building blocks1
Image: John Clark

The Bside6 building by Works Partnership Architecture, on E Burnside Street.

AT THIRTY-TWO FEET HIGH AND EIGHTY-SIX FEET WIDE, the billboard-scale field of glass stretching across the west face of Ziba Design’s soon-to-open world headquarters is at once a successful company’s grand picture window on the skyline and a mirror reflecting the face of a bolder Portland future. Construction workers buzz around the building, adding to the hum of activity on the corner of NW Ninth Avenue and Marshall Street in the Pearl District. Streetcars whiz by, pedestrians stroll to cafés, and cars crest the rise of the nearby Broadway Bridge. But inside the building, all is serene. Planes of concrete slide beneath cool white walls punctuated by long slats of reclaimed Douglas fir, together forming a minimalist stage set, bathed in natural light, where Ziba’s designers, engineers, and anthropologists will convene around massive worktables to create new products, images, and ways of doing business for the likes of FedEx, UPS, Microsoft, and McDonald’s.

The surrounding neighborhood has been lauded by everyone from the Sierra Club to the New York Times for its inviting form of urbanism: the streets lined with quality retail and restaurants beneath a mix of offices, condos, apartments, and affordable housing, all peppered with public plazas and tied together by a jaunty streetcar. Which is nice. But people rarely mention the Pearl District’s architecture—a fact that’s likely to change in August, when Ziba opens its doors. The structure’s sophisticated fusion of modest scale, a welcoming street presence, and state-of-the-art sustainability—all typical ingredients in Portland buildings—is poised to quietly energize the surrounding landscape with a capital-A architectural statement.

For the firm who designed the building, Holst Architecture, this plum commission is the payoff of seventeen years of architectural ladder-climbing, rung by rung, from restaurant remodels and office renovations to townhouses and condos. But well beyond being a measure of one firm’s success, the new Ziba headquarters is merely the most prominent in a collection of fresh, dynamic buildings rising across the city in environs as diverse as gritty lower E Burnside Street and the ?bungalow-villes of North Portland. The architects—mostly ?younger firms like Works Partnership Architecture, Atelier Waechter, William Kaven Architecture, Path Architecture, and Seed Architecture Studio—share Holst’s goals of honing Portland’s longstanding traditions of eco-consciousness, lively urbanism, and thrifty building into sharper forms of architecture. “Every generation has had its great group of architects,” says Richard Potestio, a Portland architect who is an ardent follower of and occasional collaborator with members of these firms. “This is ours.”

‘If you design something that’s not affordable, you’re not doing anybody any good.’ -John Holmes, Holst Architecture

Although the recession has ruthlessly pruned the rosters of many larger local architecture firms, these smaller shops are so far proving resilient. In many ways, they are blazing a trail parallel to that of Portland’s chefs in their prizing of simple, pure ingredients and their preference for principled experimentation over ostentatious flourishes. To them, sustainability is a quiet ethos rather than a badge or rating. And just as many of Portland’s most ambitious chefs are now drifting to lo-fi independent enterprises like sandwich shops and food carts, many of these architects are also taking the DIY approach, acting as their own developers and contractors. The result—say, a $400,000 townhouse—may not be as readily affordable as a $5 Whole Bowl of rice and beans. But in a profession where name-brand architecture can dramatically inflate the price of a new building or home, these designers are targeting, in the words of Daniel Kaven (who cofounded William Kaven Architecture with his brother Trevor), Portland’s growing “creative class, not just wealthy people or developers.”