December 7, 2012
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Musings on design and the built environment
I was reading an article on one of my favorite places in town, Beam & Anchor, when I came across a term that I hadn’t heard used before, which described an idea, or theme, that has been presenting itself in my work and architectural interests with increasing frequency. That term, “community capitalism” seems to be at the heart of Portland, and I think the article sums it up quite nicely as a concept:
“Part of that easy going blend of high and low is also evident in the artisan/entrepreneurial attitudes espoused (and lived out) by so many Portlanders. Business doesn’t have to be a strictly bottom line venture (Bain Capital we are not); here, the bottom line is triple. Call it community capitalism. In a city that attracts people for its quality of life, art and business blend in a practical, cooperative, supportive sort of way.”
There has been a subtle, but very discernible shift in the direction of my work as I near completion of my degree in architecture, and it is born from this idea of blending art and business – I myself being an example of a business educated person forging a new direction in the creative profession.
Last year, I completed a studio project that explored a concept of a live-work community on an infill site in NE Portland where the making of goods became an element to be showcased rather than relegated to backroom facilities – where the shopping experience was a community one, and where the idea of “making a living” became a lifestyle. Now, in my final studio before my thesis project, I have created an “Urban Ag Center” – a place in the culture-starved outskirts of SW Portland where patrons can re-connect with timeless crafts ranging from coop-building to beer-making, in a community resource center that provides access to the most important resource of all that we as Americans seem to be in short supply of in the midst of economic chaos and eroding values – empowerment.
I’ve often thought about why all this resurgence of “heritage”, from the farm to table movement to alternative commuting, to chicken raising, canning & pickling, weaving, furniture making, you name it, has become so “trendy”. I think the answer is that when people find themselves in a situation that we are all in currently – one where jobs are hard to come by, and people feel less in charge of their own destiny than ever before, we are all looking for some sense of empowerment: “yes I can make my own beer”. “Yes I can raise my own chickens in the city.” “Yes I can make a living making something.” It may sound trite, but I think that quest for empowerment and control is at the root of this rising “community capitalism”.
My thesis project this year will be a “Maker’s Market” for the city of Hood River. A public place and a “living room for the city” at its core, the project seeks to unify the town by celebrating the entrepreneurship, craft, and diversity of its rich history in a marketplace and production facility that showcases the making and exchange of goods on a very real and approachable level. Much the way the town was built on the backs of hardworking loggers, fishermen and farmers, the project seeks to cast a spotlight on the modern entrepreneurs and “community capitalists” who are at the heart of the town today.
My work at SUM design studio +architecture has been in keeping with my interests. Having the ability to work on distressed buildings in the SE industrial area, and to re-vision them as vibrant community activators has been the ultimate homage to my interests in fostering community capitalism. Creating spaces that incubate small business, reinforcing a diverse system of transportation, and creating rich pedestrian spaces – all of these goals, and more, are at the heart of the work at SUM.
I am excited that I am able to work with visionary developers and architects in an environment that has reinforced my underlying interests and shed light on the challenges and rewards of their practical application. This idea of “community capitalism” is not simply a passing trend, at least not for me, and I expect it to exert itself on my work and interests for some time to come.
I’ve been working with a local East side firm, SUM Design Studio, for a week now. I’m doing a practicum program with them, in which I work part time in their office under a specific focus in exchange for credit. In this case, my focus is on the adaptive reuse of historic buildings – a theme which lends itself generously to SUM’s work, which is currently intently focused on the inner SE Division area, in conjunction with a Michael Tevis, owner of Intrinsic Properties, a development company.
Working with SUM, I get the benefit of being immersed in one of Portland’s coolest and most progressive hubs of entrepreneurship – the Ford Building. A project Tevis did some years ago, the Ford project took a defunct industrial factory and subdivided it into the ultimate startup incubator – 80+ creative suites and startup offices in one awesome historic building – a hotbed of cross-pollination and the type of innovation that makes Portland amazing… I consider myself extremely lucky to walk into this building to work and be inspired by!
