Places over time

January 25th, 2016

Framework (Works Partnership Architecture)

"Last year was a turbulent yet prosperous year for the built environment, not just in Portland, but across the globe. After a long recession, the pent up demand for new development frothed over forming an unstoppable avalanche of bulldozers, construction loans, and planning applications that quickly bombarded these sleepy cities and their long-dormant neighborhoods with tower cranes and unrealistically shiny renderings of new apartments, offices, and other private infill. Public outcry soon followed from the streets of London, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland: ‘stop the destruction of our historic fabric!’ and ‘these new buildings are too big and out of place!’ were the cries heard everywhere. These of course are the same criticisms which occur with every economic boom, but this time it felt different for many Portlanders. Perhaps it is because Portland, for the first time since the Lewis & Clark Exposition in 1905, has found itself in the national spotlight as a popular and desirable place to live. The days of the KKK marching in parades and the nights of walking on used needles on residential streets are all but fairy tales now, even among the few self-proclaimed “real” Portlanders out there. Despite the amazing makeover of this once dirty city, the inhabitants are now facing an even greater challenge today: its own success.

One of the greatest challenges has been the recession driven refocusing of suburban builders away from tract-style development and toward urban infill. One would assume this is a good thing, moving the home-building industry away from suburban sprawl, but this has caused a new set of unforeseen problems: these developers use suburban economic formulas and mismatched kitsch designs, Portland’s land use laws prevent higher density than single-family homes, and the market for contemporary-sized housing is very hot. Respectively, these factors break the character of the city’s first streetcar suburbs, demolitions end up not increasing net density (per unit, although they increase density per square foot), and every new larger replacement house reduces the supply of smaller cheaper homes disrupting the economic balance of established neighborhoods. As there are no easy solutions to this problem, and we live in a pluralistic society, this challenge has created some strong emotional responses from some very vocal inhabitants. Many of the outcries call for policy changes that are mostly regressive (increasing parking requirements, increasing setbacks, etc…), go against Oregon and Portland cultural priorities, (reducing sprawl by increasing density, reducing auto-dependence, etc…), and have been proven ineffective in other cities (inclusionary zoning, concentrated public housing, etc…). There is only one thing for certain, if the city maintains its ‘protections’ of super-low density (8 units per acre within 1/2 mile of the city center) suburban neighborhoods then Portland is heading toward repeating San Francisco’s fate of becoming a bastion for the upper middle class despite its well-meaning but widely criticized rent control laws (inclusionary zoning with fixed price increases).

Is there a way to grow without losing the city’s character? Yes, but what “character” is important to save? Retaining one aspect changes another, e.g. preserving ‘character’ housing means reducing affordability, which leads to the loss of human ‘character.’ Also, every new policy is a restriction on freedom of choice in one manner or another, which is always a balancing act in our pluralistic and creative culture. Cities that have a great deal of physical and cultural character often are very restrictive in development, but not in design. Look at the well known character, the genius loci sense of place, of cities like Prague, Paris, or Jodhpur. The physical representation of each place’s culture and history is manifest, easily readable, despite epochs of development layers being from their respective ‘styles’ of the time. Ancient Roman ruins rub elbows with Baroque fountains and Deconstructivist metal boxes quite nicely, each adding to the built environment in their own place-specific ways. Portland does not really have layers yet, not in the same sense of the much older places just mentioned, and the thin layers that do exist are all borrowed from elsewhere. As mentioned before, Portland lacks its own, unique character and unquestionable sense of place, not yet at least, but as time goes on the city will eventually create a well-defined spirit of its own.

For the first time it feels appropriate to celebrate more than one great architectural project this year as opposed to singling out just one as in years past. There also appears to be a need to be more critical as well, as many of the new projects that popped up in 2015 have actually enfeebled the cohesiveness and livability of the city rather than adding to it.



As Portland is a city of low to mid-rise buildings, it was difficult to single out one medium-sized project amongst the plethora of great work produced this last year. Although Holst Architecture’s One North project breaks Portland’s ever-cautious design mold and Integrate Architects’ refurbished Society Hotel has brought new life into a long-ignored 135 year-old building, it is WPA’s Framework building off of NE 6th and Davis that takes our best medium scale project of 2015. Framework is WPA’s first new heavy timber building, and as such was more of an experiment on how to recreate the warmth and feel of the surrounding century-old warehouses of the Central Eastside while simultaneously crafting something that is undeniably contemporary. Without the need of the previously massive, masonry perimeter wall, WPA was free to open the full interior to the exterior with floor to floor glazing, allowing mostly unimpeded views outward toward the city and inward from the surrounding streets. The HVAC, life-safety, electrical, plumbing, and lighting systems all had to be carefully integrated as to not mar the clean wood aesthetic of the exposed structural column, beam, and t&g decking system. Framework is significant for more than just its back-to-basics design and aesthetics, for this building sets the precedent for a new wave of place-specific architecture, a new Portland-specific typology: the heavy timber-over-1. Although this construction type is nothing new under the IBC, and the fact that One North is very similar in exposed structure, the Framework version of this typology is worth the extra attention. One North should have been the best project this year, having every quintessential urban tech architectural feature (e.g. stadium stairs, open floors, shared courtyard, unique facade, etc…), but it falls short on its promises and fails at connecting itself to any of its surroundings and the city in general, being more of a gallery sculpture than an urban response. Framework is far simpler, and could easily be missed amidst the existing fabric. Yet, for that reason, WPA’s project becomes more than just a fashionable architectural expression, it embodies the city, the natural environment, and the living memory. The materials are clear, the structure is clear, and the intention is clear; three things that are lost at One North. Framework utilizes the solid base construction to contrast the Portland-style active use ground floor from the more private spaces above, and covers the concrete, a material that does poorly exposed to the local climate in the long run, in a framed wood cladding that could be altered or changed as the decades pass. Hopefully, more and more firms use the heavy timber-over-1 model, as it just makes sense materially, functionally, and sustainably (more on this in a future post). Framework is a subtle building, but sometimes the tortoise gets to the finish line ahead of the hare.