Leaving the White Stag: UO finds a new Portland HQ
When Justin Fowler left New York's Columbia University to teach architecture at the University of Oregon's White Stag Block in Portland five years ago, the Harvard and Princeton-educated architect wondered if he'd miss the intellectual energy.
Instead, Fowler, who now directs UO's Portland Architecture Program, found here "a really thriving design culture," he recalls. Architecture students mixed and shared ideas with students in other design disciplines and tapped a network of local alumni architects, eager not just to attract young professional talent but to be invigorated by their more youthful colleagues.
"It was very different than my experience sometimes in New York," Fowler says, "where unless you were at a certain kind of party or you had a certain kind of pedigree, they wouldn't even look at you."
Even so, the Ivy League schools he came from weren't just providing professional training. They were publishing magazines, sponsoring research projects, hosting charrettes and holding dinner parties. They were hotspots.
It's been 14 years since the University of Oregon opened the White Stag, its Portland outpost in adjoining historic Old Town buildings overlooking Waterfront Park. But after UO's purchase of the former Concordia College campus in outer Northeast Portland earlier this year, those days are numbered. Fowler and his fellow designing Ducks are set to migrate by 2024.
If Old Town has been a laboratory for urban design, with its mix of gorgeous cast-iron architecture and the ongoing social struggles outside its front door, going to Northeast Portland brings new opportunities and challenges. How hot can they make that spot?
"It puts us close to some very diverse neighborhoods, which sync up really well with the kind of social, affordable housing push that we've really made in the last few years," Fowler says, noting the university's burgeoning Design for Spatial Justice initiative. "And it gives us breathing room — a kind of front yard where we can take our conversations and build some stuff, which we don't currently have the ability to do."
The Concordia campus also is more than five miles from Portland's city center.
The more I've learned about architecture, the more I've come to believe brick and mortar or glass and steel is only the vessel. Great design is about the human energy it enables and conjures. Old Town's loss will be Northeast's gain.
But will it be UO's? That's not a given. Concordia might be safer, more spacious and yet more isolating. After all, would Columbia's architecture school migrate to Queens? Would Harvard go to Roxbury?
Yet it's also too constraining to expect the White Stag Block or Old Town to contain this architectural community.
Students remind us that neighborhoods are fluid, and our focus determines our reality. Fowler notes how each school year when they ask UO architecture students what draws them to architecture, the answers act as a kind of bellwether for the city and its needs.
"This year the focus really is on social connection. Everyone's circling around that," he says. "A year or two ago, a lot of it was about adaptive reuse: What do we do with all the empty building stock in downtown, and can we create some third spaces out of that?" In each case, though, the students sought to not just solve design problems but harness connectedness.
An architecture school is not just a place where you learn how to design buildings. In Fowler's vision, it's a holistic approach, not just multidisciplinary but active as a connector, communicator and advocate. If Portland is struggling, this — not at the ballot box or on social media —i s where we figure out the way back.
"It's creating conversations as a means of generating momentum," Fowler says. "Architects and urbanists have a lot of tools at their disposal."
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