Category Archives: Modern

John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest

Those not hailing from the Pacific Northwest may be less familiar with John Yeon, one of the influential figures in architecture and conservation and the development of a unique brand of regional modernism.  If you don’t know Yeon, or you want to learn more, you will be pleasantly satisfied with the recent volume from Oro Editions by Marc Treib, “John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest”  The life and arc of Yeon’s career is carefully documented with many images and illustrations spanning his diverse and influential career.  And while I knew of and about much of his work, the detail unlocked a greater understanding of the key themes of regionalism, materiality, landscape, and conservation that are just as resonant and relevant today.

As introduced by Treib, Yeon is best know for his residential design, embodying the concept of ‘regional modern architecture’ and designs shaped by “sensitive siting, planning, masses, use of wood, and accommodation of contemporary living” the epitomy of which is the Watzek House completed early in his career in Portland in 1937.  This style “set the bar for many of the region’s houses that followed in its wake.”  The exterior rooflines juxtaposed with Mount Hood in the background, and the amazing interior wood detailing ground this as a touchstone worthy of exploration.

Beyond being a residential designer, Yeon, who was largely self-taught, brought a passion for many causes surrounding conservation and planning throughout his career, becoming a vocal advocate for landscape preservation, sensitive roadway design, scenic areas, all stemming from his regionalism of a different sort, his roots in his home place.  As Treib mentions,

“John Yeon lived in the present, held a deep appreciation for the past, but was always concerned with the future.  He understood and was troubled by the threats that development posed to the Oregon landscape and actively sought to confront and mitigate the problems they caused.”

This included work in the Columbia River Gorge, now an officially designated Scenic Area, and his purchase of land now known as The Shire, which “became a test ground, a playground, a retreat for the architect, and a tool to inspire key activists and funders of his preservation efforts.”

The area is now the John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape, operated by University of Oregon and providing a legacy appropriate to Yeon’s passion for study and education specific to the region.  “The Shire is a center for Pacific Northwest landscape studies while being preserved as an example of landscape design. It provides an educational site for the study of landscape preservation, design, ecology, and management creating opportunities for individuals and study groups to engage in research and discussion of landscape architecture, planning, conservation and preservation issues associated with the Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Northwest region, and the nation.”

The book explores in detail many of these topics, and provides lots of in depth discussion on Yeon’s self-taught architectural vocabulary, his innovative use of materials, his advocacy and conservation efforts, as well as his life-long love of art and collecting.  It also focuses on his pursuit of architecture as a relatively solitary endeavor, and his eschewing both formal education and working for larger firms to pursue his own path. Coming from an affluent family, he had perhaps some unique opportunities to travel at a young age,  which influenced his thinking around architecture, and access to some clients that gave him opportunities beyond his age and experience.

That said, his intuition as a designer, along with his evolution among established Portland architects like A.E. Doyle (whose office Yeon worked briefly) and contemporaries such as emerging talents like Pietro Belluschi offered some structure and assistance on projects.  As Treib mentions, “It is evident that in the early stages of their training, an exchange of ideas and influences passed between Yeon and Belluschi”.

The interior and exterior relationship of Watzek house is thoroughly modern, and Yeon’s feel for exterior environment is deft.  The courtyard and pool engaged the house on all sides, as Treib outlines:

“The Watzek house and landscape were conceived as an interrelated unit, but within that unity, Yeon played an intensified landscape of native species against areas — such as the courtyard and the zone outside the living room — that stood out as designed spaces.”

The use of the borrowed native Pacific Northwest landscape seemed to fit the design more than the actual design plantings, which in a residential context makes sense, with some plantings strategically employed for functions like screening and directing views, or to create and reinforce outdoor rooms.  The strong connection of architecture and landscape influences my design aesthetic, embodied in the formalism of the Watzek house portico, where Yeon “projected the interval between the portico posts as lines of paving stones set within the lawn, in effect, using rows of stones to echo the rhythm of the house architecture in the softest of voices.”

