Opsis at 20: still beavering away
Portland architecture firms have to compete to attract talent, and one place they go is to the architecture programs at the University of Oregon and Portland State University.
On May 17 Jim Kalvelage and Mark Stoller, partners at Opsis Architecture, addressed a room full of architecture students at PSU's Shattuck Hall as part of the Friday at 4 series. It features six Portland architecture firms presenting per year, giving them access to the design talent pipeline.
Some of what they described was the usual stuff that is catnip to students: The Opsis culture includes boozy field trips by bus and more than half the staff bike to work. Some was aimed at long-term thinkers and mature students: Opsis gives back to the community (food banking, Architects in the Schools, Northwest Dance Project) and the staff is a "family" that has 24 kids between them. (Cue cute photo.)
All of which is to say, architecture is a viable industry paying family-wage jobs and Portland is a fine place to practice it.
Most of the lecture was a run through of projects. The principals boasted that Opsis designed the River District Navigation Center, which opens this summer. It's a place to transition people from the streets, finding them health care and social services, and in the case of a lucky 100 males, a bed for up to 90 nights. Based on a brownfield beneath the Broadway Bridge, the design is pragmatic and utilitarian. In a Quonset hut-type steel and vinyl structure, men will be processed as they move through the building. This was given as an example of a firm trying to make practical change, quickly, on a small budget, in accordance with the urgency of the problem of homelessness.
Opsis will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. The principals shared a brief retrospective focused on "The Nature of Community." Arts, education and recreation were major categories. Six such projects were the Reed College Performing Arts Building, the Reser Center for the Arts, the Bend Pavilion, the Hillsboro Community Center, the University of Oregon Price Science Commons and the Oregon Zoo Education Center.
Old and young
At Reed College they built a modern Performing Arts Center on a collegiate Gothic campus. A radical move was dropping it down in the middle of a beloved lawn known for its sumptuous cross-city views of Portland's West Hills. Since the building hosts the Chamber Music Northwest series and a lot of elderly people have trouble walking up the hill, Opsis built it with many accessible levels, making it easier to move up and down the hillside.
The center space is treated as a living room where people just want to hang out and participate in events. They "warmed up" the industrial looking theater space with wood from a fallen campus oak tree.
The yet-to-be-built Beaverton arts center started off as a project in a studio taught by Kalvelage at the University Oregon. It is now known as the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts.
Kalvelage said the city normally "turns its back on Beaverton Creek" but Opsis wanted to showcase it. While making an urban development with housing and a parking structure next to the Performing Arts Center, and eventually a hotel, they have tried to "highlight the proximity to nature, which is in some ways why people moved to the suburbs to begin with."
The heart of the facility is the 500-seat theater on multiple levels. The lobby was inspired by the feeling of what it might be like to be inside of a beaver dam.
"There's a sense of community that's created by this enveloping quality of the wood," Kalvelage said. "So that's how this started to translate that imagery into an important generator for thinking about both the lobby environment and skylights, where the light quality is always changing and evolving."
In the theater, flat wood panels are layered with incisions that integrate acoustics and technology to create "an enveloping space that has a dialogue back to the lobby."
An example of a singular building that stands out in the landscape is The Pavilion for Bend Parks and Recreation, which has an NHL-regulation ice rink in it. Kalvelage said it is "essentially a very large roof and we saw an opportunity to create an icon within the Mill District." The long span roof structure's underside is sheathed in plywood. The perimeter ETFE - a fluorine-based plastic - sun and windscreen enhances the perception of a floating roof.
CLT for HCC
A new Community Center in Hillsboro was planned to break ground late May and be constructed of cross-laminated timber, the first of its kind in the country. Located in a park setting adjacent to a remnant forest, it's designed to sit harmoniously and yet intensify the visitor's experience of place. The building's layout and materiality reinforce both visual and physical connections to the natural environments.
