderings and drawings of Portland projects sitting in their offices in Massachusetts, they were aware that four of their choices, by Waechter Architecture, were obviously by the same firm.
They were effusive in their praise of the winner for Small Project, Waecheter's Red House. The crowd gasped when they saw the before photo — basically a Victorian farmhouse at Southeast 26th and Woodward, of the kind that gets torn down every week. The remodel gave it thick walls with recessed windows, and the whole thing was clad in red steel. Inside it is cool and sparse, dominated by white, built-in bookshelves.
"They accept the fact that you must use humble materials, the cladding, then they pushed the windows back," said Love. "Proportion is the only tool, which works with the modesty of the budget." They compared it to the kind of European stucco housing one would find just outside Vienna — high praise indeed. "It's a nice little essay," said Love summing up.
Sawtooth, a complex of eight one-bedroom, 600 square foot apartments near Avenue A and 7th Street in Lake Oswego, also won a citation. The jury liked the industrial chic of it, the way it used a factory-style sawtooth roof to bring in light and eastward views while keeping the west facing walls windowless to protect privacy.
Waechter also won for its Pavilion House, which is a white box perched on four fat pillars, one at each corner. These pillars contain all the stuff like stairwells, storage and utilities, leaving large living spaces with huge windows.
Face to face plaudits
Fresh off his wins, Ben Waechter posed for photos and was inundated by people declaring, "I love your work."
"I was surprised to win multiple times," he told the Business Tribune. "We usually win something, but to win four in one night was something special."
He liked that the jury appreciated the models he provided, and that they got that the work is "concept-driven."
Waechter worked at Renzo Piano in Italy and Allied Works in Portland (Brad Cloepfil's firm, also very model- and concept-driven), and started as a sole practice in 2008, doing single-family homes and remodels.
It's now a six-person practice based out of the Schoolhouse Electric building in industrial Northwest Portland.
The firm is currently working on multifamily projects of 12 and 20 units, plus a handful of other under 10 units and some affordable housing in Salem.
"Typologically speaking we don't really have a type of building we're going after. We'd like to do larger buildings, but we'll continue doing smaller ones," Waechter said. "I'd like to do more cultural buildings. We're really excited about this winery we're doing in Dundee."
Having worked for large firms of international repute, Waechter doesn't only aspire to do larger and larger buildings: skyscrapers and museums.
"That would be great, but the ambition is more to do high quality design work. Our work tends to be fairly cost-effective, we use hardie board and metal," he said.
"We would like to work on higher-budget projects where materiality can drive a project. For example, where the structure is the finished surface," Waechter said. "It's simple; it's the kind of architecture we like. But it's expensive."
Ultimately he'd like to keep his team small, but "If principals from Allied Works or Renzo Piano came to visit a project, they'd be excited about it."
Incidental name dropping
As he talked Doug Skidmore came up to congratulate Waechter. His firm, Beebe Skidmore Architects, won an Honor Award (the top level) for the Swift + POSSIBLE Agency Headquarters.
Asked about his last name, Skidmore said with a smile, "No relation that I know of, not to (famous Portland architects) Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the fountain or the college in Ohio. I can't find any, I just got lucky."
His work partner, Heidi Beebe, is only distantly related to Jane Beebe, the owner of PDX Gallery and wife of Ecotrust founder Spencer Beebe, as a cousin once removed.
Project^ (the project developers) won a Significant Design Contribution Award. Project^ was nominated by the architect.
Swift Agency is a digital agency based in Slabtown doing well for itself with well-paying clients such as Starbucks and Nike. It used to be in a nearby building owned by Jamie Hampton, of another asset-rich Portland family, the Hamptons.
Swift's chief investor is POSSIBLE, an advertising agency in New York.
Beebe Skidmore was working with project^ to convert, on spec, a rather ordinary light industrial building at Northwest 17th and Overton Street.
He liked that you could often see people working in the Overton industrial corridor through large openings and thought it would work well for creative offices.
Creating for creatives
Doug Skidmore explained to the Business Tribune that as they were working, cutting large windows into the concrete walls, Swift saw what was happening and got interested. Skidmore's team changed the scope of the project to add an upper mezzanine and introduced the sawtooth roofline.
"We had investigations of how to put space up high in a way that didn't trigger a lot of design review scrutiny. We pulled back for the edges of the block a bit." He thinks the city's design review panel OK'd the design as it changed because they weren't seeing a building being ripped up.
There was money in the budget for tenant improvement, but Swift had to pay for stuff that wasn't considered recoverable, mainly embedded electronics and audiovisual equipment.
He rates project^ highly because they do a lot of reuse, and the firms are already working together on an unreinforced masonry building at Park Avenue and West Burnside.
Skidmore said his firm ended up being neutral like Switzerland, acting as a go between for project^ and Swift.
"We needed to bring their interests in line."
That's the architect as more than designer: as a builder of relationships.