PORTLAND'S BEST ARCHITECTURE OF THE 2010s
This decade brought many striking new commercial and residential towers, yet the best architecture was often boutique-sized and brought us together.
Ten years ago, I would have been surprised to learn that my favorite architectural experience of the decade would involve a café with no coffee.
But sipping green tea in a cantilevered glass box called the Umami Café at the Portland Japanese Garden was a delight that transcends beverage options.
And that's just one of three buildings comprising the Cultural Crossing, designed by Japan's Kengo Kuma with Portland's Hacker Architects: the best work of Portland architecture in the 2010s and leading this group of 25 great projects. At the Japanese Garden, there are spaces for gallery exhibits and lectures, classes, and a gift shop. But the Cultural Crossing (611 S.W. Kingston Ave.) design is more than the sum of its parts — even that glorious little café. Recalling classic Japanese pagoda architecture yet rendered with contemporary materials, it's a union of past and future.
Portland has always had local talent, but only rarely do world-class architects from out of town contribute to our built environment. Not every starchitect would be a good fit here, but Kuma, with an exquisite sense of detail and a reverence for natural materials, especially wood, transformed an already-great garden into a kind of modern temple in the trees.
Like the Cultural Crossing at the Portland Japanese Garden, Union Way by Lever Architecture for developer Project is an interplaying of wood, glass and natural light. But it's also a beautifully simple idea. Renovating an early-20th century auto repair shop in the West End (at 1022 W. Burnside St.) that had relatively little street frontage, the design cut a central spine down the middle and lined it with micro-sized retail outlets.
Essentially, they created their own street, and made it a passageway between the Ace Hotel and Powell's Books. Clad in natural poplar and illuminated by a succession of skylights, Union Way is a merging of passage and place, indoor and outdoor. It's also just one of many such imaginative designs from Lever, which emerged in the 2010s as one of the city's best and most award-winning firms.
In rainy Portland, we don't just need big windows and skylights, but also, arguably, a dose of vibrant color now and then. That's why I smile every time I pass the small Fair-Haired Dumbbell office building by FFA Architecture + Interiors or Guerilla Development (at 11 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.). Recalling the Portland Building by Michael Graves, it's an example of using the façade as an artistic canvas, in this case not riffing on architecture's past but simply becoming a mural. Absurd? Maybe. Timeless? Perhaps not. Irresistible? Definitely.
The decade's economic boom brought several ambitious office projects, which also indicate how workplaces have transformed: not only to open, cubicle-free configurations but also as talent attractors. The Expensify headquarters by ZGF Architects (at 401 S.W. Fifth Ave.) reminded us that the First National Bank downtown had always had an incredible atrium, but the design also transformed the space with contemporary insertions into the Beaux-Arts shell.
The headquarters for ad agency Swift by Beebe Skidmore Architects (1250 N.W. 17th Ave.) had less to work with in renovating a group of utilitarian adjoining concrete-block warehouses in Slabtown. Still, the conversion is thus all the more impressive, wide open and welcoming. One North by Holst Architecture (3529 N. Williams Avenue) for developer Eric Lemelson and partners is a curvy confection outside and offers light-filled atrium of its inside.
Thankfully offices didn't completely corner the market on attractive atria. The Karl Miller Center at Portland State University (615 S.W. Harrison St.) by Munich and Boston-based Behnisch Architekten gives PSU's business school a kind of winter garden where the whole student body may want to hang out.
As gathering places go, how about the recent Providence Park addition (at 1844 S.W. Morrison St.)? It's not easy to expand an intimate stadium without losing its essence, but the design by Allied Works only makes Timbers and Thorns soccer games louder and more exuberant. Led by Brad Cloepfil, the city's most acclaimed architect of this generation, Allied designed a host of noteworthy Portland projects this decade after spending much of the previous 10 years focused on museums and cultural buildings in other cities. That they so clearly scored with the firm's first stadium project will hopefully lead to more.
On a smaller scale from Providence Park, Nordia House by DiLoreto Architecture (8800 S.W. Oleson Road) was the decade's best community building: part cultural center and gallery, part restaurant, and all-inviting little oasis.
