Recently Portland has received copious media attention for its farm-to-table dining scene and hops-heavy microbrews, its anti-Bush-era politics (conservatives dubbed it "Little Beirut") and sustainable innovation, and for welcoming enough young artists and designers inside its urban growth boundary to make creative-class theorist Richard Florida blush.
Traditionally, Portland isn’t known for singular architecture. That distinction belongs to Seattle, with famous buildings in this era arriving from Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl, and a look-at-me persona dating well before the 1962 World’s Fair that gave birth to the Space Needle. In Portland, besides a few architectural landmarks like Michael Graves’s Portland Building (one of the first major postmodern works) and Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building (the first aluminum-clad skyscraper), the design distinction is planning, transit and sustainability.
But as the city has become infused with new talent, a small group of promising and accomplished designer-developers have banded together in a hybrid of traditional architectural or development practice. Small firms and sole practitioners here like Path Architecture, Atelier Waechter, and Building Arts Workshop still operate as individual businesses, and even compete for buyers. But they share research, marketing and design ideas; they’ve become a community. The 11xDesign tour is just one of several shared efforts. Of course they still want to succeed badly, and they’re not without ego. That’s why these tiny firms are going forward with houses, condos and row homes during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, when the city’s larger developers have long since ended their building boom.
Williams Five by Path Architecture
But the confederation of smaller, independent design firms partnering with others as needed on a strategic, often per-job basis may also represent a changing landscape for architecture firms. Gone are the days when you could employ a broad staff of architects in anticipation of the next big condo commission. Unlike small firms of the past, many of the 11xDesign architects don’t expect small urban-infill mixed-use or residential projects to be the limit of their scope; someday a Path Architecture or Atelier Waechter, even as a tiny firm, could be collaborating with larger outfits on major buildings. Until then, though, a free homes tour will do.
"I was hoping to get this group of these people together even before the idea of a tour came up," says Corey Martin of Path Architecture. Martin, previously worked at Allied Works under the city’s most celebrated architect of his generation, Brad Cloepfil, including on the Wieden + Kennedy building that first gave Cloepfil’s firm international notoriety. "We’re technically in competition with each other," says Martin of his 11xDesign colleagues, "but I think it’s better for all of us to act collectively sometimes instead of all trying to re-invent the wheel. Maybe we can get things done more efficiently and generate more buzz for what we’re trying to do."
Martin’s firm will have two projects on the tour: Williams Five, a multi-unit condominium, and Park Box, a single-family house that Martin and his family will occupy. Both projects, and indeed most of those on the tour, are located in North and Northeast Portland, an area burdened by crime and poverty as recently as the 1990s but now increasingly gentrified. These districts also exemplify the larger opportunity available: a city with energy and culture that’s still affordable, where building a small condo from your own design, without investors, is still possible.
Ben Waechter, who’s Z-Haus is a highlight of the 11xDesign tour, has worked not only for Brad Cloepfil but spent seven years at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Genoa, Italy. Z-Haus is shaped like an ordinary three story box on the outside. But the uniqueness comes within, where the architect fashioned a series of flexible spaces stacked in parallel at half-story intervals. From the ground floor kitchen up a half-flight of stairs, for example, is medium sized space that could be a living room, den or bedroom. Sliding doors allow the room to be completely enclosed from the stairway or to remain an open public area. Moving up another half-level is an identically proportioned space on the other half of the house. Standing in the stairway, site lines connect you to the spaces both below and above.
"It’s difficult to do a highly site-specific building with high-quality systems and compete from a price-point standpoint in a market typically comprised with generic infill," Waechter says of the 11xDesign collective. "So to be able to share research on materials and methods, craft, contractor names, it helps." For example, Waechter’s Z-Haus uses a rain screen technology uncommon in residences. He got information and encouragement from Martin and from another 11xDesign firm, Seed Architecture Studio. Seed has also shared its experiments with structurally insulated panel technology on its accordingly named SIPs House.
