Architecture Magazine

A Transplanted Designer's Rose City Thank-you

By Brianlibby

Downtown 02 recovered
Portland Outdoor Store sign (photo by Brian Libby)


Before I found my opportunity and decided to move to Portland, all of my sunny Southern California pals warned about the soggy and dreary Northwest that grays out eight months of the year. I moved to Portland in the month October at the start of what was to be the gray-mageddon that I had heard about; as luck would have it on this particular year, an Indian summer took Portland well into November and I became suspicious. Had Portland launched a word-of-mouth campaign about imposing gray skies, hinting toward the idea that somehow rain and mist snuffs out the creative bunch of Portlanders underneath?

Upon graduating from architecture school, I had joined my soon-to-be wife in Los Angeles with high expectations and an eagerness to contribute, believing it was one of the most forward-thinking and collaborative international cities. That summer I ended up resorting to trying every trick imaginable in an attempt to join one of the many LA architecture firms that I had heard about. Not only could I not break through, but I could only find answering machines and a concrete desert full of locked doors. It culminated in a back alley full of dumpsters, sliding my portfolio through two metal security doors to an employee of a prominent LA firm.

Fast forward from this realization to an early morning on our first trip to Portland. It didn’t take long on the highway before we experienced our first “You go, no you go,” merging experience. Coming from the chaotic pace of Southern California traffic, where the average speed is closer to 85 and there is a high risk of being rear ended if you dare go the posted speed limit, we had already discovered Portland was different.

Every place we walked, everywhere we ate, Portlanders would more often than not offer a smile; it was when we noticed at one point that everybody around us was engaged in conversation with another person, that we joked that Portland seemed to be stuck in a prior era before cell phones. Doors were open, people welcomed you in, collaboration seemed to be on the tip of everybody’s mind; conversations started to happen, there were no metal security doors and no back alleys, it was a distinct feeling of embrace.

The exact turning point for me was walking into the Leftbank building on North Broadway and the DC202 collective, which was made up of the architecture and design firms of David Horning, Gary Hartill, Holly Freres, and at the time Bill Fritts. I had badgered all of these individuals for months and of the literally hundreds of inquires that I had sent out to cities across the country, the single reply I received was from Mr. Horning and this particular collective, it was more than worth the 16 hour drive.

In contrast to the Portland traffic that obeys the speed limit and is more than generous on the interpretation of merging procedure; the office life moved fast, everybody seemed to be moving toward one single decided upon, collective goal. It was this sense of collaboration, urgency and necessity of good design that was my quick introduction to Portland. It was also within my first week that Fred Armisen’s music video for Portlandia went viral; I was in Portland long enough to know that “The dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland” was a good thing.

I soon discovered that it’s not just architects that are making this city great, it’s all the craftspeople, designers and makers that make this place unlike any other place on earth. It’s the diverse cross section of artisans that set Portland apart, be it Bo Hagood, an expert wood worker at MADE studio, or Kevin Cox’s letterpress studio Jazyrain, or Christian Bannister’s incredible digital art at his firm arxi: all are ready to share and collaborate in a refreshingly different way than any other city I’ve been to.

It feels like people are working on a common goal in Portland, eager to help each other and share information for the benefit of the group; everybody seems to be moving toward the greater solution contrary to what I found happening in LA with firms sequestered away and attempting to find the solution on their own, behind of course, locked doors. Portland is accepting and open to good ideas and hard work in a city wide effort without necessarily pledging any kind of universal allegiance.

Downtown 16 Jan (29)
Portland Building (photo by Brian Libby)

The power of the city of Portland transcended time when I was granted an interview with world renowned architect Michael Graves, in regard to the 30th anniversary of The Portland Building. When I asked Graves, “If you were able to go through the process again, would you still come to Portland to design?” Mr. Graves responded simply, “Many times over, sure. I love Portland and have very, very good memories of Portland.” After all the criticism Graves has received about the Portland Building over the past 25-plus years, that says something about the city’s charms.

As we approach the holidays and the end of the year, as the rain and dampness take hold of the Pacific Northwest I’d like to offer my sincerest thanks to the Rose City, and all of the great people in it.


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