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A designer digs beneath the surface

Architect’s artworks consider topography and the built world
by: COURTESY OF CHUCK GORDON, Recently retired architect Chuck Gordon finds that images from his travels, captured in paint as well as pen and ink, still resonate for him decades after he made them.

When Chuck Gordon was an architect, he was a real phone slammer. He was known for talking politely on the telephone then punctuating the call with an almighty clatter as the receiver hit the cradle. According to a minidocumentary made by his daughter, Britta, on the occasion of his retirement in February, he was also a door slammer and a wall kicker. One colleague remembers that he kept a photograph at foot level in his office to cover up a hole he had made in the drywall. Gordon is the “G” in GBD Architects, a company that has left its fingerprints on Portland. He was the lead architect on the 200 Market Building (1972), aka the “Black Box.” Images of that building were included in a 1979 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York about buildings of the previous 50 years that used one dominant material. The black glass exterior on the Black Box, which acts as a mirror, was the big breakthrough. Gordon’s specialty in later years was designing the skin of buildings. Now, Gordon is showing his trove of personal artwork — which few people in his professional career knew about — on the walls of GBD’s office in the Brewery Blocks. A few images depict pre-Columbian pyramids in Mexico, such as Chichen Itza in the Yucatán. He has painted them against an abstract dark sky on a sea of green vegetation. “I like how they are very strong forms in the midst of this flat, dense carpet,” he says. “They act like beacons.” Another shows Palenque, a Mayan temple in Chiapas, which he based on a photo he took from an airplane. This play between two and three dimensions is the major theme in the show. He has a pen-and-ink drawing of a small town in Crete, which he photographed while flying over it. “Topographic features fascinate me,” he says, pointing out how the man-made buildings conformed to the landscape. “It wasn’t just a grid that’s slammed down on to the earth. The town still responds to the contours and the natural outcrop of rocks.” Drawn with a Rapidograph pen and India ink on standard sketchbook paper, such images still resonate with the architect decades after he drew them. Pursuing his interest in the relationship between the built environment and the landscape, he drew Cerbo on the northwest coast of Italy, trying to capture the ancient town’s “tectonic qualities,” that is, the fact that the buildings were of stone. “It’s the place’s opacity and density,” he says, “not like what we do now, which is primarily lots of glass, very planar buildings.” Another image takes this further. He began with an aerial image of Rome around the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, placing the buildings on a three-dimensional grid. “I wanted to contrast it with a regular rectilinear block type of approach you see in the cities in United States,” he says. “Here’s a baroque city not tied to a grid, and it’s still reacting to the natural landscape.” His former colleagues recall him as an architect with “the aura of the highly skilled practitioner who was around in the 1950s and 1960s.” This is seen as an era before American architects got bogged down in the business side of their work — often the source of Gordon’s annoyance. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1957 and soon went to work for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, working mainly on commercial buildings. He was chief designer on the Monument Circle in Indianapolis. In 1959, he took a 10-month tour to sketch his away around the sights and sites of Europe. In 1965 he and his wife lit out for Portland. In 1969 he formed a firm with four other men, which went through various name changes until GBD Architects stuck. Gordon, who turned 76 on Feb. 16, works out three times a week at Oregon Health and Science University’s March Wellness Center, at the base of the tram. He knows the building well, since he did a lot of the detail on it, including its energy-efficient skin. Just south of there is another building on which Gordon has worked out the details, the boatlike elliptical tower 3720, next to the John Ross condominiums. As he looks at a model of the South Waterfront bristling with towers, he doubts they’ll all go up. “No,” he says. “I think it’ll quiet down.” Gordon cites among his artistic influences painter and printmaker Edward Hopper (1882-1967), painter Richard Diebenkorn Jr. (1922-1993) and photographer Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), whose industrial landscapes and topographical studies he especially admires. Oddly, he has never been tempted to go back and draw one of his own buildings. “When you work so much on detailing, you tend to focus on that and not so much the form.” The show gives a glimpse of the roots of the gleaming glass and concrete Portland of today, seen through the eyes of an architect’s architect.