Old Town | Chinatown Cultural Center, Portland: A Fusion of Cultures

Image from Dan Nowell's proposed Old Town | Chinatown Cultural Center

Work by Meagan Dickemann | Alex Jackson | Dan Nowell | Jodi Hanson

University of Oregon | Portland Programs

School of Architecture and Allied Arts | Department of Architecture

Portland Urban Architecture Program: Arch 683 | Fall 2010

Professors Gerry Gast and Suenn Ho

[Note:  Student projects from this studio will be on exhibit in Old Town | Chinatown on April 8, 2011 (5pm-7pm) and April 9 and 10, 2011 (1pm-4pm), 117 NW Second Avenue, Portland.  The public is invited to this free event;  sponsors include The Bill Naito Company and MulvannyG2 Architecture.]

The Old Town | Chinatown studio examined issues of “collective space and social space” as detailed in Herman Hertzberger’sSpace and the Architect, a series of essays on architecture which explore “in between space” and the city.  Offered in the fall of 2010, Professors Gast and Ho led an introduction studio for students in the Portland Option II Graduate Architecture Program.  The studio combined aspects of architecture, urban design and the design of public spaces as all integral ingredients of what defines “urban architecture.”  The studio addressed building tectonics as supportive and reinforcing to design concepts.  True to the University of Oregon’s Graduate Program ideals, this course emphasized a comprehensive design process:  the essential combination of theory, history, design skills, human factors, sustainability and tectonics (structure, construction and environmental systems) in design studio work.

Sources of inspiration from student Dan Nowell's project.

The project was designed to concentrate on the conception of a Cultural Center in the Old Town | Chinatown neighborhood of Portland, Oregon.  This area just off of Northwest 4th and Burnside in the Waterfront Blocks Redevelopment Area (Portland Development Commission), a part of the Portland River District, and centrally located to downtown Portland, is “one of the city’s most socially diverse neighborhoods– a reviving community representing people of many ethnicities and walks of life.”  Culturally and historically, the area has a colorful past embracing Chinese, Japanese, Jewish and Greek communities.  Overall, the studio project was purposed to be a “‘catalyst’ to advance Old Town | Chinatown’s [recent] revitalization efforts.”  The proposed Cultural Center is to be “accessible and open to both community residents and visitors from throughout Portland” and would accentuate the “diverse nature of the present community and its multicultural history.”

Given the Chinatown context and the importance of diversity, students also studied the writing of Richard Sennett, historian and sociologist.  Sourcing Sennett’s works, The Conscience of the Eye, The Fall of Public Man and The Uses of Disorder, the goal was to observe and magnify diversity, obscurity and underlying pressures of metropolitan existence.  By relying on Sennet’s perspective, students were encouraged to develop a city-vision where all people regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic background would have ample opportunity to interact and come into contact with one another in a designed environment.  The primary objective would be to compel all individuals to experience their differences and semblances.  This perception compelled students to create spaces where the humanity of this city would learn to co-exist and cooperate thereby fostering a “healthy tension” within the metropolis and, in turn, promoting a “healthy city”.

The studio further advocated for environmentally healthy design placing a high priority on sustainable design practices to “[conserve] energy resources, [reduce] carbon emissions, and [promote] the use of non-toxic and recyclable building materials.”

Dan Nowell's "Sustainability Checklist."

Below is an excerpt from the course syllabus that further illuminates the intent of the studio:

The Old Town – Chinatown Cultural Center is envisioned as a new public “catalyst” to advance regeneration of the Old Town-Chinatown neighborhood. Although Old Town – Chinatown has made solid progress on its revitalization during the past five years, the district remains a struggling corner of Downtown Portland. While Portland’s central Downtown and Pearl District have witnessed remarkable recent regeneration, Old Town – Chinatown has not kept pace with the rest of the city center in attracting new investment, activities, residents and visitors.

Although public and private investment in the River District (the combined Pearl District and Old Town – Chinatown) has totaled well over $ 1 billion in the last 15 years, the district has a need for more public places, especially indoor public places that can be used in all seasons, in all weather, and at all times, day and night.

Remarkably, the only major new indoor public place in this large district is the Armory Theater. North of Burnside and east of Interstate 405 (the approximate boundaries of the River District), there are no public libraries, community centers, recreation centers, major museums or cultural centers. This poverty of “cultural infrastructure” has resulted in a somewhat monolithic district of affluent housing, high-end retail/commercial and expensive restaurants/entertainment uses in the western part of the River District – the Pearl District. In contrast with the upscale Pearl, a separate district of primarily low income housing and social services characterizes much of Old Town – Chinatown. This west-east gradient has produced separated social, economic and racial enclaves. The reasons for these planning shortcomings are numerous and complex, but the reality of the separated urban landscape is undeniable.

