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COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE

The Canyons on North Williams gives residents and neighbors places to congregate.

COURTESY: THE CANYONS - The Canyons is one of Portland's newest housing structures, but is designed toward residents who are 65-years or older.Someday we'll be able to gather again, without barriers. And when we do, The Canyons (thecanyonspdx.com) will be the kind of place people of all ages want to live.

But it's geared toward one demographic in particular.

Although the pandemic has taken a particular toll on senior citizens, census data shows that over the next 20 years, the percentage of those Americans aged 65 or over is expected to grow substantially — to as much as one-fifth of the total population by 2040.

With its emphasis on universal (a.k.a. barrier-free) design, this 70-unit complex will allow retirees to live independently in a highly walkable neighborhood setting. From height-adjustable kitchen counters to curbless showers, The Canyons, located at a3450 N Williams Ave. in Portland, makes life in a wheelchair or with other mobility issues a little easier.

BRIAN LIBBYThe project was developed and designed by Kaiser Group and its in-house design firm, Path Architecture, who last teamed up for Carbon 12, which, in 2018, briefly became the tallest wood-framed building in the United States. Owner Ben Kaiser is an evangelist for cross-laminated timber, which forms the support structure for both that building and the adjacent Canyons. Stronger pound-for-pound than steel yet lighter than concrete, this engineered wood product has become the preferred material for green buildings because wood sequesters carbon rather than burning through a lot of it to be manufactured.

Even so, when I think of The Canyons, I don't think of barrier-free design or timber framing. What really makes the project distinctive is its public areas beyond the apartments.

The 110,000-square-foot building is really two buildings, with a gap in between that serves as a kind of multistory courtyard under glass — and presumably gives the project its name. Wood walkways hang off the building, zigzagging so people on one floor can see their neighbors above and below. Half-indoor, half-outdoor, it's a delightfully uncommon way to create public space.

COURTESY: THE CANYONS - Canyons Alley serves as a path between The Canyons (left) and The Alley (right). The Alley is an outdoor marketplace intended to feature boutiques, restaurants and wellness practicioners.Then as a kind of annex to The Canyons is The Alley, a separate single-story retail building next door with a pitched roof, which not only provides a transition from the six-story apartment to the adjacent neighborhood of single-family homes but provides a small outdoor marketplace meant to feature boutiques, restaurants and wellness practitioners. Of course, today, those small storefronts are mostly unleased, but in the long run, they will make The Canyons feel not just like an apartment building for seniors but an urban hot-spot.

There is only one missed opportunity here: the canyon itself.

COURTESY: THE CANYONS - The use of cross-laminated timber is evident throughout The Canyons.As striking as the multistory courtyard entry area with its catwalk-like hallways is, the apartments themselves don't look out onto it with any glass. Instead, the designer mostly put interior hallways and bathrooms at the fronts of the units. There may have been little choice, because otherwise those bathrooms would have had to go on the other side of these apartments, taking up space along the perimeter and robbing tenants of views to the distance. Even so, the lack of transparency here is the project's Achilles' heel.

Luckily, though, at The Canyons, there are plenty of reasons to venture beyond the front door because this building fosters community.


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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