Last year was a turbulent yet prosperous year for the built environment, not just in Portland, but across the globe. After a long recession, the pent up demand for new development frothed over forming an unstoppable avalanche of bulldozers, construction loans, and planning applications that quickly bombarded these sleepy cities and their long-dormant neighborhoods with tower cranes and unrealistically shiny renderings of new apartments, offices, and other private infill. Public outcry soon followed from the streets of London, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland: ‘stop the destruction of our historic fabric!’ and ‘these new buildings are too big and out of place!’ were the cries heard everywhere. These of course are the same criticisms which occur with every economic boom, but this time it felt different for many Portlanders. Perhaps it is because Portland, for the first time since the Lewis & Clark Exposition in 1905, has found itself in the national spotlight as a popular and desirable place to live. The days of the KKK marching in parades and the nights of walking on used needles on residential streets are all but fairy tales now, even among the few self-proclaimed “real” Portlanders out there. Despite the amazing makeover of this once dirty city, the inhabitants are now facing an even greater challenge today: its own success.
One of the greatest challenges has been the recession driven refocusing of suburban builders away from tract-style development and toward urban infill. One would assume this is a good thing, moving the home-building industry away from suburban sprawl, but this has caused a new set of unforeseen problems: these developers use suburban economic formulas and mismatched kitsch designs, Portland’s land use laws prevent higher density than single-family homes, and the market for contemporary-sized housing is very hot. Respectively, these factors break the character of the city’s first streetcar suburbs, demolitions end up not increasing net density (per unit, although they increase density per square foot), and every new larger replacement house reduces the supply of smaller cheaper homes disrupting the economic balance of established neighborhoods. As there are no easy solutions to this problem, and we live in a pluralistic society, this challenge has created some strong emotional responses from some very vocal inhabitants. Many of the outcries call for policy changes that are mostly regressive (increasing parking requirements, increasing setbacks, etc…), go against Oregon and Portland cultural priorities, (reducing sprawl by increasing density, reducing auto-dependence, etc…), and have been proven ineffective in other cities (inclusionary zoning, concentrated public housing, etc…). There is only one thing for certain, if the city maintains its ‘protections’ of super-low density (8 units per acre within 1/2 mile of the city center) suburban neighborhoods then Portland is heading toward repeating San Francisco’s fate of becoming a bastion for the upper middle class despite its well-meaning but widely criticized rent control laws (inclusionary zoning with fixed price increases).
Is there a way to grow without losing the city’s character? Yes, but what “character” is important to save? Retaining one aspect changes another, e.g. preserving ‘character’ housing means reducing affordability, which leads to the loss of human ‘character.’ Also, every new policy is a restriction on freedom of choice in one manner or another, which is always a balancing act in our pluralistic and creative culture. Cities that have a great deal of physical and cultural character often are very restrictive in development, but not in design. Look at the well known character, the genius loci sense of place, of cities like Prague, Paris, or Jodhpur. The physical representation of each place’s culture and history is manifest, easily readable, despite epochs of development layers being from their respective ‘styles’ of the time. Ancient Roman ruins rub elbows with Baroque fountains and Deconstructivist metal boxes quite nicely, each adding to the built environment in their own place-specific ways. Portland does not really have layers yet, not in the same sense of the much older places just mentioned, and the thin layers that do exist are all borrowed from elsewhere. As mentioned before, Portland lacks its own, unique character and unquestionable sense of place, not yet at least, but as time goes on the city will eventually create a well-defined spirit of its own.
For the first time it feels appropriate to celebrate more than one great architectural project this year as opposed to singling out just one as in years past. There also appears to be a need to be more critical as well, as many of the new projects that popped up in 2015 have actually enfeebled the cohesiveness and livability of the city rather than adding to it.
Having already won a Citation Award and the Mayor’s Award from the AIA, it should come as no surprise that Ankeny 2/3 by COLAB Architecture tops our list as the best new small project of 2015. This project extends the original Ankeny Lofts, also designed by COLAB in 2011, to the West, and complements the 2015 completion of the adjacent Ankeny Row, another great residential infill project designed and built separately by Green Hammer, to the East. Where Ankeny Row focuses on creating a micro-community and sustainable building practices, built to Passive House and Net Zero standards, Ankeny 2/3 looks to focus on the greater community and the craft of unique spaces. Not that the Ankeny Lofts expansion is not also inward looking and sustainable, far from it, but those characteristics are more assumed, given elements rather than the end-all design narrative. Ankeny 2/3 looks to expand upon the success of the original Ankeny Lofts by extending the existing courtyard through the site, opening the units up to the neighborhood as places to live in or work out of. As with the previous design, the addition adds locally-crafted art to the alley-like scheme, featuring a centrally located Karl Burkheimer designed sculptural wall that complements the raw wood tone of the overall form. This small project not only enhances this prominent secondary street by creating new flexible density, but also by adding to the richness of the surrounding local fabric with its tactile materiality and open, welcoming presence.