Recent development projects, including the University of Oregon and Mercy Corps, have introduced major new attractions in Old Town – Chinatown. However, these are only partially public venues. A recent positive trend has been the opening of many new small businesses such as Floyd’s, several restaurants, and a healthy nightlife scene..

Despite the River District’s segregated social pattern, there is an opportunity to create a more integrated and diverse neighborhood (socially, economically, physically) within the remaining undeveloped areas of Old Town / Chinatown. One of the most opportune ways to accomplish this goal is to develop new public places open to all residents and used by all, places where people of diverse origins, social and status “rub shoulders”, see and meet persons unlike themselves, and participate in common activities and events. A cultural center with a strong participatory program can further this goal.

Students were asked to create approximately 22,000 square feet that would incorporate an entry, a public event space, a multi-purpose or performance space, an exhibit or art gallery, a childcare center, a library area, a research and media lab, space for community education classrooms, a cooking studio, dance and drama performance studio, numerous small-scale work or meeting spaces, an administration office and a cafe.  Designs were to consider realistic zoning frameworks and development standards.

Meagan Dickemann's elevation and exterior view.

Adopting the requirements and suggestions for ancillary spaces such as a commercial bookstore, offices and space for the Northwest China Council offices, most students also made allowances for highly desirable site spaces like courtyards, rooftop terraces or other socially and physically pleasant outdoor spaces.

Dickemann's concept for rooftop terrace space allows for scenic enjoyment of surroundings.

Commenting on her vision for the Cultural Center, a plan that incorporates the extensive use of glass to connect the building users to their outdoor environment, Dickemann says:

“I greatly enjoyed working on a site in downtown Portland. I feel like this studio was a great introduction to …..the city since our site was just down the street and most of us were new to Portland.  I feel that [the instructors] really pushed us to keep designing until we had developed a concept that was worth exploring and evolving.  The studio also pushed us to design outside of our building’s footprint and examine the greater contextual influences and also the community for which we were designing.  I think one of the programs’ strengths is the focus on the urban environment and examining the greater picture when designing.  The things we design and build can have a great influence and great consequences that extend far beyond simple property lines.”

Dan Nowell's Architectural Ribbon Concept models.

Architecture graduate student Dan Nowell’s project embraced the idea of Old Town | Chinatown as an extremely culturally diverse region.  “The essence of this area,” he writes, “requires the support of every combined influence brought upon it by various different peoples over the course of time to adequately portray its story.”  Nowell’s proposal for the Cultural Center “conveys this need for all peoples to join together in support of their community.”  He continues, “Every nationality is expressed through an architectonic ribbon with the language of the given nationality prominently enscribed upon it.  These ribbons flow from the sidewalk bordering Burnside and climb up and over the site to create a framework for the programatic spaces of the center.”

Ribbons are structural suppport, as well as housing mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
Nowell's ribbon system detail.

In a thoughtful and planful interpretation of the ribbon concept, Nowell comments that “one ribbon alone would not be able to support the cultural center in this manner, it requires a consolidated effort by all of the ribbons to achieve this end, just as Old Town | Chinatown requires the input of several different peoples to adequately portray its history.”  With a decidedly abstract and artful approach to his innovative plan, Nowell says that the original application of the series of ribbons across both the “project site and surrounding context was born out of a concern for the automotive dominated presence of Burnside Street…..the ribbons, running perpendicular to traffic flow on Burnside, were meant to abstractly represent a visual slowing of the traffic and guiding of the eye into Chinatown…”

Student Alex Jackson writes that the process of designing a Cultural Center presented a challenge to “create a building and an urban environment which embraces a diverse population—a place where people of all cultures, ages, and resources will want to go to meet, learn, play and work.”   Jackson provides more detail to his approach when he acknowledges his goal was to “create a design which [would] be a resource to the neighborhood [as well as] a magnet for attracting visitors from the whole of Portland to the Old Town | Chinatown area.   He envisions a building designed for “the greater sense of community and [that will] invite new families, businesses, and individuals into the community.”  Ultimately, Jackson planned for the creation of “a stoop for the entire neighborhood and, in fact, all of Portland.”

Alex Jackson's models incorporate his "Stoop" concept.

Viewing the “stoop” as a traditional area for “brief, incidental social encounters…..a place to sit and relax, greet neighbors, enjoy the fresh air, and see what is going on in the neighborhood,” Jackson moved forward with his plan to create a Cultural Center that feels accessible as a neighborhood hub of social interaction coupled with concepts of a marketplace and playground.  As his models illustrate, plentiful areas for human presence are creatively interwoven with spaces that contribute to innovative and business-minded communities, or as Jackson says, “a giant urban stoop.”

As seen in Jackson’s models and drawings, his concept of the stoop is gestural in providing public space for the humanitarian aspect of the community to congregate adjacent and within the built environment of the Cultural Center.  Jackson sees this stoop aspect as ” a very social space and very public” as well as pleasantly “informal so people can take or have a sense of ownership.”