These concepts were not unique to Yeon, but still define much of regional modern design today, and at the time, much like his architectural style, were fresh and new.  Architects will also appreciate his experimentation with ‘ventilators’ which allow for user control of interior environments.  I also appreciated the deep dive into the Watzek house, as well as some of his subsequent work with the use of plywood as a building material, and the experimentation with modular designs strategies, all of which referenced his favorite and most regional of material, wood, but showcased the level of design detailing Yeon became famous for, using 1:1 drawings to investigate specific joints and interfaces of materials for functional and aesthetic reasons.  The sophistication of this is seen, for instance in the Cottrell House (below).

Also significant were the other plywood houses were the epitome of regional style, 9 of which were built in the Portland metro areas, like this super simple Speculative House in North Portland, built in 1939.

This also started sporting the Yeon blue-green paint he became famous for, most visibly applied to the 1948 Visitors Information Center located along Waterfront Park.

Yeon did venture beyond Portland to build a few houses in California, which is documented in the book, and he did live and work on the Oregon Coast (along with but most of his work was close to home and predominately residential.  And while he was known early for Watzek house, Treib posits that “the Swan house could claim first place as the most cohesive representation of Pacific Northwest regional modernism”

The book moves from residential architecture and design to art collecting and museum work which occupied much of his later life, along with the active conservation work mentioned previously.  This aspect will be enjoyable to those passionate about and interested in the history of Northwest environmentalism, as Yeon was a heroic figure in many of the fights for beautiful and ecologically significant places we enjoy today.  Chapter 7 highlights much of the work on the Oregon Coast, and the Columbia River Gorge, where Yeon served by appointment on the State Parks Commission at the age of 21 and fervently fought even then, using his own funds to buy land that was threatened, again owing to his not small amount of privilege.

He wrote letters on scenic beautification of highways, making cogent arguments on the impact of road designs that did not follow the contours of the land, and the need to plant wide enough areas to allow for visual impact and survivability.  As Treib points out “This knowledge of forestry and road design for a twenty-one year old is impressive, as is the young man’s confidence in lecturing men with decades of experience beyond his own.”

The early work on sensitive siting of roadways, such as the alignment of Highway 101 on the Oregon coast in the 1940s, evolved through the work in the 1960s dovetailed with larger interest in roadside beautification with work from designers and advocates alike striving for a more beautiful landscape experience and a more sensitive approach to road design, perhaps harkening back to the approach that Frederick Law Olmsted took a century before.  Yeon’s work focused this larger trend, with an eye towards the particular landscape experience, as Treib summarizes:

“Yeon was an evangelist for the Oregon landscape.”

The Shire was the major reflection of this trend, where Yeon fought against the wind and elements of the Gorge to shape a partly natural and partly designed space.  “Yeon’s design for the landscape, developed over decades, lovingly integrated land and water.  The tightly mown, and level-edged paths played effectively against the high grasses that blanketed most horizontal surfaces.  Paths traversed meadows, climbed outcroppings, and skirted the river — all aesthetically considered.”

The final chapter sums his focus on spending more time on projects benefiting the social good, and while he still did some residential work.  He fought for more scenic highways near Multnomah Falls, and championed designs for the Portland Waterfront Park, as well as holding the torch for a Pacific Northwest modern style that influenced architecture today.  It’s interesting reading the last chapter on how Yeon grappled with the concept of regionalism, and his role in defining it.  While the Watzek house and other residential designs were regional in form and material, he still presented that “the very existence of “a Northwest regional style of architecture is debatable”.  The connection to the land is an important factor, as well as the connections between folk architecture.

“We like to think that the visual character of the landscape shaped the vision of its inhabitants so that they conjured up [and] translated the spirit of the place into forms which were habitable.  Possibly people and landscapes have so modified each other that it is impossible to tell from the resulting composite regionalist landscape which influence is the primary one.  When we see this … phenomenon from the past, it is perhaps strongest where the inhabitants were unsophisticated — for knowledge of a broader world caused a seepage of alien influences which diluted the special regional flavor.” (251)

This concept of regionalism is perhaps the most compelling part of the narrative of the book and the life of John Yeon.  Regionalism as a stylistic element, but also regionalism as a way of living and loving the place you inhabit.  An amazing life makes for good reading, and Treib does a great job packing a lot of diversity into an easy to absorb story.  As a man with that took a unique path, John Yeon benefited much from his privilege to have the freedom to pursue his passions in a less formal way could have become a path of self-indulgence.  He was an artist, but his passion for the Oregon landscape and his life-long pursuit of it’s protection made him a true, regional hero.

