The incredible life of Joachim Grube
The renowned architect's book serves as a reminder to all of us about living our lives to the fullest.
This summer, while reading the memoirs of well-traveled Portland architect Joachim Grube, A Window In History, I was reminded of a movie I enjoyed as a teen.
In 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, an 18th-century German nobleman's tall tales — riding a cannonball through the air, fighting sea monsters — propel a Monty Python-like ode to adventure. It's absurd, but the intrepid spirit behind it is inspiring.
There's certainly nothing absurd about Joachim Grube's 50-year career, which made Portland his base of operations but took him to 35 countries around the globe. And it couldn't be any more inspiring.
Decades before the nonprofit agency Architects Without Borders was founded, Grube was collaborating with builders and architects across Africa and the Middle East, leaving a built legacy and a frequent-flier account that no Portland architect before or since has even approached.
Born in 1932 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gda?sk, Poland), Grube literally saw the first shorts of World War II fired in his hometown's harbor as a six-year-old child. Later, his family's home was seized by the German army as a command post, and Grube was relegated to a refugee camp for the remainder of the war and beyond. A decade later, he earned his architecture degree while moonlighting as a bricklayer and shipyard worker.
Emigrating to America with his wife Liz in 1958 and trying to make it as a young architect while learning a new language would have been adventure enough, especially after that tumultuous youth. Yet by 1960, Grube was on the road again. This time for a long stay in Khartoum, Sudan, where a former mentor from Germany was now heading projects for UNESCO.
In his book, Grube writes poetically of long flights over the Sahara, of river trips down the Nile to witness ancient architecture before it's buried underwater by the Aswan Dam, of encounters with traditional tribes and ancient building methods. There's even a coup attempt or two. But he is enlivened by the people he meets, enough to fly around the world several times a year. Grube used this experience designing schools and research stations in Africa to return to Portland and co-found what's now become one of the city's most venerable firms, YGH Architecture.
With Grube leading the way, YGH saw projects completed in Nigeria and Angola, Jordan and Afghanistan, Ecuador and Kazakhstan, continually winning commissions over larger multinational design firms. Yet it was never business that pulled Grube across the globe: It was the chance to work with local architects in developing countries and provide the same mentorship that once lifted Grube himself into a whole new world.
These days Grube, now 89, has slowed down, especially after losing his beloved wife, Liz. But if A Window In History is, in a sense, his final project, what a culmination it is. This is a self-published book by a man for whom English is a second language (case in point: it really should have been called A Window TO History.). Yet between Grube's stories and superb photographs, it's perhaps the most compelling memoir I've ever read by an architect: a life lived over the top of the world.
Most of us have traveled less in the last year and a half than at any point in our lives. In today's world, it's hard to imagine such a globe-trotting career. Yet this Portland architect's story is a reminder to us all: don't be afraid to get back out there, get outside your comfort zone, and ride that cannonball.
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
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.