In six weeks Portland State University will open its School of Business after an ambitious remodel and addition.
Another cursory cube along Southwest Sixth has been retrofit with a silver skin, and now an angular glass atrium joins it to a wood-coated addition. The latter might look like a billionaire's home in wine country, but it is actually a series of staggered classrooms, stepped back to make Montgomery Street pedestrian-friendly.
It's a complicated structure where no two volumes are alike. In a site tour two architects showed the Business Tribune what's in store for students, faculty and yes, the general public, this September.
Michael Kocher, of German firm Behnisch Architekten, and Sam Stadler of Portland's SRG Partnership talked about the key features of the design.
The college has ambitions to double the student body, and that's reflected in the design. The School of Business has now gone from 50,000 square feet to 142,000 square feet.
"The genius of the design, and it's a feather in the cap of Behnisch," says Stadler, "is that the addition is 45,000 square feet, but it does not look overshadowed" by the original building to the south, which is 100,000 square feet.
"The stepping and the cascading makes it feel a lot larger than it is. That might be one of the coolest things about this project."
Much of the design has been both to create classrooms and interstitial spaces where students will feel comfortable learning (good acoustics, natural light, big windows to stare out of), hanging out discussing ideas and meeting faculty informally.
For example, under the large, north-facing windows, there are small radiators which break up the downward drift of cold air. Normally it runs down windows and creates a breeze at leg level. The heaters both warm the air and disrupt this current. Kocher also points out another aspect of the heating and cooling system, which while not Passive House certified, draws upon many of the same ideas.
The climate engineers Transsolar of New York wanted lots of exposed thermal mass to radiate cool temperatures. The exposed concrete does this after a night of having the windows open to bring in cool air. However, the acoustic engineers wanted lots of ceiling sound baffles so the professors are not drowned out by classroom noises — chair scraping, murmuring and bag rustling — that are amplified in a concrete room. Working together they calculated the acoustics people needed — as well as perforated gypsum on some walls — 70 percent of the ceiling to be covered in Tectum, a sound-absorbing fibrous board which can also be painted. Both teams were happy.
Each floor's paint job is color-coded so people know where they are: the first floor is new lime (green), the second abstracta (yellow) the next, pale blue. There's no science to the colors, but the floor of one story is the same as the walls of the one above.
The colors extend into the renovated building, which has bigger windows and interior offices with glass panels so light will penetrate. They describe it as "carving into" the old building.
From the street you see metal, glass and wood, or "two different volumes separated by glass, the crystal. But the interior and other colors and the acoustic material blend them together," said Kocher of Behnisch. "Every floor has a certain identity."
Banish the dark
"They used to have a bunch of dark, triple-loaded corridors. You can imagine once you're in the center, it's all artificial lighting. It was just not a good place to teach," said Kocher. "They wanted a 180 from that: open, vibrant, light -filled. Now it's a hub not just for the Business School but for general pool classes."
There are three retail spaces and the architects insist the general public are as welcome as students to buy food, sit around and eat it, or even to go up to one of the several roof decks. This optimistic view of downtown Portland can always be reined in with the key card system. (The doors can be locked.)
There are three entrances to the atrium, which is the hub of the business school. One entrance comes from Broadway and Montgomery. There are skater-proof benches and a conveyance channel, a sort of swale on steroids: storm water from the roofs will flow like a rocky stream. The second entrance comes internally from the renovated building. The third is the biggest, along Sixth Avenue, and is angled at 45 degrees to lure people from the Urban Center and the MAX line.
"The pedestrian flow is strongest east-west, from the MAX on Fifth to the Park Blocks," adds Stadler. "The building acts as a spot of refuge. And hopefully with the evolution of the Montgomery Green Street, which is part of the 2025 Plan, it will one day be pedestrian."
Of the two architectural firms, the locals SRG, being close to the action (a 12-minute walk from Pioneer Courthouse square) did a lot more of the day-to-day interaction with the contractor, Skanska. But SRG did some of the big-picture thinking too, in terms of knowing the City's long term plans, such as the idea of joining the West Hills to the Willamette River by the Montgomery Green Street.
They also knew more about the Halprin Fountains, which Stadler calls "a hidden jewel."
These are Lawrence Halprin's four-block series of inter-connected walkways, fountains and plazas at the south end of downtown. Known as the Portland Open Space Sequence, the Source Fountain, Lovejoy Fountain, Pettygrove Park and Ira Keller Forecourt Fountain flow together between the tower blocks just south of the Keller Auditorium. The flow of pedestrians across PSU is likely to be more lively than that on Halprin's turf, as thousands of young students hurry to class. But this is very much architecture about looking different from the buildings around it, but also serving a complementary purpose.
Come for the lecture, stay for the bantz
The atrium has risers, currently the most popular central feature for any office, since they supposedly encourage interaction and are good for lectures and large meetings. Thanks to the percent for art, there will be abstract art by Molly Dilworth. Also a large sculpture is already hanging by wires from the ceiling, tucked in behind one of the staircases. It is a skeletal, vector-like rendering, in wood, of a tree. Or maybe a hand. The artist, John Grade, is known for his large horizontal tree sculpture at the Seattle Art Museum called Middle Fork.
Kocher is proud of the building's performance. He shows the louvers where air exits the classrooms and rises to the top of the atrium, where it is sucked out to the roof. The cooling system is passive, with fans instead of compressors.
Since the new building does not need a lot of mechanical the roofs are clear of machinery and can be enjoyed as gathering spots.
"If the programming changed and we ever did need to cool the building, we could introduce a cooling coil, yes," Kocher concedes.
But much of his firm's challenge was to make a building that was the unlike the typical American box which is then pumped full of cold or hot air.
"We said, 'Let's design this not to need that, and make it an icon of green design, and show we can make use of the temperate climate," he said.
Transsolar calculated how much solar energy should be coming in through the windows, and then the amount of frit that should be baked on to the window glass. Frit is a ceramic dot print which keeps out the sun's rays.
Originally they were going to have the windows on the east and west ends of the new building, but modeling shows that would have been too sunny and required a lot of screens and blinds. So they put them on the north side. Bingo — it never gets too hot, and the classrooms have a great view of downtown. It's good for PSU, which wants to connect the school to the business community.
Being able to change for rational rather than aesthetic reasons is part of the Behnisch way. "We don't try to take a design concept and make it work," says Kocher. "It's all done in close consultation with all the consultants."
It's who you know
The two firms came together because of a connection. PSU pulled the original RFP because it didn't generate enough interesting responses, Stadler says. "From the RFP we knew PSU wanted international flair. The demands being set by the president and the deans were ambitious, and we had a relationship with Behnisch from years ago, and Behnisch had a relationship with the president."
"We built the University of Baltimore Law School," adds Kocher, "And the president of there, Bob (Bogomolny), knew Wim Weiwel. So when he came to Portland he said let's bring the Behnisch guys in and maybe get some of that style here."
The result was "a bit of local flair with international work."
"The goal was to make it an icon for the campus and draw the best talent, so they can compete on the west coast. And you need a marquee building to do that."
Karl Miller Center at the School of Business at PSU
Named for Rick Miller's grandfather, who was a WWII veteran, firefighter and entrepreneur.
Square feet: 142,875
Grand Opening: September 19, 2017 from 1-4pm
Architects: Behnisch Architekten and SRG Partnership Inc.
General Contractor: SKANSKA
(Rick and Erika Miller gave a $9 million dollar gift; $40 million were in state bonds, $14 million was additional gifts.)