"People are more willing to do that here," Waechter says. "First to strike out on their own at all as architects, but then to develop their own projects and then to collaborate with their competitors. Our architect friends in other cities don’t have that as much."
Although there’s a natural romanticism to one architect developing his or her own projects, much of 11xDesign is a family affair. His realtor wife, Daria Crymes, markets Waechter’s design. Two other projects on the tour come from married design partners: the 1310 Condominiums by Brett and Diana Ing Crawford (which received the top ‘Honor Award’ from the local American Institute of Architects/Portland last fall), and the Orchid Street Cityhomes by Jeff and Tracy Prose of Building Arts Workshop. Both projects are also poised to achieve LEED Platinum status.
Although not as widely publicized as the Case Study Houses or Sea Ranch, Oregon actually has a proud history of mid-century modern residential architecture. Here architects of the 1930s-60s like Pietro Belluschi, John Yeon, Van Evra Bailey and Saul Zaik that fused the intricate detail and elegance of the Beaux Arts tradition with open plans and lightness of newly affordable, plentiful materials like wood after World War II. The young designers of the 11xDesign group have bonded with their older forebears. A few months ago, for example, I accompanied Corey Martin and partner Ben Kaiser of Path Architecture touring Portland’s West Hills with 84-year-old architect Saul Zaik to see several local homes Zaik designed. More than 50 years ago, Zaik’s 14th Street Gang shook up local architecture with their blend of talent and solidarity much as 11xDesign now has.
It’s not to say architects in other cities don’t share resources or ideas, or that the mellow-dude cliché of the West Coast is always true. But in Portland, with its relative affordability but a well-educated population that prefers espresso and hiking to beer and NASCAR, the 11xDesign architects also have an ideal set of conditions for this kind of affordable do-it-yourself architecture.
As the economy has plummeted, no industry has been harder hit than homebuilding. And even in good times, only a small fraction of houses are actually designed by architects (most come from mass produced builder plans). Yet that makes the uniqueness of reasonably low-cost, site-specific, thoughtful architecture such as the work by the 11xDesign architects all the more likely will stand out in any market, be it a rising or falling one. Or at least, that’s the hope. So far the Williams Five and 1310 condo projects are almost fully occupied, but individual projects like Z-Haus, for all its refined design, remain unsold.
And one project on this tour, "Dr. Jim’s Really Nice," is only in the idea stage. When tour participants arrive at the address for designer-developer Kevin Cavenaugh’s listed project, they’ll find an undeveloped site, and Cavenaugh there to talk with interested potential partners. But don’t write off Cavenaugh as a kook: he is practically the patron saint of Portland designer-developers, with three award winning but low-budget mixed use projects completed to date and a mammoth 17-unit housing project by 16 different designers from around the world set to break ground here this summer.
Cavenaugh’s cheeky non-project epitomizes the range of designs on the 11xDesign tour, be they luxurious individual residences, affordable apartments or something in between. Oh, and being Portland, sustainable principles and easy mass transit access from your project are a given. But unlike many larger-scale LEED-rated projects in this eco-architecture-frenzied city, being green must come within the context of a beautiful, unapologetically modern package. That’s by design.
By Path Architecture
Orchid Street Cityhomes
By Building Arts Workshop
By Seed Architecture Studio
SUM-thing New Condominiums
By SUM Design Studio
By Design Department
Mt. Tabor Residence
By Web Wilson Design
By Brett Crawford Architecture and Planning
By Atelier Waechter
By William Kaven Architecture
Eight x 17
By Reworks/Penkin Development LLC
"Dr. Jim’s Really Nice"
By Kevin Cavenaugh
Lead image: 1310 Condominiums by Brett and Diana Ing Crawford
Brian Libby is a Portland-based architecture writer who has contributed to Dwell since 2004. He has also written for The New York Times, Architect, CityLab, Salon, Metropolis, Architectural Record and The Oregonian, among others. Libby additionally writes the Portland Architecture blog and is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer.