Earning our trust
North Portland's Meyer Memorial Trust headquarters is beautiful, functional and empowering
You should have seen the smiles on their faces.
On a recent tour of the new Meyer Memorial Trust headquarters in North Portland with architect Chandra Robinson of Lever Architects, she and I happened upon another tour: a group from the nonprofit Black United Fund.
When the other tourgoers were introduced to Robinson and learned she's one of only two Black female registered architects in Portland, you'd have thought a celebrity had just entered the building. There wasn't just respect on offer, but outright love.
Looking out over Interstate 5 from its perch on Vancouver Avenue, this new Trust headquarters is a beautiful work of civic architecture, its trio of peaked roof lines and ribbed metal cladding making the design by Lever Architecture an ever-changing interplay of light and shadow and its generous plaza inviting people to stop and converse. The building is also a laudable investment in community that represents a sea-change for the state's largest charitable organization, with the Meyer Memorial Trust returning to the inner-city neighborhood where its benefactor, 20th century grocery tycoon Fred Meyer, first lived in Portland.
With a team of talented women driving the project's design and development — not just Robinson but Anyeley Hallova on behalf of developer Project and a new generation of leaders from the Trust itself — as well as a construction process heavy on minority-business involvement, this project is not just beautiful. It's a down payment on doing things differently, and that's just as attractive.
The Meyer Memorial Trust headquarters continues an impressive multiyear roll for Lever Architecture. Creative historic renovations like Union Way and Redfox Commons have routinely won the firm awards, while corporate headquarters for Pixar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles, as well as an expanded Adidas campus here in Portland, speak to Lever's functional layouts.
The firm's biggest claim to fame over the past decade has been designing a new generation of mass-timber buildings, which continues with the Meyer Memorial Trust. Yet only half of this two-winged building is framed with mass-plywood. The other half is traditional stick-built wood construction, which was more familiar to its contractor and subcontractors. That's part of a key strategy with the Meyer Memorial Trust project, and what makes it special as much as the architecture itself: using development to affect positive change.
Until recently, Lever co-founder Thomas Robinson was always leading the charge, both at the drafting table and in interfacing with press. For this project, Robinson entrusted architect Robinson, a native Portlander, to take over.
The result is not just equity but an enhanced version of the Lever magic. Walking the halls of this Meyer building, full of light and resplendent with eye-catching art, it's enough to make even the most entrenched home-based pandemic worker yearn to go back to the office. And by moving most of the square footage to the northern half of the lot, the design also enables an outdoor plaza and unobstructed views looking west towards downtown.
It's not a perfect view, with the deafening roar from nearby Interstate 5. The freeway is only going to get louder and closer, too, thanks to a relentless widening push: one that only pays lip service to deep-rooted community and environmental concerns. Yet that's all the more reason the Meyer Memorial Trust headquarters is both impressive and necessary: an architecture of openness, community and opportunity that ought to make anyone smile.
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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