Saturday, March 20, 2010

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Project X, by PATH Architecture

Perhaps it’s because I live and work in Eugene rather than Portland, but it seems as if the rising of a new generation of great architects and designers in the Rose City has occurred overnight. That’s almost certainly not the case, and the fact that I am only recently becoming aware of the work of such firms as Holst Architecture, Works Partnership, Seed Architecture Studio, William Kaven Architecture, and PATH Architecture merely suggests I haven’t been paying attention. These young firms (headed mostly by Gen-X’ers) are heralding a new thrift-minded, eco-conscious urbanism, one that builds upon the shifting paradigms of Portland’s creative and entrepreneurial community.

The March AIA-SWO chapter meeting program featured Corey Martin of PATH Architecture and Kevin Cavenaugh (variously of TENPOD, some knucklehead, LLC; Cavenaugh & Cavenaugh, LLC; and assorted other permutations). Both Corey and Kevin are members of Portland’s ascendant new wave. They’re also representative of an innovative movement whose core principles include eschewing passivity and championing design-driven development. Ironically, it has been in part the speculative lending freeze that has recently driven their design practices – how they work, what they take on as challenges, and how they accomplish what they do.

Corey Martin
Corey and his business partner Ben Kaiser are at once their own clients and builders for many PATH Architecture projects. Simultaneously wearing the hats of developer, architects, and builders rewards them with the complete freedom and control to realize their visions of contemporary urban living. They recognize that staying inside the lines today is not a recipe for long-term success and have crafted a practice that capitalizes upon the realities of a shifting, new economy.

Corey presented several of his firm’s projects. The one I found most intriguing is Project X, a 78-unit WORK-live (as opposed to live-work) business incubator building currently under development by PATH Architecture and Zadeyan Family Investments in the Mississippi Avenue neighborhood of Portland. The mixed-use project will also include ground-floor retail spaces, a shared courtyard, indoor bicycle parking, and a community meeting space. The development team received a substantial grant targeting projects that help create livable communities from Metro, the Portland regional government body.

Corey characterized Project X as “a building for every economy in a location for every person.” What makes it unique are the tiny 200 square foot work-live units on the four upper floors, which are intended as flexible spaces for working and sleeping. Bathroom facilities (three per floor) are communal rather than private; kitchens (comprised of Ikea cabinet components and plugged into the units) are optional. The project’s intent is to provide a nest for fledgling businesses and local non-profit organizations that otherwise would not be able to afford their own spaces. The work-live model will minimize tenants’ dependence upon automobiles.

Project X, by PATH Architecture - Window patterns

Project X’s boxy design features floor-to-ceiling windows arrayed in random patterns, a design conceit that Corey rationalizes as being more logical than it is (the façade is “expressive of the small unit module” and “transforms from a regular vertical orientation facing a nearby school and homes to a random configuration facing downtown”). His conviction is that windows are about bringing in light more than about framing views; thus, Project X’s windows wash ceilings and floors with light, reducing glare and creating a more seamless transition between outside and inside.(1)

PATH Architecture and its Project X are “development widgets,” models for future units of production in a new economy for which the watchwords are adaptability, flexibility, and locally-focused.

Kevin Cavenaugh
Kevin Cavenaugh is fearless. A determined proponent of design-driven development, he also is resolute in his contempt for the hegemony of bank financing. He crusades to overcome the archaic regulatory frameworks that dampen the acceptance of innovative ideas. He holds to his ideas tightly, unwilling to compromise or lose control. A natural outcome of his ambition and core belief system is his current focus upon developing novel, compact urban projects without relying upon bank loans: guerilla development.

Kevin’s projects include the Burnside Rocket and Ode to Rose’s (home of TENPOD, the creative services co-op founded by Kevin), idiosyncratic mixed-use urban buildings that are reflections of their unconventional author/developer. But among his projects, I was fascinated most by Kevin’s 14Parcels development, which will be a densely-built amalgam comprised of individually conceived and collaboratively realized homes.

14Parcels - Kevin Cavenaugh, developer

Located amidst the tangle of the Marquam Bridge, Hwy 405, 99W, and Ross Island Way interchanges between Downtown and South Waterfront in Portland, the 14Parcels site slopes steeply, suffers poor access, and backs against a busy on-ramp – not exactly prime real estate. But it’s exactly this kind of site – a found opportunity – that seems to intrigue Kevin most. Comprised of fourteen small parcels (surprise!) Kevin envisions each occupied by a single dwelling unit. The twist is that each unit will be the work of a different architect or designer (for the most part – Kevin will likely design homes for two or three of the parcels himself). About half will be designed by established talents, including Will Bruder & Partners of Phoenix, and Pugh + Scarpa of Santa Monica (winner of the 2010 AIA Firm of the Year Award); the other half will be the work of up-and-coming designers.(2)

14Parcels - Kevin Cavenaugh, developer

The 14Parcels manifesto characterizes the project as resistance to business as usual, with the designers expected to play "give and take” with one another. The implied proposition is that they are engaging in a communal urban experiment at a scale where taking risks can be the order of the day. Kevin’s argument is that density achieved through micro-development, forced variety, and emergent order is superior to that possible through conventional macro- and master-planned means. However, I’m not sure that there is an overarching concept that supports this thesis. What will hold this collection together such that whole is greater than the sum of its parts? (3)

Regardless of the outcome of the 14Parcels project, Kevin Cavenaugh’s zeal for urban experimentation and determination to reinvent the rules of real estate financing and construction will ensure that he continues to make a mark on the Portland development scene.

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AIA-SWO President Michael Fifield is batting 1.000 for 2010. He brought us Bill Leddy in February and for March, Corey Martin and Kevin Cavenaugh – all wonderful speakers. Continuing Michael’s emphasis on design-oriented meeting programs, our April AIA-SWO chapter meeting will feature Jonathan Segal, FAIA. Jonathan’s firm is well-known for the design and development of pioneering medium to high-density urban residential, mixed-use, and live/work units in downtown San Diego. Mark you calendars: the next meeting will take place on Wednesday, April 21 at The Actor’s Cabaret in downtown Eugene.

(1) Maybe it’s just me, but much of the architecture of the firms I mention in this post boasts a remarkably consistent aesthetic. In part, it may be a result of how close-knit a group these young architects are and the fact that houses, condos, and row homes are their common stock-in-trade. Corey Martin admitted a current “vogue” that favors planar or cubic expressions, and combinations of contrasting materials and textures to achieve a graphic effect. Superficially, the work of PATH Architecture, Works Partnership, or William Kaven Architecture is reminiscent of the designs of California modernists Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, both of whom emigrated from Austria and established their careers in sunny Los Angeles during the 1920s. Whether this aesthetic is best suited to the Portland neighborhoods they populate is open to debate.

(2) According to the 14Parcels website, the current roster of designers includes Bruder, Pugh + Scarpa, Skylab Architecture, Works Partnership, Joachin & Linda, Architecture W, Paul McKean, Douglas Wu, JDS, ID Design, Mark Holmquist, SPBR, Jimi Kallaos, Single Speed Design, and Michael Etzel & Lyn Rice Architects.

(3) In some respects, 14Parcels reminds me of another project, albeit one that is a gated, suburban community comprised of luxury villas incongruously sited in the middle of the Mongolian desert. Designed by one hundred promising young architects (hand-picked by Pritzker Prize-winners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron), the ORDOS 100 project is a spectacular exercise in catastrophic anti-urbanism. Granted, 14Parcels is different in so many ways but its parallel casting of individual homes designed by elite hipsters seems similarly self-indulgent.

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