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The Mississippi building in North Portland is an inviting and attractive office space.

COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE


COURTESY IMAGE: LARA SWIMMER - The Mississippi buildingToday more than ever, working at an office is a choice.

In this post-pandemic moment, although some employers demand staff be on site all week, most see wisdom in letting people choose their own office schedules, so long as the jobs get done. Video meetings via Zoom and Teams can't fully replace in-person chemistry, yet it's folly to try putting the genie back in the bottle.

If tomorrow's offices must act as attractors, the Mississippi building in North Portland is better positioned than most. It's not only an invitingly light-filled, wood-festooned, sustainably-designed series of office spaces overlooking a courtyard, but its commercial space can transition to residential more easily than most.

You wouldn't know it from standing outside the building, looking at its barge-like weathered steel exterior, but the Mississippi building makes incredible use of wood. PMG IMAGE - Brian Libby

This is Oregon's first commercial project to use cross-laminated timber for all the building's components: not just the floors and walls, but the core itself, for which most such projects still use concrete. Enabled by a US Forest Service Wood Innovations Program grant to study the building's performance, Mississippi is both designed and developed by Waechter Architecture as a proving ground for sustainable building systems and all-wood construction.

Astonishingly, this is an office building without any drywall. All the interior walls are clad with wood, eliminating the need for additional finishes or fire-proofing.

Then there's the plug-and-play aspect of how Waechter Architecture's design creates flexible spaces that can convert from commercial to residential or vice-versa. The C-shaped building is comprised of six equal rooms, stacked in three tiers on each side of the interior courtyard; the rooms can be used separately by different tenants, or connected as one.

To reach the courtyard as well as the building's entrance and elevators, one travels through a wide but low-ceilinged passageway adjacent to the building's ground-floor café, creating a dramatic sense of pressure and release. The courtyard also assures that nearly all the upstairs spaces have light on two sides. In fact, standing in the rear of the building, it's possible to look straight through the westernmost portion of the structure, taking in not only the courtyard's light but the sunshine and horizon line further west, beyond three windows.

This building's excellence is no fluke. Earlier this fall, Waechter Architecture won the 2022 Small Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects' NW & Pacific region. In February, founder Ben Waechter, a 1995 University of Oregon graduate who previously worked under acclaimed architects Renzo Piano and Portland's Brad Cloepfil, was also named to the AIA's College of Fellows—an honor usually reserved for more late-career architects.COURTESY IMAGE: LARA SWIMMER - The Mississippi building

Though the firm first gained notice as a designer of houses, balancing bold design moves with a heightened sense of detail and aesthetic simplicity, Waechter Architecture has over time broadened its portfolio winery tasting rooms, hotels, apartment buildings.

Even so, rather than chasing square footage to grow the business, this firm has delved deeper into its projects, in Mississippi's case serving as not just architect and developer but general contractor.

You feel the TLC in every inch of this building, but especially the offices. Maybe you can't wear slippers and sweatpants here like at home, but this is commercial space that dresses for its own success.

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 (portlandarchitecture.com).


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