From offices to libraries to the arts, 2021's top works of architecture help us get on with our lives

COURTESY PHOTO: JEREMY BITTERMANN/JBSA - Meyer Memorial Trust You know it's a strange year when the best and most ambitious architecture goes largely unoccupied. But in 2021, when we expected life to return to normal and only partially got there — kids back in school, but many parents still working remotely — impressive works like the Meyer Memorial Trust headquarters and the Adidas North America offices have remained vessels awaiting passengers.

Both projects, one for a local nonprofit and the other the German athletic-apparel giant, were designed by Lever Architecture, which has come to rival Allied Works as the city's premiere firm. Both projects feature ample use of mass timber, and are full of natural light. And both are awaiting the return of office workers. COURTESY PHOTO: JEREMY BITTERMANN/JBSA - Meyer Memorial Trust

Even so, these are inspiring spaces that can inspire team members to come together in person again when the timing is right. During the pandemic, polls showed most office workers didn't want to return to the physical workplace five days a week; but they also didn't want to keep working entirely at home. The future of the American office is waiting to be remade as collaborative, dynamic space, which both these projects exemplify.

Even so, one of my favorite offices seen this year was the humblest — the headquarters of architecture firm Beebe Skidmore, transforming a tiny concrete-block single-room industrial building in St. Johns into a little fortress of solitude, framing views of the neighborhood's namesake bridge.

Allied Works sang a duet of sorts. The firm's 500 N.W. 23rd Ave. building was completed this year on the site of the historic Alfred Burkhardt House, which had been destroyed by a gas explosion in 2016. The new structure's ceramic-tile facade is a nod to Ann Sacks, whose eponymous tile company had its first showroom in the Burkhardt, and who lives next door in another Allied Works-designed building, 2281 Glisan (completed in 2000 and one of the firm's early gems), which itself had to be rebuilt after the same explosion.

Some of this year's best designs came not from Portland, but cities to the south. Corvallis welcomed the Benton County Museum by Allied Works (which took top honors at this year's AIA Oregon Architecture Awards), as well as the Oregon Forest Science Complex at Oregon State University, a mass-timber structure designed by Vancouver, British Columbia's Michael Green Architecture.

In Eugene at the University of Oregon, shoe-company benefaction helped underwrite the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact by New York's Ennead Architects as well as a gleaming new Hayward Field by Portland's SRG Partnership, the latter of which hosted the Olympic Trials last year and will welcome the World Athletic Championships next year.PMG FILE PHOTO - Brian Libby

While Portland theaters and arenas continue to struggle, Beaverton is about to get its own arts venue: the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, designed by Opsis Architecture. Its grand opening is still to come in spring 2022, but when I visited earlier this year, as construction wrapped up, it was already clear the theater and exhibit space is going to be transformative for this increasingly diverse, high-density suburb.

The Reser Center also engages in smart place-making by enlarging what had been a forgotten pondlike opening in the largely buried Beaverton Creek — a perfect natural setting for this glass-walled arts center to overlook. It's enough to make one wonder why city leaders don't consider unburying more of this creek and using nature to foster a greater sense of place than strip malls.COURTESY PHOTO: JEREMY BITTERMANN/JBSA - The Adidas North America expansion.

Speaking of Beaverton, one of the most impressive buildings of the year in the Portland metro area seems to be the LeBron James Innovation Center at the Nike World Campus. But I can't say for sure. Designed by Seattle firm Olson Kundig, with a slanted running track going up one side of the building and sawtooth skylights punctuating its rectilinear form of black metal and glass, the building looks gorgeous from outside. Yet the company has restricted almost all media from visiting.

Another suburb, Milwaukie, has a lovely new public library downtown. Designed by Hacker, the firm behind most all of the region's best libraries of the past 20 years, Ledding Library, like the Reser Center, makes the most of its creek-side site, giving visitors an idyllic place to come together (health protocols permitting). The design starts with its exposed wood ceiling beams and wide-open volumes, but Hacker also gets the interior details right, like LED lighting built into the bookshelves.COURTESY PHOTO: JEREMY BITTERMANN/JBSA - The Adidas North America expansion.

During the pandemic, we all doubled down on domestic life, and it's no surprise that at this fall's AIA Oregon Architecture Awards, one of the winners was the Heartwood Residence by William Kaven Architecture. The indoor-outdoor living created by this home's central courtyard and its surrounding glass walls really make this one of the firm's best.

Yet for all these new buildings, one of my favorite architectural experiences this year was touring the J.K. Gill Building downtown, after a renovation by SERA Architects. Maybe it takes more creativity to design a new building, but standing in the renovated J.K. Gill's massive lobby, a double-height space with columns as big as sequoias and where the J.K. Gill store once attracted thousands each day, I was reminded of the soulfulness of architecture that has lasted for generations. This was another tough year for downtown, but I can't wait to return.

COURTESY PHOTO: JEREMY BITTERMANN/JBSA - The Adidas North America expansion.

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