Although most people who are familiar with my writing associate me with this blog, I actually have made about 85 percent of my living over the past 16-plus years writing for other clients, mostly magazines. And while civic and commercial architecture often interest me the most, there are more home magazines than any other type of design publication, so over the past several years I’ve been given the opportunity to write about a lot of houses.
As part of this 20-years-in-Portland series, I’d like to look back at some of the single-family houses that I liked best. It’s not to say there weren’t some great condo and apartment projects. Some of my favorite articles for the likes of Dwell and other design-magazine clients have been multifamily housing projects: buildings by Holst Architecture, Works Progress Architecture, Hacker, Lever Architecture and others. Even so, single-family houses are interesting in their own right, because almost all of us grew up living in one, and they represent an opportunity for architects to oversee a project in its totality more than other larger-scale architecture.
At first I was going to make this a post comprising all my favorite houses from across the city, but it’s a list of 11 or 12 just in the West Hills alone (and some 2,000 words), so I’m going to break it down to two posts: the West Hills (in this post) and everywhere else (in a post to follow).
One of the first houses I think of is a collaboration across the decades between the two top architects of their respective generations: the renovation of a Pietro Belluschi house by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works. The owners, John and Janet Jay, were no strangers to Cloepfil before the project began: John, who was then the executive creative director for Wieden + Kennedy, had been part of the leadership team that hired Cloepfil for that seminal project.
“Brad is spectacular in his ability to articulate the idea, to be able to talk you through it,” John Jay told me for a 2006 Metropolitan Home article. “You sit down and you have a conversation about space and concepts of the usage of space: ‘What are we about, what are our values and how does space help to express those values?’ The joke I always use with him is that he’s great at nothing. He has a tremendous feel for negative space—the site lines and the feeling of spatial relationships.’”
Among his improvements, Cloepfil added floor-to-ceiling glass and horizontal overhangs in an extension of the U-shaped floor plan, deferring to but never aping Belluschi’s original. “It turns the courtyard into a kind of garden pavilion,” Cloepfil said in the article. “Before, it made for a dark, dead spot in the back of the house. We wanted a kind of glass pavilion where the light would go all the way through.”
Allied Works and Cloepfil also designed a house from the ground up, known as the Portland Heights Residence, that is also one of my favorites, although I never formally wrote about it. Clad in cedar, the main house is comprised of a series of interconnected pavilions that are joined by concrete hearths and small courtyards, which in turn bring lots of natural light deep into the interior of the space. It’s also worth mentioning that both this Allied Works house and the Allied/Belluschi house were overseen by Don Tankersley Construction, easily the city’s top builder of houses: a contractor that transcends general contracting with artful precision.
Speaking of Pietro Belluschi, although there are many excellent residential works by this legendary architect scattered throughout the Portland metro area and beyond, two specific houses come to mind for me: the Burkes house and the Sutor house.
The Burkes house, completed in 1947, is now actually known as the Belluschi house, as Belluschi and his wife lived there before they passed away and now the home is owned and occupied by Pietro’s son, Anthony Belluschi, and his wife Marti. Anthony, also an accomplished architect who spent the majority of his career in Chicago, oversaw the restoration of the home a couple years ago, and now it’s in as good a shape as it ever has been. The date of the original construction is significant, too: it’s more or less the same year Belluschi saw completion of perhaps his most significant work of architecture: the Equitable Building in 1947, the world’s first curtain-walled office building.
The Sutor House, also by Pietro, was completed 11 years earlier, in 1938, and is a kind of companion piece to the better-known Watzek House by John Yeon, completed in 1938. Both architects had worked under the great A.E. Doyle, and had been greatly inspired by Doyle’s modest Wentz cottage on the Oregon coast, and the way it seemed to combine local vernacular traditions like barns and farmhouses with a modern sense of streamlining. The Sutor House actually looks a fair amount like the Watzek, but that’s not a matter of copying so much as a story of Belluschi and Yeon both being inspired in a similar way, not only by fusing modern and traditional, but also incorporating the influence of Japanese architecture. The Sutor may resemble a Buddhist temple even more than the Watzek. And in the Sutor’s case, it has a wonderful Japanese garden that’s part of it’s landscape; it was buried for decades before the current owner began digging it up.
The Burkes/Belluschi and Sutor House projects I visited because they were being newly renovated, and that is the case with most all of the older houses I’m covering in this post. But if I’m looking back on great houses I’ve visited and found meaningful over the past 20 years, I can’t refrain from including the Watzek House. For many years I was fairly ignorant about the Watzek. Although bequeathed to the University of Oregon several years ago, it was privately occupied until fairly recently. But I’ve been able to visit the Watzek several times in the last few years, and I always marvel at what a masterpiece it is.