The decade's most talked-about architectural need was housing. High-end apartments got built more than the affordable housing our society needs, but there's no denying the kinetics of buildings like Slate by Works Progress Architecture (124 N.E. Third Ave.) for Beam Development and Urban Development Partners, with different units protruding and receding from its west and east façades.
The Cosmopolitan Condominiums (1075 N.W. Northrup St.) by Bora Architecture for Hoyt Street Properties, on the other hand, was attractive because of its (relatively) tall, slender proportions: a rare quality in Stumptown.
Another condo tower, Carbon12 (12 N.E. Fremont St.) by Path Architecture for developer Kaiser Group, represents the decade's most exciting trend: a new generation of wood timber buildings that can go taller than ever before thanks to the proliferation of cross-laminated timber, an engineered product first popularized in Europe that is as strong as steel. Another CLT-framed tower planned for the Pearl District, Framework by Lever Architecture, was an even more impressive design but has not been built.
This decade brought a wave of hotel construction, but more than great new architecture, hospitality projects have breathed life into old buildings. Perhaps there's no better example than downtown's Woodlark Hotel (813 S.W. Alder St.) renovated by the Los Angeles firm Office Untitled, which combined the adjoining Cornelius Hotel and Woodlark Building (from 1908 and 1912).
One major trend this decade has been small-scale housing: accessory dwelling units and tiny houses. One standout was the Garden House, an ADU in Southeast Portland by Waechter Architecture, its cantilevered second floor and pitched roof giving the little dwelling the look of an arrow. But the Kenton Women's Village in North Portland, a multi-firm effort led by Portland State University, was designed with a social purpose. In a way, that's even more beautiful.
If we're talking houses, I loved bold additions to historical designs like the Lincoln Street Residence by Beebe Skidmore, a Craftsman with a new glass west façade. New homes like the Music Box Residence by Scott/Edwards Architecture in Portland's West Hills, and Ash + Ash by Hennebery Eddy near Mount Tabor in Southeast, were memorably beautiful yet restrained, while Waechter Architecture's Tower House found medieval inspirations for a striking hillside home.
Beyond buildings, a small, medium and large work of infrastructure comes to mind. The Forest Park Bridges by Fieldwork Design & Architecture (for the Lower Macleay, Maple and Wildwood trails) show the beauty in simple engineering. Across the Columbia River, the Vancouver Waterfront (695 Waterfront Way, Vancouver) by PWL Partnership landscape architects (from the other Vancouver, in Canada), with its seven-acre park, pier and promenade, is the people-magnet we could have had along the Willamette. And Tilikum Crossing by Donald MacDonald Architects is a handsome version of a familiar bridge type, giving South Waterfront a much-needed connection to the east side — at least those not traveling in cars. That restriction is the boldest part of the design.
If the Japanese Garden's Cultural Crossing engenders a sense of wonder by framing its gorgeous natural setting in a new way, one other design, this one unbuilt, deserves recognition for doing something similar: the Willamette Falls Riverwalk (off Main Street in Oregon City) by New York and Oslo-based Snøhetta.
As with Kengo Kuma's work for the Portland Japanese Garden, this is design from a world-class talent, and Snohetta's vision has already helped us to see what the next great public landmark in the Portland area can and should be.
10 HONORABLE MENTIONS
(in alphabetical order)
Bud Clark Commons
655 N.W. Hoyt St.
By Holst Architecture
Edith Green Wendell Wyatt
Federal Building renovation
1220 S.W. Third Ave.
By Cutler Anderson Architects and SERA Architects
1895 & 2035 N.W. Front Ave.
By Hacker Architects
160 N.E. Sixth Ave.
By Works Progress Architecture
Luuwit View Park Picnic Shelter
Northeast 127th Avenue and Fremont Street
By Skylab Architecture
Michael Krzyzewski Fitness Center at Nike World Headquarters
Off Walker Road in Beaverton
By ZGF Architects
Oregonian Building renovation
1320 S.W. Broadway
By Allied Works Architecture
2034 N.W. 27th Ave.
By Lever Architecture
4075 N. Williams Ave.
By William Kaven Architecture
Vancouver Community Library
901 C St., Vancouver
By Miller Hull
930 S.W. Hall St.
By Woofter Architecture
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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