The lookers and the losers
- Peter Korn
- Portland Tribune - News
BACK STORY: Portland architects offer their picks and pans
Robert Sacks isn't surprised to learn that his home was selected as the most beautiful building in Portland in a Tribune survey of architects and planners.
After all, he and wife Ann Sacks have been living at the Northwest Portland location for five and a half years, along with their tenant on the building's lower floors, Dosha salon.
'The building has worked the way we wanted it to work,' Sacks says. 'It has a very warm feel to it.'
Six weeks ago, the Portland Tribune began polling local architects and designers, asking for them to anonymously list the five most beautiful and the five ugliest buildings in the city.
Portland's most beautiful buildings
• Robert and Ann Sacks home, 2281 N.W. Glisan St.
• Portland Art Museum, Hoffman Wing
• U.S. Bancorp Tower
• Belmont Lofts, 3442 S.E. Belmont St.
• Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse
For those who think great architecture must have striking detail, the very modern building that Sacks calls 'a simple cube' - next to Noah's Bagels near the corner of Northwest Glisan Street and 23rd Avenue - might seem, well, simple.
That was exactly the intention when Sacks and his wife worked with Portland architect Brad Cloepfil on the house, Sacks says: 'It's very unusual because of its simplicity. People stop and look at it all the time because it doesn't have any ornamentation. Everything is functional.'
Functional is the way some architects describe the state of architecture in Portland. The fact that a relatively small though elegant building received the most votes in the Tribune's survey, they say, is a statement in itself.
While there's no unanimity on the best and worst buildings in town, they do seem to agree that Portland is lacking in great, iconic buildings.
Sydney, Australia, has its opera house and Bilbao, Spain, is forever identified with its odd-shaped Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry. Both buildings focus attention on the cities in which they reside. But the favorite building among architects and planners here is a four-story glass cube - the Sacks home.
Influential Portland architect Thomas Hacker thinks the lack of bold buildings here is a natural outgrowth of Portland's civic attitude. 'This is not a place where people take a lot of risk - clients or architects,' Hacker says.
Another building on the favorites list supports Hacker's view. The four-story Belmont Street Lofts, constructed at the corner of Southeast 35th Avenue and Belmont Street two years ago, contains modest condominiums and retail space in a simple building that many consider stunning.
While dozens of buildings were nominated for the most beautiful list, there was more consensus when it came to selecting architects' least favorite buildings.
Portland's ugliest buildings
• Wells Fargo Center
• Portland Building
• 1000 Broadway
• Portland Marriott-Downtown Waterfront
• Rose Garden Arena
The Rose Garden, the Marriott Hotel on Southwest Naito Parkway and the 1000 Broadway Building downtown (commonly referred to as the Ban Roll-on building by respondents) were all consistently named for least favorite. However, two downtown buildings - the Wells Fargo Center, 1300 S.W. Fifth Ave., and the Portland Building, 1120 S.W. Fifth Ave. - dominated the thumbs-down votes.
Sometimes, bad buildings just happen. Bob Frasca, design partner at Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca architects, has designed some of the city's most admired buildings, including the KOIN Center. He also was the architect of the 15-story Marriott Hotel, which opened in 1980. And he's not running from the criticism.
'It's a (crappy) building,' Frasca says. 'I don't disagree with that, and there's no way I'm going to defend it.'
Going cheap hurts the result
The Marriott was financed by the Portland Development Commission at a time when the south end of downtown was undergoing urban renewal, and Frasca says halfway through the project he knew there wasn't enough money to do it right. Good design was sacrificed and cheap materials used, Frasca says.
'It's a lesson, and in architecture your lessons, you can't bury them like doctors can,' he says. 'Even bad paintings get thrown in the closet. Bad books, people don't read them.'
But bad buildings just keep attracting attention. Gil Kelley looks out his fourth-floor window and sees 'failed signature buildings.' But Kelley, director of Portland's Bureau of Planning, isn't upset that more bold buildings aren't visible from his office.
'Most of the tall buildings (in Portland) you wish you could just pluck them out like feathers on a goose,' Kelley says.
The Wells Fargo Center, with its sky bridge across Southwest Fourth Avenue, was the most despised building in Portland, according to the Tribune survey.