The house doesn’t necessarily seem so exquisite as one first approaches, because all you see is the garage and a wall of the courtyard. But as soon as you cross that first threshold into the landscaped courtyard, a spell begins to be cast. Once you move inside, it’s immediately apparent what a collector and a lover of beauty John Yeon was, for the interior feels not strictly modern but a hybrid of traditional and modern. When I’m in the Watzek’s living room I often think of that scene at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey when Kier Dullea’s character is being held in a kind of gilded cage, with ultra-modern glowing glass floors but ornate pre-modern furniture as the bedroom set. The Watzek is a wonderful fusion: of not only eras but styles. And like all great design, it is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts.
What’s also great about the Northwest Modern regional style that Yeon and Belluschi (and Doyle) started is that it inspired lots of other architects to similarly embrace this idea of wood-framed modern houses with pitched roofs and large overhangs: people like Saul Zaik, John Storrs, Van Evera Bailey, and William Fletcher.
Two midcentury houses from this period come to mind: Zaik’s Feldman house and Bailey’s Shaw House. While writing about the Feldman’s renovation by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design in 2015 for Dwell, I was able to see a house that had been negatively impacted by a past renovation or two finally realize its potential again.
“We wanted to put back the part of Saul’s design that had been remodeled out of the house,” recalled homeowner Ty Milford. “We didn’t want to go back exactly to the original kitchen and bathrooms,” he says, but he notes that subsequent renovations had been on a budget—and it showed. “We wanted a cohesive house where at no point did something jump out as not fitting.”
The Shaw house, which I visited in 2015 as part of a Restore Oregon tour, was magnificent for its butterfly roof, which, like the roof line of the Watzek, almost seemed to mimic the pitch of Mt. Hood in the distance.
It strikes me that every house I’ve written about so far is located in Portland’s West Hills. So what do I want to mention next? Two more of them! Whether it’s for the easy access to the hiking trails of Forest Park or the view of Mt. Hood and the downtown skyline, a large proportion of the city’s best houses have been built in this hilly topography.
One of the first stories I ever wrote for Dwell, back in 2009, was a house I hadn’t know about until the magazine came to me with the assignment. Designed in 1972 by local architect Edgar Waehrer and just a few yards from the border with Forest Park, the house is a later example of Northwest modernism, on the smallish side at 1,200 square feet, but it feels spacious thanks to 16-foot ceilings and an abundance of windows that not only frame the picturesque view but also foster an openness that began with the architect’s decision to eliminate all doors (except for the bathroom).
I also have always been a fan of the Richard Campbell House from 1966. Campbell, one of the co-founders of the firm now known as YGH Architecture, won awards from both the American Institute of Architects and Sunset magazine for his design.
At this point I’m ready to move on from talking about midcentury houses but still have two house left in the West Hills to talk about.
The Johnson residence was completed in 2015 from a design by English architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who is best known for public buildings but who knew and was approached by the local client, Gary Johnson, who had years ago worked with the architect on some furniture for Herman Miller. Grimshaw admitted to me in a phone interview that he never even visited the site. But neither did Frank Lloyd Wright visit the Gordon House in Charbonneau, and it’s still a lovely work of architecture too. The Johnson house that Grimshaw designed is quite something: it’s shaped like a Christmas Tree, with a wide-open great room in back with floor-to-ceiling glass and a thin little entrance at the front. A central hallway leads you straight from the entrance to the great room, with small bedrooms on either side, all tied together with porthole windows and some 2,000 steel bolts.
The Music Box Residence by Scott/Edwards Architecture, just off Skyline Boulevard, was a treat to write about. It’s owned and was designed for two musicians named — and I’m not making this up — Jon and Yoko. The couple love to entertain, especially fundraisers, so the house has this duality: a U-shaped structure that stacks music studios and bedrooms on the sides of the house and a multi-story living room in between. “It’s two boxes with a lot of glass connecting them,” firm principal Rick Berry explained to me for a Gray magazine article (which naturally I titled “Double Fantasy”.) “You’ve got kids, a family, different types of music going on. There’s so much that has to go on in the space, and so there’s a lot of flexibility.” I also liked the long bridge, with a bamboo forest below, leading from the sidewalk to the main entry, as well as the clad in black stained siding to resemble shosugi ban, or charred wood, common to Japanese architecture.
Really great houses are often very simple, and reflective of basic biophilic human inclinations. We seek in our residences a combination of wide-open volumes and cozier, smaller spaces. Maybe that’s why the Music Box worked so well for me: because that duality was so clear. Really we all want what Jon and Yoko have: places to go big, and places to find refuge.
Title: 20 years in Portland (Part 3): Houses of the West Hills
Author: Brian Libby
Website: Portland Architecture
Link: Original Article