As Portland is a city of low to mid-rise buildings, it was difficult to single out one medium-sized project amongst the plethora of great work produced this last year. Although Holst Architecture’s One North project breaks Portland’s ever-cautious design mold and Integrate Architects’ refurbished Society Hotel has brought new life into a long-ignored 135 year-old building, it is WPA’s Framework building off of NE 6th and Davis that takes our best medium scale project of 2015. Framework is WPA’s first new heavy timber building, and as such was more of an experiment on how to recreate the warmth and feel of the surrounding century-old warehouses of the Central Eastside while simultaneously crafting something that is undeniably contemporary. Without the need of the previously massive, masonry perimeter wall, WPA was free to open the full interior to the exterior with floor to floor glazing, allowing mostly unimpeded views outward toward the city and inward from the surrounding streets. The HVAC, life-safety, electrical, plumbing, and lighting systems all had to be carefully integrated as to not mar the clean wood aesthetic of the exposed structural column, beam, and t&g decking system. Framework is significant for more than just its back-to-basics design and aesthetics, for this building sets the precedent for a new wave of place-specific architecture, a new Portland-specific typology: the heavy timber-over-1. Although this construction type is nothing new under the IBC, and the fact that One North is very similar in exposed structure, the Framework version of this typology is worth the extra attention. One North should have been the best project this year, having every quintessential urban tech architectural feature (e.g. stadium stairs, open floors, shared courtyard, unique facade, etc…), but it falls short on its promises and fails at connecting itself to any of its surroundings and the city in general, being more of a gallery sculpture than an urban response. Framework is far simpler, and could easily be missed amidst the existing fabric. Yet, for that reason, WPA’s project becomes more than just a fashionable architectural expression, it embodies the city, the natural environment, and the living memory. The materials are clear, the structure is clear, and the intention is clear; three things that are lost at One North. Framework utilizes the solid base construction to contrast the Portland-style active use ground floor from the more private spaces above, and covers the concrete, a material that does poorly exposed to the local climate in the long run, in a framed wood cladding that could be altered or changed as the decades pass. Hopefully, more and more firms use the heavy timber-over-1 model, as it just makes sense materially, functionally, and sustainably (more on this in a future post). Framework is a subtle building, but sometimes the tortoise gets to the finish line ahead of the hare.
There were far fewer large scale projects built this last year, but some of them have made a lasting impression on the city’s skyline. Two of the largest projects, Park Avenue West and Hassalo on Eighth, ended their seven-year and two-year construction timelines respectively with little fanfare, as the downtown tower’s presence is marred by its unfortunate history and related expectations and all eyes already moved past Hassalo towards the much grander Oregon Square project proposed next door. Neither of these are great architectural achievements however, as both have already found their comfortable little places as Portland fabric buildings, but the full block remodel of the old Federal Building into Pacific Northwest College of Arts new home is worthy of the best new large scale project of 2015 for its creative and eloquent reimagining of the century-old building. The Allied Works designed Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design is one of only a handful of works created by the much-lauded local firm, and their vision has cemented PNCA’s long and ambiguous history into a 21st century institution. This project is also the only project on this list where the pre-built renderings have come close to capturing the real experience, something that could be an award in itself. A vast departure from their horizontally focused Pearl District warehouse, PNCA has mostly consolidated its fractured campus into six stories of classrooms, studios, offices, and exhibition spaces. The new arts center, carved out of the remains of an intricately detailed yet heavy fortress, has been transformed into a light and airy space that is full of interesting architectural moments and juxtapositions, a literal metaphor for the work that now fills the halls. Unlike many other adaptive reuse projects, the design team appears to have found the perfect balance between historic preservation and contemporary design and programming needs.
An unlikely candidate for sure, especially with the previously mentioned urban interventions of Ankeny 2/3, One North, and Hassalo on Eighth and the new South Waterfront Greenway on the table, but Guerrilla Development’s The Zipper micro-restaurant enclave makes the top of our list for best urban design of 2015. With a similar revitalizing effect as the nearby Ocean micro-restaurants, Kevin Cavenaugh’s latest built project The Zipper has done something many thought to be impossible: make Sandy Boulevard a relaxing and interesting place to be. Regardless of what one thinks about the somewhat gimmicky optical effects of the facade’s slats, the undulating form and mural-esque artwork have transformed this once remote asphalt island into a thriving community of local eateries and boutique shops. What is essentially a brick and mortar cart pod, this new building has done more for creating useful places out of underutilized space than any other project this year, and did it with a ridiculously small budget as well. Unfortunately, the same ground level energy appears to be missing from their next project, the Fair-Haired Dumbbell, but we will reserve judgement until that building’s completion next year.
There were several lost opportunities in Portland last year, namely the loss of many of the original Olympic Mills buildings due to inaction, but the biggest lost opportunity of 2015 was the quiet vacation of Sandy Boulevard at Burnside and 13th. Garnering very little public attention, the vacation of this currently unused right of way smoothly sailed through the necessary departments, as no one stepped up to protect this special intersection, probably because no one knew what to do with it. If this were Paris, London or Rome a great public building or work of art would occupy such a highly visual intersection of public ways, especially since there are so very few streets that disobey the prevalent street grid in such a dramatic way. Multnomah County chose the location of two very important buildings in 2015, both of which, a replacement Courthouse and the Health Department Headquarters, are proposed in awkward places that could potentially diminish existing Portland landmarks, the Veritable Quandary and Union Station respectively. Instead, the county could have purchased the remaining property on the bisected blocks and built a grand public project in its place, worthy of the hierarchical position of urban focus. Hopefully, the private development that is sure to ensue on the now vacated street will be architecturally pleasing, or at least block the view from Sandy of KTGY Architecture’s disjointed Linden Apartments, one of the best examples of why architects should stop using the awning-parapet SketchUp move…
In retrospect, Portland has improved over the last couple of years, disregarding projects like LRS Architect’s dreary Grant Park Village and the myriad of bloated Renaissance Homes taking up valuable inner city land, the overall urban fabric has become more dynamic and livable. This year, however, will be a challenging year for the city, as a glut of obnoxiously boring hotels and apartment complexes are starting construction around the core of the city, and then there’s the regrettably named and out-of-place NV Tower still under construction. Those projects aside, there are still a great number of exciting projects in the pipeline, and without a doubt there are even better projects coming as the city keeps growing.