Landscape architecture firm with Portland roots takes center stage in the global design world

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The team at PLACE, a landscape architecture and urban design and planning firm with roots in Portland, celebrates being named the 2019 Landscape Firm of the Year in the international Architecture MasterPrize awards competition.

When Mauricio Villarreal and Zeljka "Carol" Kekez decided to open a landscape architecture and urban planning and design firm in Portland in 2010 with two colleagues, their model for the business was ahead of its time.

Located in a renovated building that once housed a printing operation in Northwest Portland, the firm opted for an open, flexible layout that reflected the partners' desire to work on projects around the world in a creative, collaborative manner while also placing a strong emphasis on work that benefited the public good.

Nine years later, a growing number of landscape architecture and urban design and planning firms regularly pursue projects that provide both purpose and profit. PLACE, however, is still at the head of that pack — both locally and globally.

While the firm has a solid track record of award-winning projects, from Gateway Discovery Park in Portland to the Floating Gardens of Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, its work reached a new level recently. Three of its projects, including two in Oregon, received awards in the prestigious Architecture MasterPrize competition. The firm also walked away honors as the Landscape Architecture Firm of the Year, a new award in the international competition.

The awards event, held in October at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, brought the firm to the attention of a new pool of potential clients. However, Villarreal and Kekez say they don't plan on changing the model that has guided their firm and its projects for the past nine years.

"We've always been focused on how the studio works, how the studio grows. That's what we enjoy," Villarreal told the Business Tribune. "The push here has been to keep that entrepreneurial thought, to keep that 'first day of business approach' every day. That's what's exciting."

Upward bound

PLACE started with six people — the four founders and two employees. It now boasts a team of 30 with studios in Singapore, Tokyo and Bogota, as well as Seattle and its main spot in Portland. The locations are not so much strategic as representative of the family atmosphere that the firm's founders fostered from the very beginning.

Bogota and Tokyo, for example, are linked to Villarreal's background. As a child and teenager, he lived in Colombia and Japan. He always had an interest in design and began pursuing a career in mechanical engineering at a university in Colombia.PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mauricio Villarreal, one of four original founders of PLACE, stands in the workshop in the firm's Portland studio in Northwest Portland.

"I thought it was going to be molding cars and designing these beautiful things," Villarreal said. "After the first term, I realized that wasn't what I was going to be doing. So, I stopped doing that."

His mother had founded the Colombia Bonsai Association, and he had studied bonsai with her when they lived in Japan when he was in his early teens. So, after deciding against the field of engineering, he spent about 18 months teaching the art of bonsai with his mother. He told one of her friends, an architect, that he was thinking about a career in architecture. The friend suggested he try landscape architecture instead and gave Villarreal a book about Japanese gardens.

"At that point, it all started to tie together," Villarreal said.

At the time, there were no landscape architecture programs in Colombia, and the language barrier made studying the subject in Japan impossible. So Villarreal found some schools in other parts of the world, including the United States, and began sending out applications. The first school that sent him an acceptance letter was the University of Oregon.

Villarreal had never been to Oregon, but he made a move anyway. It turned out to be the perfect fit. After graduation, he was offered a job in New York City. But eight or nine years later, colleagues living in Portland convinced him to return to Oregon, saying the city was experiencing a design renaissance.

It was at a Portland firm that Villareal and Kekez, whose background is in business and urban planning, started working together. They soon found that they, as well as two of their colleagues at the firm, had similar ideas about a model for running a landscape architecture and urban planning and design business.

"It needed to be a community," Kekez said. "It needed to be a family. It needed to be a place where you wake up every morning and feel inspired to go."

In 2010, the four colleagues decided to take a leap and start their firm. The reason was three-fold, according to Kekez. The partners had international backgrounds and knew they wanted to be able to work on projects around the world. They also had a desire to share their professional experience by making teaching part of their regular work.

"We wanted a chance to do those things we didn't have a chance to do before," Kekez said. "We felt that as drivers of our destiny, we would make time in our own day and organize our time in a way that (academia) would become a priority."

The partners also figured that being able to succeed during a time when Oregon was mired in an economic downturn would be a testament to their ability to thrive when the economy turned around. PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The workshop area of PLACE's Portland studio offers a space for the firm's team to build project models and create art. The firm also has studios in Seattle, Bogota, Tokyo and Singapore.

"We were at points in our lives where we felt, 'Why not? If we try now and make it, then we can only go way up from there,'" Kekez said.

The partners even spent several days batting around names for the business, eventually bypassing the typical habit of naming the firm after the founders in favor of a single word they felt described the mission of the venture — to create a sense of place for people.

"When we decided to do this, we wanted to have urban design at the core of our practice, first and foremost — but also have the ability to implement our ideas in a very broad way," Villarreal said. "That was the intent, and that's why the studio looks the way it looks."

Around the kitchen table

In the worlds of landscape and urban planning and design, it's often the little details that make the most significant differences.

The building on Northwest 18th Avenue that PLACE calls its home in Portland offers a bare-bones, flexible layout.

