Today in Portland and in cities all over America, we're building a whole lot of mid-rise housing.
According to Census Bureau statistics, in 2017 there were 187,000 new housing units completed in buildings 50 units or more across the country, the most on record. Locally, our urban growth boundary makes these structures all the more common.
The overwhelming majority of mid-rise urban housing looks largely the same: boxes built right up to the property line, arranged as double-loaded corridors with units on both sides. The natural light levels are low and the spaces are often dreary, no matter what type of granite they use for the countertops. But the Lenox Addition Apartments, in Southeast Portland at 52nd and Holgate, are something different.
Designed by local firm Weil Bixby Architecture for clients Anton Pardini and Michael Parker, the E-shaped building is arranged around two inner courtyards and paired with outdoor covered balconies.
This gives tenants more natural light (in most cases from two different sides) but saves the client money by reducing overall square footage: no hallways needing heating and cooling. The building is also broken down into multiple pieces, improving sight lines for tenants and further reducing mass.
Yet none of these features are what you notice standing outside the Lenox Addition Apartments. Its architectural signature is a combined sun-screen and balcony system. Instead of hanging a series of individual balconies off the facade, Weil Bixby united them in one scaffolding-like aluminum composition.
Like the award-winning Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building renovation downtown, it takes a functional move — reducing summertime heat gain with exterior screening — and makes it a kind of sculptural identity for the architecture. Right now Lenox's aluminum screening does produce some unwanted glare in the mornings, as one reader recently complained, but the aluminum will soon weather to a more matte finish.
The screening also reminds me a little of the large-scale public artwork at the east edges of the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges, "Inversion Plus-Minus" by Seattle's Lead Pencil Studio (whose founders, coincidentally, were classmates of Weil and Bixby at the University of Oregon in the 1990s). Just as the sculpture uses steel to mimic the outlines of past industrial warehouses in the Central Eastside, so too does Lenox Addition act as a kind of outline for the architecture. In this case, though, the Lenox screening speaks not to the past but to the future, not just as sustainable design reducing our need for air conditioning and electric light, but as an act of place-making.
The past 20 years have seen a number of neighborhood commercial streets emerge as hot spots: places like Belmont Street and Hawthorne Boulevard in Southeast, Mississippi Avenue in North Portland and Alberta Street in Northeast. That's due in part to zoning and scale: mixed-use buildings combine storefronts and higher-density living. But architectural quality often helps determine where customers and tenants really want to be.
Today, the Lenox Addition Apartments sit across Holgate from a Plaid Pantry convenience store and across 52nd Avenue from an old tire store. But there's not another neighborhood strip anywhere close by, and I wouldn't be surprised if 52nd and Holgate eventually becomes an attractor beyond this project — but kickstarted in part by this design.
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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