Twenty years ago, when I moved back to Oregon from in New York City, a young Portland architect, Ben Waechter, was also just getting his start here.
Under the tutelage of Brad Cloepfil, the most acclaimed local architect of his generation, Waechter began a journey that may ultimately make him the next to wear that crown.
More than most creative disciplines, being an architect is a matter of playing the long game. From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, many of history's greatest designers have flourished only as they reach traditional retirement age. It's no wonder, then, that only as he reaches his late 40s is Waechter's career really starting to take off.
At the American Institute of Architects' Portland Design Awards in November, Waechter Architecture won the biggest haul, taking home awards for the Oakley House, Pavilion House, and Red House in Portland as well as the Sawtooth apartment complex in Lake Oswego. The jury took time to note an exceptional level of detail, "as if the people putting them together care more," said juror Elizabeth Whitaker.
Last year Waechter's Garden House became the first Accessory Dwelling Unit, or granny flat, to win the AIA's penultimate Honor Award, standing alongside Cloepfil's much larger Schnitzer Center at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. In years past too, every project Waechter entered has seemed to win an award. Last month the bible of American building design, Architectural Record, also included Waechter in its Design Vanguard issue celebrating nation's 10 most inventive young firms.
Waechter's design process may be what sets him apart. Whereas most architects think of buildings as assemblages of walls, floors and ceilings, Waechter seems to focus on what he can take away or simplify.
Besides working for Cloepfil, Waechter also spent three years under the tutelage of one of the world's top architects, Italy's Renzo Piano. Waechter is also the son of Eugene architect Heinrich Waechter, who began his career in Germany as part of the renowned Bauhaus movement before immigrating to Oregon. From these mentors, Waechter developed a sense of how buildings are put together, and the sense that to be a great architect, one must also become a knowledgeable builder.
What makes 2017 particularly significant for Waechter is not just the string of recent accolades but the sense he is poised to graduate to larger-scale work, such as the exquisite new Milwaukie Way mixed-use project in Sellwood and the upcoming Albina Townhouses in North Portland. In the years ahead, I'd like to see Waechter Architecture get commissions for even bigger projects, like a museum or a downtown office or a courthouse.
Portland has always shied away from hiring the world's most famous architects. Downtown's upcoming Multnomah County Courthouse (whose leaders rejected world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas in favor of respectable Portland firm SRG Partnership) is only the latest example. But once a generation or so, we seem to nurture great talents like Pietro Belluschi, John Yeon and Cloepfil, who combine innovation and beauty with such a refined sense of materials and craft that the world can't help but take notice. In his second 20 years as a Portland architect, Waechter could do well just sticking with houses. But really his career is only getting started, and the possibilities are exciting.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at: portlandarchitecture.com