Portland Visitors' Center




Portland Visitors Information Center, John Yeon designer, 1949.

Portland is on the architectural map mostly because of the Northwestern Regional style, and that style came from John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi.

Explore their respective careers, and Yeon's career differs sharply from Belluschi's. Belluschi was the prototypical professional AIA architect, and Yeon was a non-registrant. Belluschi was concentrated on producing structures, and Yeon was all over the place as a conservationist, Asian art collector, civic leader, Defender of the Gorge, landscape designer, local oracle.




Belluschi's output is so extensive it's difficult to handle. He ran a busy corporate office in Portland, through the postwar boom years when modernism was both sexy and cost-effective, then as his career went national and he went to MIT in 1951, he helicoptered in as "design consultant" on so many national corporate projects and major public buildings that even an important late-career project like the Chapel of Christ the Teacher can slip by virtually unnoticed.

Yeon's built output is both so (a) limited in number and (b) modest in scope there's a danger in asking it to support the weight of his reputation. His 1937 Watzek House is the cornerstone of that reputation, along with maybe a dozen more inexpensive houses of the same vintage. After 1950 the resume is limited to five or six museum gallery interiors. (Do those even count?)

To that short list you can add his 75-acre landscape project, the Shire, on the north side of the Columbia from Multnomah Falls. Yeon's guiding aesthetic had always been based in the "organic" principle that the Wrightians have adopted as their own these days, the integration of architectural form into the landscape. Except he took it one step further, suggesting that the character of the locality shape the formal decisions and the spatial choices, and build around that. He said it better in 1986, "My own interest is very limited; it concerns deliberate aesthetic preference for forms sympathetic to various natural landscapes, or, in a high-flown phrase I used when I was young, architecture which translates the spirit of places into forms which are habitable.''

Maybe it's too glib to say that Yeon evolved this respect-for-place to the logical extreme and therefore there IS NO building at the Shire at all. But it's true that Yeon spent thirty years of careful and intense work on a Zen riddle, creating a landscape that nobody can tell has been worked on, a sort of disappearing act.




All of which brings us to the act of looking at this tidy little pavilion with a neon rose on top of it, the only structure within the boundaries of the Riverfront Park and evidently the only public building Yeon ever designed. We're looking a big chunk of Yeon's visible output. Because the architect is so beloved and his work is so rare, there's a certain pressure to interpret greatness here whether greatness actually exists or not.

Originally built as the Portland Visitors' Center in 1949, it's had a variety of tenants through the years, including McCall's restaurant. The city of Portland owns it. A bigger building would be a white elephant. There was talk of dismantling it and removing it to a skansen pasture somewhere, but it's being renovated right now, again.



Does this help explain the arc of Yeon's... er..... ? Does it fit?

No. We only get more Zen riddles. Do the design decisions advance or define or comment on the inherently wooden-modernist Northwest Regional? Not at all -- it's in a completely different category in style, material and form, not recognizable as a sister or even a distant red-headed cousin of the Watzek House.

Does the interior show the same kind of excruciating attention to detail and innovation as the Watzek House? It probably did once, but not now. According to multiple sources the interior has been so bitched-up over the years that Yeon himself finally requested it be pushed over. Maybe the current renovation is being done with enough love and research to bring back Yeon's original thought process for the interior.

Take Yeon's name off of it, is it a good building?



Oh yeah. It's a freaking brilliant building. It's "Miesian" in the best sense, a product of the pursuit for architectural simplicity and discipline, a crispness of exterior shape, a disregard for all the old historical styles and conventional wisdom and ornament and curves, and reliance on the true strength and character of the materials. Those ideals are cliches now but they were radical and science-fictiony in 1949. This thing must have looked like a temporary shed. (Consider in 1949 Mies himself hadn't been in the States that long, he wasn't well-known, the Crown Hall was a pipe-dream, and Yeon's design may have seemed more Japanese than anything else.) The Miesian goal was to allow the carefully tuned scale, rhythm and proportions of the building itself speak to the users.

"Scale, rhythm and proportions" may sound like "blah, blahblah, and blahblahblah" you've heard them so many times, but there's meaning to that, and here's the perfect example. Just look at how Yeon restricts himself -- to plywood, for God's sake -- and the interlocking spatial effects he produced. It's equivalent to writing a fluid and satisfying novel using 7 letters, or a Concerto for Kazoo.






Copyright 2009 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.