'It's big, so it can't disguise its shortcomings,' Kelley says of the city's tallest building, at 546 feet. 'It tried to be an icon, a 'look at me' building, which is really not the ethos of Portland. This would be a small building in New York. Here it jumps out at you.'
Kelley is a little more generous when commenting on the second-tallest building in town - the U.S. Bancorp Tower, otherwise known as Big Pink. While the Wells Fargo building received the most votes as ugliest building in town in the Tribune's survey, Big Pink made the list of favorite buildings, even though it received a few votes for ugliest as well.
Evaluation begins on ground
Kelley faults Big Pink for not engaging people at the street level. 'The two bank towers (Wells Fargo and Big Pink) were places to work and eat lunch and get the hell out and go back to the suburbs,' Kelley says.
And that, Kelley says, is antithetical to the principle that has guided Portland planning for the past decade - encouraging street-level activity. 'The most important thing is, What are the first, second or third stories telling you?' he says.
That's why Kelley likes the Fox Tower, with its ground-floor movie theater opening up to the street, but doesn't like the Nordstrom a block away. 'A fortress,' is how he describes the fashion retailer's orange-brick downtown presence.
Architect Hacker says Portland's lack of signature buildings isn't necessarily a mark against the city.
'We're building neighborhoods rather than individual buildings,' Hacker says. And most architects here respect that, he adds: 'It's not that you want to become famous or do the building that's going to be on the front page of The Times arts section. For many of us, the reason we're here is to do work that's going to have greater value to the social structure of who we are. We have a focus on the public life of the street rather than stylistic character of buildings themselves.'
Hacker calls the original Portland Art Museum by architect Pietro Belluschi 'a masterpiece.' Like many, he names Belluschi's green glass and aluminum Equitable Building, 421 S.W. Sixth Ave., as a favorite. And he says he'd like to see a few iconic buildings go up.
He's just not sure people here are willing to accept the possible consequences - not after the debacle of the Portland Building.
Bold buildings have costs
'Sadly, the Portland Building was probably the biggest chance we had, and it may have actually turned off some of that desire or willingness to experiment,' Hacker says. 'That building was so unlike Portland in its values. It's all about being a big image and not about being a really good work of architecture.'
When it was designed by world-famous New Jersey architect Michael Graves, the Portland Building, No. 2 on the least-favorite list in the Tribune survey, probably attracted more national attention than any other Portland building ever has. Graves' design was selected in a city-sponsored design competition. But reviews from architects and from people who work in the building have been overwhelmingly negative.
It's dark, dingy and uninviting, many say.
Jeff Joslin says the Portland Building notwithstanding, the truth may be that Portland simply can't afford bold, visionary buildings. Joslin, Portland's land-use manager with the Bureau of Development Services, recalls recent tours of the South Waterfront he's given to planners from Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
'The Seattle folks were stunned by the (buildings) and partially by what the units were selling for,' Joslin says. 'The Vancouver folks - the reaction was similar. The reason was a comparable project in Seattle was selling for roughly twice what it's selling for here. In Vancouver the multiple is three.'
Higher prices for buildings mean more money for developers to spend on design. 'We may not be ripe enough to be able to build these remarkable projects that come at a higher price point,' Joslin says.
Neighbors, politics blamed
Jeff Lamb, designer at Sienna Architecture in Portland, says politics is at least partially responsible for the lack of cutting-edge design in Portland buildings. Sienna's controversial Allegro condominium was rejected by the City Council in August after the Goose Hollow Neighborhood Association and others brought up objections to its size and its developers' method of acquiring development rights.
Though Portland is known for the thoroughness of its zoning and design review on city buildings, neither stands in the way of visionary buildings in Lamb's view.
'The design commission approves them, but you wind up in City Council because of the neighborhood groups,' Lamb says. 'It's not the design commission. It's City Council and the politics that are played at City Council.'
The more innovative the design, the more likely its designers will have to battle the neighbors, Lamb says.
'It's going to take a really bold developer that has a blend of the right project and the right location at the right time,' Lamb says, 'and enough courage and confidence to hire a great designer and let the designer hit the mark.'
The Portland Tribune would like to hear from readers about their favorite and least favorite buildings in the city.