Located in two separate areas of the space are four Ducati motorcycles, representing the ultimate in two-wheeled design as well as a way for Villarreal to unwind during a break from the workday. On a long table near the main entrance lies a scatter of leaves recently fallen from a tree. Three white bowls holding a variety of fruit in a kitchenette area become a work of art in their precise arrangement. As often as the workshop area in the back of the building is used for creating all-team art projects, it's also used for building three-dimensional working models of projects.

There are no cubicles — no conference rooms with closed doors. Instead of corner offices, the firm's principals are in the same work areas as the rest of their team. It allows them to be hands-on and encourage a collaborative environment. Villarreal, for example, is rarely at his formal desk. Instead, he can usually be found in one of the common gathering areas involved in a project discussion with team members.

"I can sit in the corner and draw three ideas," he said. "But the fun part is the conversation with the team and evolving the ideas."

One of those favorite collaboration spots is the large wood-topped table in the corner kitchenette, which provides a comfortable gathering spot similar to the kitchen table in a family's home. The table often is occupied by current and former clients from around the world, who come to Portland even when they don't have projects they're working on with the firm. While the firm relied on its founders' reputations to drum up work in the early days, its relationships with clients and architects has since evolved into repeat business that Kekez and Villarreal say comprise approximately half of the firm's current work.

"They knew us for the talent and creativity in the beginning, but I do think it's about service now," Kekez said.

Roughly 50% of the firm's work is public projects that they approach as a prime, competing with other firms through bidding processes and competitions The public projects the firm pursues usually have a mission-driven focus, such as affordable housing.

The firm also has earned a reputation for what Kekez describes as an "immense" amount of pro bono work. One of PLACE's most notable pro bono efforts, for example, was Harper's Playground, a project that was the first play area in Portland to incorporate inclusive design.

"On the eve of Thanksgiving, the client came to us and said, 'You know, I've knocked on many doors in Portland, and everybody has said no,'" Kekez recalled. "We looked at each other and said, 'How can anybody say no? Of course we're going to do it!' We didn't even have to talk about it.

"We never turn anyone down," she added. "Our team gravitates toward (pro bono projects) because it builds our community."

For art's sake

While other firms often burn the midnight oil, PLACE's employees don't put in night or long weekend hours. That's because when the office is open during the weekdays, design is happening all the time, Kekez said. She and Villarreal admit, however, that they don't always follow their own rules about working hours. As part of their commitment to teaching, they're currently leading a class three days per week at a local university.PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - In addition to presenting rotating art exhibits, PLACE holds community events, including a recent live performancy by a calligraphy artist. A remnant of that performance on a wall in PLACE's Portland studio eventually will be painted over to create a fresh canvas for another artist.

They also maintain a running roster of concerts, art shows and other events in the Northwest 18th Avenue studio that people from the surrounding neighborhood are invited to attend. In October, for example, an exhibit featuring 80 pieces of art was featured along with a live performance by a calligraphy artist. A few weeks later, the remnants from that performance were slated to be painted over to create a fresh canvas for the work of another artist.

"We spend our time doing this because we love it," Villarreal said. "This is what we love to be involved with."

Forward motion

While awards are never a primary focus of the PLACE team, Villarreal and Kekez admit the recognition does carry a certain weight when it comes to being able to win increasingly bigger and challenging projects. The past year turned out to be one that has added a lot of heft to the firm's reputation. PMG PHOTO: STEPHANIE BASALYGA - PLACE served as landscape architect for the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Courthouse. The project was honored in the category of  during the 2019 Architecture MasterPrize Awards held at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao this past October.

Fresh from learning that its work on Hassalo on Eighth, a mixed-use high-rise in Portland's Lloyd District, had won an American Society of Landscape Architects' award at the national level, PLACE found out that it also would be honored at this year's Architecture MasterPrize awards. Once presented annually, the prestigious international awards, which recognize innovative architecture, interior, and landscape design, were switched to every two years starting this year. That meant winners from 2018 and 2019 were honored at a single ceremony held Oct. 14 at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

PLACE's first-ever entry in the competition, the University of Oregon Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, won a 2018 award. The firm followed that win with honors in the 2019 competition for its work on the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in downtown Portland and the Swarovski Kristallwelton project. The latter project, located in Austria, is an outdoor sculptural garden that PLACE designed in collaboration with Cao Perrot Studio. The projects were among 100 selected from a pool of 1,200 entries from 65 countries by a jury of 30 industry professionals.

A little more than a week before the ceremony, the firm received another call to let them know they also would be honored with a new award — the Landscape Architecture Firm of the Year.

Villarreal and Kekez admit winning the MasterPrize awards will probably bring new international opportunities for the firm, but they're also committed to keeping a local presence. As PLACE nears its 10-year anniversary in 2020, the firm's team also is looking at how to celebrate that milestone while charting a course for the future.

"We're looking forward, always looking forward," Kekez said. "We're thinking about what could be the next version of PLACE — version two-point-oh."

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