The current project is Jimmy’s Tire and Jimmy’s Annex – the names we given to a building across the street that used to serve the Ford Building as a tire shop and fueling station. A rich collection of historic images of the building exists, which I got access to, and found extremely interesting and nostalgic:
Check out the amazing old glass-tube pumps, and the street context in the background! So cool to be able to see the rich history of this building that I have driven by for years, and never given much thought to.
Our redesign of the building will be a lively pedestrian oriented retail retrofit, in which all of the historic character of the building’s facade will be honored, but revitalized with new overhead doors and interior partitions for tenant spaces. The building will literally open up onto Division, the way it once did when it was a hub of industrial activity.
Overall, the brief experience I have had with the practicum, working in the Ford Building, and getting my feet wet with the Jimmy’s project has given me a great deal of inspiration about what I see as a compelling typology – the spaces serving the type of micro commerce that has played a major role in lifting us out of our current economic slump… My current studio project and upcoming thesis project will continue to explore this idea, and the following question: “How do we need to rethink commerce and industry in a world of fragile and shifting environmental, social, and economic conditions?”
Another chapter in the ongoing rehabilitation of my kitchen has concluded. The long awaited butcher block countertops, on an indefinite hiatus due to a supply issue at Ikea, have finally been installed, after a labor intensive process that has become characteristic of the various jobs this house has dealt me 🙂
Work began with the removal of the old – a hideous pinkish laminate/veneer product that was presumably slapped on sometime mid-century. A seemingly benign process at first approach, it became more complex as the layers became revealed.
The pink veneer was first removed, revealing a particle board substance that possessed, in equal parts, the properties of wet sawdust and reinforced concrete. My initial attempts to remove only this layer were met with an hour of chiseling the substance off whatever it was glued to, which quickly evidenced itself as the original coin tiles that also comprise the flooring of my bathroom.
A beautiful and historic detail, my initial kneejerk reaction was to change courses entirely and attempt to preserve the tile as the new surface of my counters. My approach throughout the ongoing work I have done has been to undue as much of the damage that occured in the 1950’s – 1990’s (read: wallpaper, vinyl, orange/brown paint, etc) by restoring the original lustre of the home in its wood, tile, and craftsman detail. Alas, in this case it was not to be, as chips of broken tile flew and a thick coat of Liquid Nails tested the very limits of my crowbar as I strained at it. No, I had to go deeper. Scouring the tiles off themselves was out of the question as I attempted to find the substrate they were fixed to and was met with more and more mortar. Scraping away at the edge of this mortar, I found the bed of mortar to be 1-2 inches thick and realized that the task had just gotten harder.
When all was said and done, my initial estimation of prying up a sheet of laminate covered plywood and laying down the new butcher block was replaced with a 2 day crowbar job that left my entire house coated in a fine layer of concrete dust.
When I got to the backsplash, I was given the gift of an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – create a more aesthetically pleasing and functional backsplash for my sink, as well as preserve an original detail from the home. It may be difficult to see based on the image below, but the tile that was found underneath the coating of vinyl and Liquid nails was beautiful and intact, and matched the aesthetic of my kitchen remarkably well.
Finally, after two days of scraping, pry-ing, and hammering, the demo was done. Out with the old… in with the new.
I sourced the materials (butcher block and stainless sink) from Ikea for under 200 bucks and set to work. Thanks to some helpful guys at Creative Woodworking, I made some precision finish cuts on the butcherblock boards (after making some meticulous measurements) and even used the scrap to make 3 beautiful cutting boards (which now grace the homes of myself, my girlfriend, and my buddy Pete who helped me on installation day).
Install was pretty smooth. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” paid off and I only had 1 minor measurement error to the tune of 1/16 inch, which was quickly addressed with a handheld skilsaw. The original subtops of the counters are shown below, and proved to be fairly true and even (after an hour or so of nail removal and scraping).
Pete helped me with an extra set of hands (and eyes) while installing the counters, and the following day I made some finish cleanups, including touch-up painting, sealing the counters with a mineral-based oil, and cutting mitered and painted wood trim. All of that with some liberal application of silicone sealant at all the seams and I’ve got a pretty spruced up and watertight new set of counters. Sum total of the project was $400, including removal and dumping of debris, all materials and products. Worth the facelift? You be the judge: