Bora Architecture's Meier & Frank Building Redevelopment won two 2019 International Interior Design Association Oregon Design Excellence Awards.
In 2006, the grand old dame of Southwest Morrison Street switched from being a department store to an office/hotel/Macy's combination. Bora's 2018 remodel of the office portion of the building — now used by such clients as Google and Oregon State University — won for Best in Category for Commercial Lobby and a Juror's Choice Award at the International Interior Design Association, Oregon Chapter awards.
The interior designers at Bora gave themselves the task of reviving and refreshing what was classic about the Meir & Frank building while trying to undo some of the changes imposed in the last 30 years.
Sarah Weber and her team took a storytelling approach. This means the screw holes for a missing sign in the marble around the elevators remain unfilled, as well as orange paint and rusty nails remaining around holes in the exposed concrete ceiling. And it means bolting the famous steel and brass art deco clock to a concrete beam, even if it's running half an hour fast.
They added a coffee shop in the lobby and exposed the ceilings, terrazzo floors and structural steel. The most striking change is the addition of gold-colored metal screens around the stairs. The screen patterns are based on the pattern on the white terra-cotta skin on the outside of the building designed by architect A.E. Doyle.
One juror, Michael Hsu, AIA IIDA, said, "This is such a successful integration of all areas of design. It's what we all strive for — the graphics, the interior space itself, and the respect for the whole building."
Three into one
The Meier & Frank building is three actually buildings: a quarter of a block built in 1908, a half a block in 1914, and a quarter of a block in 1932. As you walk around the block, you can see subtle variations in the white finish, which reached peak decorativeness in 1914. (The block is between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and Alder and Morrison Streets. Only the south and east sides are active, with the Nines and Muji, the rest is truck delivery gates and blacked-out windows.)
"Probably, what most people can recall is Santaland in the basement, which was all red with wood on the walls and a train that went around the ceiling," Weber, chief designer on the project, said. "Our approach to the design was to uphold the nostalgia and cultural importance, to connect to our function (as an office), and to give the story back to the city."
When Macy's took over the department store space in 2006, Weber said a lot of the Meier & Frank brand and originality was lost.
For example, the facing around the elevators was covered in sheetrock, which was printed with Macy's graphics. Underneath, her team found the original stone and restored it to its lustrous beauty.
Because the site slopes from corner to corner, there were steps as soon as you enter on the Sixth and Morrison corner. Now that area is leveled out and has the Upper Left Roasters coffee shop, where the public is welcome to linger. The steps come further into the building, and take people down 54 inches to the level where the elevators are.
According to Weber, the Bora designers wanted office workers to feel, "When you got into the space, you had a moment to breathe. From being on the street, you are transitioning to a supportive workspace."
There has to be a ramp for ADA purposes and delivery drivers with hand carts, but for every one inch down, there needs to be a foot of slope. That means the ramp, at 54 feet long, has to double back on itself. All this would look too "busy," according to Weber, so a metal screen was designed to hide it partially.
"The screening helped to scale that, but also created a branding moment or memorable feature for the space," she added.
While the stair handrails are real brass, which is expensive, the screens are powder-coated aluminum.
The canopy over the entrance also inspired the use of brass.
"As a firm, we feel strongly we're responsible for appropriate context, rather than trying to put something colorful in a historic or nostalgic building," Weber said.
The architect also has to do what the client wants.
"We consulted with Urban Works and CBRE about what the market's looking for. We kind of take our expertise paired with the client's interests and this research, and try and develop solutions. We guide that process, and they ultimately have that last approval."
Weber's team took the design from the exterior terra-cotta (not the pre-Hitler swastikas, it should be noted, but the subtle, crotchet-like loops).
They hand-copied the Doyle design in Adobe Illustrator, then used Rhino 3D with a plug-in called Grasshopper to scale it up. "The algorithm could show how the design would play out in different sizes, such as having a circle every six inches for 50 feet, and will create a formula," Weber said. "Then you can change it, and tell it if six inches is too big, make it four."
They also used a plug-in called Ladybug to change some of the shapes. For example, they made the base of the holes in the screen more rounded and less pointy, which makes cleaning them with a dust wand far easier.
"One of our main drivers was to build on the rich exterior character of the building and to create spaces appropriate to the building, but apply and detail them in ways that had a lot of modern applications that were cleaner and less ornate."
Upper Left Roasters also was chosen for its "clean aesthetic," and Weber is proud that Bora designed their price board, with magnet letters on wood.
Fonts are an essential part of the look. The Chicago-based property manager, Sterling Bay, already had come up with a font for all signage. Weber took the ampersand of Meier & Frank and blew it up to wall sculpture size in the lobby, powder-coated steel with a brass finish. It's an abstraction of a conjunction, which is quite suitable in a context where everything is being rarefied and refined, as though purging the déclassé feel of 1980s Macy's.
For example, a pattern of right-angle triangles is picked out in thin brass lines on the terrazzo floor by the elevators, and again on the dark glass of the conference rooms in the basement. It vaguely resembles the subdivided squares and rectangles of the Fibonacci sequence or the Golden Section. The meaning, however, is more obscure. Weber said it denotes the three phases of the building's construction, 1908, 1914 and 1932.
Clocks and plates
The art deco clock was always a story point for the shopping experience — people would arrange to meet under the clock — so it was moved from its most recent reposition, by the Clinique counter, to a place of pride outside the elevators.
Also, in that lower-level part of the lobby, Bora commissioned Made Studios to build a 45-foot-long blue velvet couch, which snakes around the room. On a platform behind it, there are art and novelty books and a record player, which Weber stocked with one trip to Tender Loving Empire.
The 40,000 square feet floor plates are attractive to larger tenants, and floors two to five have the same stack or shape. The escalators — the first ever in Oregon — were removed, but Bora filled in the hole they made in every floor intending to open the spaces up again, should a large tenant take two floors and want to connect them. The architects made sure all utilities steered clear of those fill-in-plates so that opening them up again would be as simple as possible.
"We wanted to express the story of the building through the design because a lot of people feel it was their building because they had so many experiences there. Its history was so much part of the development of city," Weber said.
Weber used a mood board to aid in the design and communicate with the clients, an electronic one made in In Design, and heavy on historical photos.
Prints of some of those photos are on display at the foot of the stairs to the basement, a windowless space with more couches, conference rooms, and a 10-seater meeting table. Again, the ceiling is exposed in all its roughness, showing pan-molded concrete from the 1930s (bearing the shape of what looks like a large baking pan) and steel girders from the Nines-era seismic remodel.
Weber said they just embraced the idea that it, and the health club, are windowless spaces, and even went for dark wall tones and dark potted plants. They found more terrazzo flooring under the tile and exposed it, filling in some gashes quite blatantly, without attempting to make a perfect match.
"People respond to authenticity in materiality," Weber adds. "Bora has worked on four or five historic Portland buildings, and every time we find something we can build on."
One such was the Airbnb customer service office in the Blagen Building. Others include the red brick Bodyvox building on Northwest 17th Avenue, the old YMCA, which became the headquarters of Under Armor, and Lincoln Hall at Portland State University, one of the finest performance spaces in town.
While hotel lobbies are entertaining and comfortable, office lobbies, however, are some of the dullest and least friendly spaces in real estate. Bora made a hybrid of the two and also considered that many office workers are highly mobile now.
"We're finding that providing people with more choices of places to work really empowers them to enjoy their day, to steward their own process and get stuff done more efficiently," Weber said.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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