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Field Trip: Getty Center

Last year around Christmas, we took a great road trip down the west coast and over through the desert.  Already mentioned is some tasty sites from San Francisco (deYoung + Cal. Academy).  Plenty more to come as i sift through pics, but the visit to the Getty Center, perched on the hillside in Los Angeles was a definite highlight.

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This Richard Meier designed complex clad in copious amounts of marble features an array of interesting site elements, with Laurie Olin as a major contributor to the site layout and circulation, along with the central garden by artist Robert Irwin.  The following images show the breadth site spaces.  Definitely worthy of a trip (and it’s amazing even in December) – and other than paying for parking – entry is free.

The terraced spaces and marble are sculptural forms are sculptural in their own right, while making spaces for outdoor sculpture, seating, and views of the city.

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Around the site, small moments were captures through terraces, stairways, water features, and smaller plazas all of which were tied together with materials (both plant and hardscape) along with a simplicity of form and function.

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Simple in form and function, I really appreciated the shade-canopy elements of bougainvillaea on rebar trellises, which made for a nice seating zone, while also provide a dynamic visual element from other areas of the site.

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The focal point of Irwin’s Central Garden – probably my least favorite element of floating topiary zone – which seemed a bit overdone – particularly in the context of the sparse minimalism of the rest of the site.

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Some of the garden’s circulation, however, was interesting, with a zig-zag path, seating, corten steel, and crossings of a central water feature.

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We walked the grounds, never actual visiting the galleries inside, but the experience, views, and integrated architecture and landscape was pretty amazing – and definitely a must-see for the traveler to Los Angeles.

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More field trip and photos to come.

(Photos ©  Jason King)

PDX Modern – Robert Rummer

Perhaps nestled within the Landscape and the Urbanism is my love for mid-century and modern architecture and design.  An ongoing series will feature pics from this years Portland Modern Home Tour from March 9, 2013 – and perhaps some others.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to see a true Robert Rummer house, and it’s worth a drive out to the burbs, because, hey, what could be more mid-century than that.  Rummer, an Eichler protege, built this fantastic mid-sixties gem is 13770 SW Bonnie Brae St. in Beaverton.  The unassuming exterior frontage notwithstanding, the experience did not disappoint.

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The entry opened into an open courtyard, which was glassed in, and allowed access to the kitchen to the left and living room straight ahead, as well as hallway to bedrooms and office to the right.  The massive center beam provides a connection through the spaces, and the space acts as a visual centerpiece, and one could see this open air in a warmer and drier climate than ours.

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The kitchen had been remodeled, with some built in cabinets opening up the floorplan (a good move i say) and allowing for better connection through to living and outdoor space.  It’s definitely interesting to see mid-century with authentic furnishings, which just seem to blend in with the architecture.

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From the Portland Modern Tour site:

This original RUMMER home was built in 1966 and is one of only two known homes with this floor plan. It went through a complete remodel in 2009 with an eye to maintaining the mid-century appeal while updating the mechanicals, kitchen, and bathrooms. Jeffrey Wiseman, homeowner and proprieter of Rose City Modern, has decorated the home with mid-century furniture and accent pieces from his own antique store as well as others around Portland.

The connections from interior to exterior, beyond the central courtyard, expand through living space, here with exposed beams and a brick clad fireplace oriented towards the backyard and the flow from interior to exterior patio.

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Nothing earth shattering with the outdoor spaces, but lots of potential and the extension of the geometry into the paving patterns was a nice architectural touch.

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BONUS RUMMER

Extra bonus, that day they had an open house for another Rummer house next door – which although not as nicely restored and much darker, was going to be a gem snatched up by someone on a short-sale.  The kitchen/dining area had original partiion walls

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The living room, as in the neighboring house, had distinctive exposed beams, brick fireplace, and opened to the backyard.

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all photos © Jason King