respecting history

Historic Portland context in its actual time (City of Portland)

When it comes to preserving architectural heritage, there are currently a multitude of varying, and often opposing, design philosophies regarding how new development can “fit” into older urban fabric. On one end of the spectrum, there is the desire to make replicas, using mimicry techniques to blend in, similar to the New Urbanism design methodology. The opposite end of the spectrum is to make new development look completely different from the old buildings in order to visually identify and differentiate the new from the old, as previously mentioned ,the UNESCO World Heritage way. The City of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission, who has the jurisdiction over historic districts, currently leans toward the former design theory, looking to make new buildings ‘fit in’ through mimicry albeit understanding that scale and proportion play far more important roles than ornament. The HLC commissioners are primarily appointed by the mayor, so the commission’s long term design theory is up to interpretation of each individual historic district’s design guidelines. However, the current HLC has had, and will have, far more influence on Portland’s built fabric than previous commissions due to both the sheer number of new projects being built at this time and the fact that this commission is rewriting the guidelines for most of the city’s historic districts.

To the majority of architects, new construction has a responsibility to be ‘of its time,’ becoming the physical embodiment of history for future generations. That responsibility is based on respect, respect for what has come before and what will come in the future. Another major design philosophy in contemporary architecture is the idea of truth in materials. Brick is no longer load-bearing for example, so if it is used in a building’s envelope as a protective “veneer” cladding, it should have some amount of truth in its application, namely to not give the impression that it is still load-bearing. These two ideals go against what is commonly referred to as Disneyfication, the concept of making a fictional utopian version of something out of nostalgia for an older way of doing things, e.g. the American small town main street. In this way, the current HLC can be seen as promoting Disneyfication, a faux-historic architecture, by demanding that buildings have a certain usage of material or proportion of element despite the irrelevance of said material use or size limitation. Instead of respecting and revering the older historic fabric, new buildings are forced to be shallow mockeries of older means of construction, construction methods that are no longer safe, legally allowed, or financially possible.

A great example of cultural context responsive architecture, the Mercy Corps Headquarters by Hacker Architects used the existing building’s sightlines and fenestration to develop the language of their contemporary addition, which also utilized metal and terra cotta cladding to further ‘fit’ into the surrounding district’s fabric while maintaining its truth in modern materials (Walsh Construction)

Within the architectural community there are several different ways of making architecture that ‘fits’ into an existing setting without producing false or misleading architectural elements. One such method is Architectural Contextualism, a design theory that became prominent in the 1970’s at the height of Postmodernism and still carries on today. Contextualism looked at the surrounding human context for design inspiration, highlighting the scale, form, and sightlines of neighboring buildings and incorporating them into new construction. Most often this takes the form of visually matching horizontal rooflines, material bands, or awnings of existing buildings and continues those lines across the new construction in one form or another. An example of this would be the late 90’s Newmark Theater, where the building lines and overall massing follow the lines of the adjacent Paramount Theater and First Congregational church. That theater also takes on the vertical lines of its neighbors, and the spacing of their fenestration, in order to achieve a sense of wholeness to its two-block ‘Center of Performing Arts.’ This is where there is definitely a gray area in this approach. Following vertical and horizontal patterns within one continuous project is a longstanding traditional design method of building in phases over time, and is highly regarded as being respectful of the existing architecture as an addition or within a campus. Think of how the Brewery Blocks mastered this technique, mixing the old brew house and art deco auto dealership with the new construction (that is differentiated by exposing structure and using contemporary materials, except the brick, in a somewhat truthful way). However, that was one continuous project, whereas the First Congregational church next to the Newmark Theater was not part of the performing arts center, only the old Paramount Theater was, therefore the Newmark becomes a little untruthful in its form in regards to the differentiation of use within its surroundings. Why does this matter? Because in almost every historic district in the world, including places with historic height limits like Paris and Washington DC, each individual building has varying sightlines, cornices, window patterns, and other elements that differentiate each building from its neighbors, continuity is very rare and usually only the product of cooperative construction. Therefore, using an adjacent building’s vertical and horizontal lines and patterning is only ‘truthful’ if it is an addition to a single entity. The HLC’s insistence that Ankrom Moisan’s new headquarter’s roofline and ground floor match that of its neighbor, the University of Oregon’s White Stag building, is a direct contradiction to Old Town’s historic fabric, none of which maintains direct sightlines (unless it was part of a single building’s addition). In this way, the HLC has pushed for a false contextualization, disneyfying Old Town and disrespecting its history (which is made even worse by ‘blending’ materiality and the corresponding ornamentation in untruthful ways). In 100 years, will the public in general know the difference between the turn of the last century versus this century’s architecture?

