Portland Design Commission Slaps Architect

February 8, 2006

An architect’s plans for a future Apple store in Portland (Ore.) were criticized during a hearing of the city’s Design Commission, which called the design “leaden” and the materials “unfriendly” to pedestrians. The Commission is composed of eight citizen representatives who provide “leadership and expertise on urban design and architecture and on maintaining and enhancing Portland’s historical and architectural heritage,” according to the city’s Web site. In this case, the Commission had several objections to the plans, represented for Apple by Portland-based Holst Architecture.

The Commission’s advice comes before the final design is submitted for review by the city’s zoning officials, and provides early feedback on new building types or configurations, or on projects that may require waivers. In this case, the architect apparently wanted advice on using Apple’s stainless steel design in a neighborhood that is dominated by red brick and wood commercial buildings that are usually two-stories tall. Surrounding N.W. 23rd Ave. is a residential district of brick and wood homes and apartment buildings. The Commission issued its advice to the architect last September.

Apple’s plans included demolition of the entire building at 437 N.W. 23rd Avenue at Glisan St., in the city’s historic Northwest District. The store would be on the fringe of downtown Portland, and just over a mile from the existing Pioneer Square store. The architect’s plans propose replacing the current two-story building with a double-height but single-story building on the corner. The Commission questioned the lack of a second story, and wrote in its advice to the architect that the design, “offers little to accommodate a future use or expansion to second level.” The Commission continued, “Considering the likely expense of the land, it does not appear unreasonable to provide additional floor area to meet this requirement.” They added that, “False windows or fake window patterning would not be appropriate” to meet the second-story requirement.

The Design Commission agreed that requiring vehicle parking on a 50’x100′ lot is “unreasonable.” Parking is very scarce in the area, and is always an issue with businesses and neighbors when new construction projects are proposed.

The storefront’s signage wasn’t a major issue with the Commission, which only said it would include the Apple logo, and noted, “This is a corporate structure that meets a corporate brand.”

Holst Architecture, operating from Apple’s standard design of full-height display windows and stainless steel, had proposed an entrance on N.W. 23rd St., and display windows wrapping one-third down the Glisan St. side of the building. The Commission noted that a corner entrance isn’t necessarily a requirement of a successful storefront. They added that, “Ground floor window views into interesting spaces would contribute to a positive pedestrian experience.” They did note that, “High quality materials are expected,” in the design and construction of the store.

The Commission was more critical of how the store design fit in to the neighborhood. The proposed design would include glass, stainless steel and a back-lit Apple logo. They advised that, “More human based metaphors are needed; additional pedestrian scale elements and details are needed.” Considering the building materials and detail, the Commission said, “Articulation of the materials is the main concern–at least two layers of scaled materials are needed between the ‘grain of the wood’ and the volume of the overall massing.” Significantly for Apple, the Commission said, “Less or no stainless steel/metal cladding would be more appropriate.”

Most critically, the Commission advised, “The materials and scale are unfriendly to the pedestrian environment and the historic fabric of the Alphabet Historic District and could be more appropriate to a downtown location.”

They said the proposal’s “Modern” style, “has many levels of scale from massing to joints that should be further explored in this design.” But they noted that, “Faux historicism would not be an appropriate solution.”

The Commission’s design advice concluded with, “The Dosha building is wonderfully exuberant–this proposal is leaden. The constraint appears to come from the retail identity branding.”

Presumably Holst Architecture is now consulting with Apple on what changes it considers acceptable to better blend in to the neighborhood’s existing architecture. Apple proposed a similar design in the Flatiron district of New York City, but abandoned the project last September when the stainless steel design was criticized by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

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