Portland's understated architecture and Japan
It usually takes years for a building or place to be considered a landmark: enough time for people to spend time there in different seasons, and for the design to grow into itself as the landscaping grows in and the materials grow a patina.
Yet the new Cultural Village at the Portland Japanese Garden by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma already seems destined to be a local landmark. This is an elevated work of timeless architecture that's also accessible enough to be a people magnet.
Visiting the new three-building complex for the first time a few weeks ago, I not only marveled at the architecture — for its blend of traditional and contemporary influences and materials, for its glorious interplay of light and shadow — but I was also reminded of the ongoing kinship that exists between the Pacific Northwest and northeast Asian cultures like Japan. We share comparable climates, with enough precipitation to make the peaks white (Mt. Hood and Mt. Fuji look a lot alike) and valleys green, as well as a corresponding reverence for nature.
What's more, the kind of cultural exchange that Kuma's work in Oregon represents is actually part of an ongoing circle of influence.
A few weeks ago, I happened to visit one of the earliest houses by the great Portland architect Pietro Belluschi, the Sutor House from 1938. Like the more famous Watzek House by John Yeon from 1937, located just a few hundred yards away, the Sutor seemed to fuse three primary influences: boxy Bauhaus European modernism, traditional Oregon barns and farmhouses, and Japanese architecture, particularly Buddhist temples. This stylistic melding became the Northwest regional style that has endured for some 70 years and, if local homes tours and real estate prices are any indication, remains immensely popular.
But the influence goes both ways. As he explained in an interview at the Cultural Village, Kuma visited some of these Northwest modern Portland houses before designing his new buildings here.
"Rain makes the land wet, and humidity is very necessary for greenery. It's what makes this the best Japanese garden outside Japan," Kuma told me during the Japanese Garden's recent press-preview day. "John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi: I visited their houses. I feel a strong sympathy to their design. Lightness, attention to the environment, materiality: this climate makes us similar. I respect their design very much, and also we got some hints from their design to this building."
Portland has always shied away from trophy architecture by starchitects like Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel. But great Japanese architects like Kuma fit our culture well, not just because of the climate similarities but because both cultures place high value on architecture that is soulful yet subtle: crisply detailed and with an emphasis on how buildings nestle into the landscape and frame our views of nature.
We may not have landmarks like a Space Needle or a Transamerica pyramid expressing our civic and business ambitions, but our best architecture is about more than ambition: it's about place-making.
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