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Man of steel

• Architect's designs aren't always soothing, but they get attention

Stuart Emmons has traveled the world. Yet it wasn't until the Philadelphia native came to Portland that he hit his design stride.

After devoting eight years to building his small, well-regarded architecture firm, Emmons Architects in Southeast Portland, Emmons is heading up two of the city's most visible projects.

The redesign of the North Macadam industrial yards into a second downtown and creation of riverfront housing and restaurants along Old Town's Naito Parkway are expected to have a profound, lasting impact on Portland.

'I took North Macadam as a blank canvas and designed a city on it,' Emmons says of the 10-street block of parks and buildings.

Emmons' sketches of reflective steel high-rise buildings and storefronts rising above the Willamette River waterfront have become the blueprint for developer Homer Williams' new South Waterfront neighborhood and Oregon Health & Science University's research and development campus.

'The visibility (of these projects) is so big, it's going to raise the level of his identity,' says Rob Tucker, a principal at Public Private Partnership in Portland, who hired Emmons to design a housing project in Vancouver, Wash.

North Macadam's opponents, meanwhile, question the necessity for 250-foot-tall buildings, the project's density, and its aerial tram and streetcars linking to downtown.

Until now, the gregarious Emmons has been best known for his modernist design of fire stations Ñ including station No. 9, under construction on Southeast 39th Avenue in the Hawthorne neighborhood, and station No. 27, on Northwest Skyline Boulevard Ñ and housing projects such as the 12-unit Interstate Crossing in North Portland for people in drug and alcohol recovery.

Emmons met Williams at a Pearl District street party. Soon after, Emmons and his wife, Susan (they've since separated), were hired to design the Streetcar Lofts condo complex on Northwest 10th Avenue. The North Macadam master plan soon followed, with Emmons making presentations to city power brokers on his vision of the project.

'He kind of lives and breathes this stuff,' Williams says of Emmons. 'It's nice when you work with someone so engaged in this stuff.'

Emmons calls Williams a 'real visionary. I really admire him for that. He can see through this blank industrial wasteland.'

Emmons can be intense, speaking with purpose about wanting to design a masterpiece. One of his goals is to create buildings of strong form and quality like those of his favorite architect, Ben van Berkel, a principal at Rotterdam's UN Studio.

Westward, ho

Though Emmons often wears tailored suits and starched white shirts to City Hall meetings, he arrived in Oregon in 1976 driving a Dodge van Ñ an 'upgraded hippie' with long hair and a beard.

Emmons had found his hometown of Philadelphia to be 'stifling socially and creatively.'

A former Rochester Institute of Technology student, Emmons worked as a woodworker and furniture maker until 1980.

'I'm a completely different architect from that,' he says. 'The way buildings go together goes right back to my woodworking. I used to think I wasted my 20s, and now I think it was well worth it.'

Pursuing his desire to design buildings, Emmons left Oregon to study at the Pratt Institute in New York. In 1983, he entered Harvard University's master's of architecture program.

After graduating, he worked for prestigious firms in New York City and Los Angeles, including Skidmore Owings & Merrill. When the L.A. economy tanked, Emmons came back to Portland, working first for Sienna Architects and then Yost Grube Hall.

'I never was a good employee,' he says now. 'I always felt I was never able to do my best and that people were trying to make me more of a specialist.'

He left Yost Grube Hall in 1995 to start his own firm.

Emmons worked from home at first but had to move out after an employee took over the table used for his son's train set. They relocated to a dental lab at Portland State University and then to Southeast Portland.

His first project was designing PSU's Integrated Circuit Lab. Later, Emmons' wife at the time, Susan, joined the firm; she left earlier this year to start her own company.

Work with an edge

Emmons' firm currently has three projects going into construction: the University of Oregon Architecture School Gallery in Portland; the Lewis and Clark Plaza in Vancouver, Wash.; and a large residential project.

Tucker, of Public Private Partnership, describes Emmons' work as 'somewhat edgy. It's contemporary, and I mean that in a good way. He's a really good problem-solver and thinks outside the mainstream.'

Emmons is a big proponent of raising the bar for design in the city, and at times he's distressed by the conservatism of Portland architecture, says Gerry Gast, an architecture professor at the University of Oregon Portland Urban Architecture program.

That's brought Emmons into conflict with colleagues and neighbors of his projects, as was the case in the Hawthorne area. Several neighbors said they preferred a new fire station that fit in with the neighborhood's existing buildings, rather than his modernist design. Emmons flippantly replied: Then I'll design another Fred Meyer.

'He has a real commitment to the city and genuinely cares about the quality of design in the city,' Gast says. 'Sometimes he's a little abrasive, which is what is needed sometimes.'

Emmons spends his free time with his 10-year-old son, Will. He intends to pass on to Will the same support that he got from his own dad, who bought him a drawing table when he was 10.

'He was just supportive of all I wanted to do,' he says.

Today, that's redesigning a city.