Beyond sightlines and patterning, another culturally contextual design methodology is to look at the overall form and shape of neighboring buildings in order to make ‘appropriate’ architecture without falling into the gray area previously discussed. This concept is widely used in Europe and Asia as a means of ‘fitting’ new construction into historic fabric, but is usually undermined here by the local planner’s desire to embrace nostalgia, perhaps a side effect of not having a long-held and unquestionable cultural identity here in the United States. Regardless, there are a some good examples in Portland including Hacker’s Woodstock and Hillsdale libraries, Holst’s Sawyer’s Row, and GBD’s The Edge Lofts to name a few. All of those examples found their building forms by looking at neighboring building shapes, and played off of those precedents’ contours with contemporary materiality and fenestration.

Even beyond form, a different cultural context methodology is based on the epoch itself, the current time and place. Portland has no true examples of this design theory, but Portland’s neighbor Seattle has one of the best examples in the world. When the city brought in OMA to build their new Central Library in 2004, Rem Koolhaas looked at designing a new library that not only fit into Seattle’s context, but would also be designed for the city’s current culture, not its past. Regardless of the building’s flaws, the design is ultimately based on the needs of contemporary citizens, the realities of technological changes, and in the need for an indoor central plaza in a city known for its cool and wet weather. The envelope is purposely transparent, making the city around the library the exterior ‘walls’ of the building, weaving it into the fabric from the inside. The sizable structure, and its design logic, are also acknowledging Seattle’s cultural shift, its transition from a regional city to that of an international one. Koolhaas would argue that the Central Library is the most Seattle-specific building in all of Seattle, even more than the iconic, but placeless, Mid-century Modern Space Needle.

Another approach is based on Critical Regionalism, a critique of both Modernism and Postmodernism’s lack of place specificity. It promoted Modernism’s contemporary world view of spacemaking and form, but found its inspiration from the natural world: the climate, light, materiality, and topography in order to embrace each place’s unique identity. In doing so, those who follow Critical Regionalism do not base their designs on the human context, which is thick with borrowed and out-of-place architecture, nor do they look directly at vernacular architecture, as contemporary construction practices regarding structure have become somewhat homogenized worldwide. The approach is based on sustainability so to speak, before that became a buzzword, and natural contextualization. In this way, materiality becomes key. There are very few examples of this in Portland, however, the Pacific Northwest has some great examples from Olson Kundig and Cutler Anderson architects. However, because Portland is a timber and metal town, it is easy to see the recent reemergence of timber frame and post and beam construction in the city, especially those with metal and glass facades, as a form of Critical Regionalism. By that logic, is Works Partnership’s recently completed Framework a more appropriate building type in the East Portland Historic District than a mimicry or cultural Contextualist approach?

The original design for the Grand Belmont, which, despite its generic appearance,  used contextual massing, setbacks, and truth of materials as site-specific design elements (Vallaster Corl)

The second iteration of the Grand Belmont project, heavily influenced by the Historic Landmarks Commission, attempts to mimic older design styles, materials, and form which ends up blurring the lines of what is actually  historic and what is purely nostalgic inaccuracies (Vallaster Corl)

If we look at a current example, one of the projects in the East Portland Historic District that is going through design review by the HLC, the Grand Belmont, we can immediately see the confusion and complexity that results from the commission’s well-intended, yet damaging, design methodology. The project team, led by Vallaster Corl Architects, wanted to design a building of its time, and regardless of any aesthetic [or quality of material] criticism, the [conceptual design]* did show truth in materials with its overhangs and corner windows, a larger volume (representing the new height limits) on top of a lower plinth (representing the existing fabric), and a facade setback that puts the hierarchy of the building toward the bridgehead. The HLC balked, ignoring the historic district’s own guidelines which specifically state that these sites are supposed to maximize FAR and height, and tore into this new building as if it wasn’t place-specific at all. Their main argument? The Weatherly Building. Even though the Weatherly, a placeless yet historic Romanesque Revival-styled building, would still remain the district’s tallest building (on the adjacent block nonetheless), they called it an “anomaly” in the district for its height and scale. Beyond that they argued that the new building would be too wide to use the Weatherly as a precedent, as it is rather skinny in the skyline. Not only is the HLC overstepping their authority, but they do not understand, and refuse to, understand that the entire district was supposed to be much bigger, grander, and taller before the Great Depression. The Weatherly was just the northern wing of a proposed full-block building, a detail the HLC is apparently unaware of. So what did the design team come up with after the first design review? A throwback, out of place and time behemoth that appears bulkier despite its reduced height and additional setbacks. The commission balked again about the height, but liked all of the mimicry details that they were seeing. If the Grand Belmont were built in the fashion presented at the second design review, it would dumb down and abrade the actual historic fabric that surrounds it, permanently lessening the historic affects of the district and disrespecting architectural history as well. On top of any historic conversation, the city is going through a housing crisis, demand for apartments has greatly exceeded the supply, and this property is purposely slated for high density as to further prevent the destruction of Portland’s hinterlands, its farms and forests, and its’ low-density single-family suburbs just 1,500 feet away from this site (which is an altogether different equitability issue). The design team must now face a design conundrum: pony up to the HLC’s fallacious demands and cause permanent [perceptual] damage to the Central Eastside’s real architectural history and the district’s own preferred development plans, or ignore [their well intended but misguided ‘appropriateness’ critique] and appeal [with a regular design reviewed higher quality design that better articulates its place and time]* to the city council or state Land Use Board of Appeals, where they would certainly win (even the city attorney gave the developers a better argument for their case). Hopefully, the team decides to do the right thing and go forward with a [contemporary, more place-specific, and less generic] design that maximizes the site’s agreed-upon intention [and more appropriately stitches together the old and the new]*.