The Oregon Zoo Education Center recently received national AIA recognition for sustainable design with the Top Ten COTE award and LEED platinum certification. Located on the remnant site of the prior main zoo entrance, the design reconciles the site into a radiating geometry which creates a new zoo education entrance, classrooms, insect exhibit and a variety of outdoor learning environments. The center's goal is to educate the public on how to live sustainably with natural systems and habitats.
Built with FSC-certified wood, it includes a wide variety of sustainable design features, including a rooftop solar array and rain gardens that capture and clean stormwater.
At the University of Oregon Opsis did a renovation and expansion of the science library. They created an interdisciplinary science resource space that serves the Lokey Science Complex. The existing underground library ties into four different buildings. They started with an existing harsh concrete courtyard environment and reshaped it to bring in better daylight, then extruded upward to create an entrance pavilion. The idea of a central courtyard was embraced as a way to create different types of acoustical gradients within the library. Moving from social commons and loud collaborative spaces to individual study spaces and finally into the stacks, where it becomes even quieter.
Kalvelage explained, "We realized we needed to use a sunscreen to filter the direct west sunlight, but we wanted it to be part of the brand storytelling of this Science Library."
They used the idea of embedding into the 25 metal sunscreen panels the code for the 25 chromosomes of zebrafish.
"At first, we wanted to use the duck, the mascot of the University of Oregon, but the science faculty couldn't find detailed information on duck DNA. They did have the zebrafish, however, which is a focus of their research."
So, the artistic pattern also tells a science story and is a talking point. The library with garden-viewing courtyard has become a favorite place to go on campus for many students and faculty.
Asked if the public could understand something like the sunscreen with the scientific DNA motif, Kalvelage replied:
"Architecture is generally an anonymous profession, because there's a certain point that you as the author in collaboration with many people are not available, and the building needs to stand on its own. Most people aren't aware of the (zebrafish DNA) story. So, it's left for the public to interpret. I think really strong architecture reads like a book. There's a story that's told, and if the building's engaging you in a dialogue, as you move through it, that's a positive and inspiring experience. It's not like going to see a van Gogh, where you see his signature. In some ways it's an egoless profession, even though people associate it with the ego."
Opsis has other arts buildings that are open to the public now. One of its earliest was the Performing Arts Center at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City. Its industrial character turned the building inside out and exposed the process and the technology that goes into theater. Outside there is a veranda with a metal armature to hold signage and graphics, and the interior of the theater takes a very intimate environment where the audience is one with the performers and exposed to the process of theater.
For the Art Gallery at Lane Community College in Eugene, Opsis designers expanded a 45,000-square-foot footprint to 65,000 square feet by creating two flanking bars of studios, preserving the competitive openness in the middle of the building and inserting a mezzanine into that creating significant gallery spaces underneath the skylights.
Kalvelage said: "We wanted to not take away from the power of the unique wood spaceframe structural system and beautiful clerestory windows and central skylights. Our goal was not to screw it up and surgically insert 20,000 square feet of studios and gallery spaces."
Students in the pipeline
Two American Institute of Architects (AIA) interns of the year were PSU architecture students who interned at Opsis. "That's a really big deal. It is a very competitive process. You rely on your peers to write reviews for you and submit information. So, it's something to be very proud of, and we're really fortunate to have two," said Opsis' Mark Stoller.
Opsis has also just started an annual scholarship for the next five years. At the lecture they invited scholarship recipient No. 1 up on stage, a young man called Makaveli Gresham.
"We were all students once," Stoller said. "We understand the challenges if one is to graduate. And so, we felt it was really important to get back to PSU and make sure that we help."
PSU professor Jeff Schnabel thanked Opsis for taking his students, and Opsis thanked him for having a research-based design program, where students could work at a firm on real projects, such as the PSU "Heatwave," augmented virtual reality, for the design of the Southwest Oregon Community College Allied Health and Science Center teaching labs.
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