The new speculative office building by Lever Architecture on 82nd Avenue called Flex is a reminder that the best architects often turn out to be not necessarily those commissioned to design big-budget, high-profile landmarks but instead those who can transform a modest building type.
82nd Avenue is one of Portland's longest, running from Airport Way to the north all the way to suburban Sunnyside. Its history has also long been one of change and challenge. Many years ago, it served as the city's eastern border, and since the mid-20th century it has been one of the city's ultimate automobile-age streets, teeming with strip malls, big-box corporate retailers, chain fast food, multiplexes and car dealerships — all with seas of surface parking. 82nd is a multi-lane highway and is unkind to pedestrians, with a discouraging number of fatalities. The only high-volume street walking has at times appeared to be prostitution.
But in recent years, certain neighborhoods abutting 82nd have also gentrified, such as Montavilla and Foster-Powell, while also becoming a hub for Asian-American communities and a corresponding succession of great eats. The burgeoning presence of institutions like Portland Community College has given the avenue a better mix of uses beyond just retail, food and entertainment. At least in patches, 82nd has started to feel like a place of real neighborhoods.
What this avenue has hardly ever seen before, though, is the kind of architecture that wins awards. Now that may change.
Flex is named for its building type, an industrial architecture generally comprised of simple, largely windowless structures with metal roll-down doors and interior mezzanines. In Lever's interpretation, though, this humble building type is enhanced with a couple of simple but very effective moves.
There are still roll-down doors, for instance, but they're paneled with glass. What's more, the entire facade facing 82nd is made of glass and the roof is punctured with skylights, making the whole 19,000 square-foot structure a light-filled jewel. There is still a mezzanine and a simple form to the building: basically, a box where one floor gives way to two. But Lever's design features a dramatic tilting roof, much like its acclaimed L'Angolo Estate Winery.
And by using timber framing — a major trend in worldwide architecture that Lever is already leading the way on in America with some of the nation's first modern wood high rises — the architects give Flex a beautiful texture that's rooted both figuratively and literally in Oregon's timber-growing traditions.
It's not to say we should try and make 82nd something it's not. This will probably always be a commercial strip, and cities need those. But when you start to calm the traffic a bit, with wider sidewalks and alternative transit options like MAX trains (which now run parallel to 82nd) and introduce more of a mix of uses — retail and restaurants still, but also offices and schools to go with it — suddenly 82nd can be less of an eyesore and more of a pleasant place to linger. Flex is arguably both a catalyst and a result of that better place-making: not a reinvention but an upgrade to what 82nd always has been.
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
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