*Edited for clarification based on comments received.

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5 responses to “respecting history

  1. Can we send the HLC to somewhere around the world that has better examples of blending new with historic? A week in Italy for the entire commission everytime a new member joins them could open their eyes! And not just Portland’s, but Salem’s, Corvallis’s and a few others.

  2. Without doubt the efficacy and effects of the HLC ought to be questioned and commissions such as these do have the responsibility to justify decisions. Nostalgic mimicry intentional or not should never be policy in an urban city. However one may want to cite a design subject not reminiscent of a grim 1970’s dormitory and a firm not known for poor fit and finish to lead the charge. The city will not be worse off for not having the original Grand Belmont design built despite the author’s protestations. And while I can’t defend the logic of the HLC’s review, both designs are clearly contemporary, common and not commensurate with the hyperbolic claim the revised design would “cause permanent damage to the Central Eastside’s real history”. (Which “history” are we claiming is “real”?) Frankly both designs will cause “damage” due to poor execution, historic implications aside.
    Perhaps we’re getting tied up in the same Gordian Knot the HLC is accused of here. Rather than focus on lofty views of historic continuity–or discontinuity to justify aesthetic choices perhaps we should revisit more pedestrian concerns of material quality, depth of fenestration and appropriate massing. When you tend to your knitting, you tend not to end up with knots. Clearly the significant change in height and the current transformation of the Central Eastside’s form and function is of greater design significance than whether corner windows tell us brick veneer is structural or merely skin. The latter concern is symptomatic of a view which places the building as an individual piece of work above its role as an urban contribution.
    If I may pivot to another contested design issue of the day, the HLC and the Design Commissions’ fatigue with the rampant trend of random offset fenestration is understandable. Is it not valid to ask contemporary designers enamored with this style why they are so? It is fashion is it not? Or is it “historical honesty” as the author suggests? More likely, budget, fashion and the limits of a designer’s talents are far more influential in our current building rather than some ideological adherence to “honest” design. Who is able to answer what is “honest” in an aesthetic choice?
    Compare Hacker’s Pearl West with Boora’s Block 17 (both market rate buildings in the highest rent district financed by the lowest interest rates in history). Granted these were not reviewed by the HLC but both exhibit relevance to the discussion of continuity and context-a chief concern of the HLC. Is Hacker pandering to old warehouse mimicry with its rational window pattern and textured brick? Is Boora reflecting contemporary Portland with its shiny thin-skinned randomness? Perhaps we need a more concrete analysis. Hacker has employed a quality of material and depth of fenestration with a design providing both continuity and play as the openings gradually lengthen and the brick surround narrows as one looks upward—an elegant play between context and the contemporary. Block 17’s skin is akin to an IKEA plastic closet system with an indecipherable fenestration without depth. [“It’s all skin” some say. Agreed. But can we also agree the quality of the skin matters?] Holst’s 937 certainly employed random offset fenestration but did so in a way that plays with pattern while maintaining a coherent rhythm with quality materials and ample glazing. Skylab’s Yard demonstrates a shattered offset pattern amidst dark thin-skinned panels already showing distress before completion.
    The author asks: “In 100 years, will the public in general know the difference between the turn of the last century versus this century’s architecture?” We may not need to worry about this potential anachronistic anxiety given far too many contemporary buildings lack the skin for such longevity. Portland is experiencing the highest rents and lowest financing costs of the century and too often we are not demanding quality. If not now, when?

    • I appreciate and agree with much of what you are saying. However, I will take issue one significant detail you bring up, namely the depth of fenestration between Hacker’s Pearl West and Boora’s Block 17. Both projects appear to have the same depth of window frames. As for materiality, it looks like Block 17 is using precast concrete sills, whereas Pearl West is using sheet metal. I think you could have been more careful in your choice of examples.

      • I was comparing the tower of Block 17 to Pearl West. The tower has no depth of fenestration. Sorry I thought my description was clear on the materials I was contrasting.

  3. Pingback: landmarks | places over time·

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