Mindful of sustainable design, Jackson’s proposal incorporates such elements as bamboo rainscreens and interior partitions, maximal daylighting, abundant southern exposure, natural light diffusion, water collection systems, natural ventilation, and accessible alternative transportation.

Jackson's exterior elevation.

Visible in the elevation above, the rainscreen of darkened bamboo panels gently shelters the side of the building providing diffused light as well as having great cultural relevance embracing the Asian culturally-grounding aspect of the neighborhood.  The presence of the bamboo screen is also visible and tactile in the interior elevation seen below:

Jackson's interior cross-section elevation.

Jackson relies heavily on the cultural connotations of the bamboo screens using this feature for both its sustainable advantages as well as its nod to the symbolism of the region.  His concept relates a fusion of both environmental considerations and historical and cultural reflections.

Student Jodi Hanson also chose to adopt both the historical and the cultural considerations into her project to enhance her design aesthetic.  Visualizing the Cultural Center as a “vertical timeline that is anchored to its place….[and tells] the story of the neighborhood,” Hanson utilized an unfolding concept effectively layering idea remants of people, events, and culture.  Anchoring her structure with a gradual upwardly diminishing terra cotta brick screen, her proposal steps skyward with block-like progression into the cityscape silhouettte solidly achieving a shift in focus from the heaviness of the terra cotta lower floors to a floating sensibility with the addition of glass top floors. Hanson refers to this effect as “growing from the ground to the sky, the experience through diverse vertical space informs the passage through time and a shift in focus from inward to outward.”

Jodi Hanson's Vertical Timeline-inspired structure in situ.

Hanson sees her “disparate layers [as being] imperfect and, at times, unstable, creating drama with which the current community interacts.”  Prior to creating her model and plan, Hanson engaged in an extensive study of the areas history. From this historical perspective, she developed a timeline of events definitive to the region and this helped shape her vision for the Cultural Center:  it had to have “a lot of cultural history,” she said, “and this history had to evolve into other things…into this vertical timeline.”  Hanson saw the history of the neighborhood as “being so much a part of the area” as to be a major influence in forming her urban plan;  she also perceived of the “Chinese Lion gate” as one of the definitive features of this geography.

Hanson's anchoring to surrounding rooflines and materials.

Using the rooflines from the surrounding existing buildings to define the planes of her structure’s first and third floors, Hanson related the new Center to the neighborhood context and the built history of the streets.  The terra cotta cladding she employed as her primary exterior material relates to the predominant use of warm reddish brick tones on the surrounding historical buildings drawing a connection both historically and physically to what already exists and what existed historically.

Hanson's models for Old Town | Chinatown Cultural Center.

Turning her attention to sustainability issues, Hanson incorporated elements into her proposal such as green roofs as outdoor space, and the use of natural light with a mostly transparent north side of the building as well as plentiful use of light boxes, operable windows to aid in ventilation, and access to roof spaces for additional ventilation sources.  Overall, considerations in Hanson’s design and plan draw upon the historical past of the area, a diverse past she lauds as her inspiration to create a built environment at this location that “has a focus on more of a wholistic urban plan” and still retains a sense of closeness to the waterfront and the urban nature of the site.  By linking the sustainable aspect, the connection to the historical context, and the acknowledgement of fused yet distinct cultural influences, Hanson sought to draw upon the past and use this to inform and interact with the present, using the existing surroundings to infuse her project with “the energy that this [idea] produces.”

Post | sabina.  Thank you to the students, Alex, Dan, Jodi and Meagan for speaking with me about their projects and to their instructor, Professor Gast for providing information on the course.

UO students tackle Ankeny/Burnside plan

The issues for moving key elements of the Ankeny/Burnside Development Framework Plan forward created an excellent opportunity for investigation by an urban design studio at the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture.  The studio held its mid-term “pin-up” on Friday, February 4th at the UO Portland Center in the White Stag Building with a series of outside-review critiques.


Emily Pilloton | Design. Build. Transform. Project H

Emily Pilloton | Project H Design and Studio H | image s samiee

On January 28, 2011 the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts Product Design program presented a lecture by Emily Pilloton.  This lecture was made possible by a donation from the Ziba Lecture Fund for Product Design.  Pilloton is the founder and executive director of Project H Design and high school instructor for Studio H in rural North Carolina.  Pilloton came to the UO | Portland | White Stag block to deliver her lecture to a full house of students, faculty and staff, and members of the public.

Trained in architecture at UC Berkeley and product design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pilloton believes in the “process of design beyond what is just the product” and successfully launched Project H to empower communities and encourage the application of design “outside the design bubble to global issues that matter.”  Pilloton’s background includes stints as the former managing editor of Inhabitat.com, prolific writing experience, ties to a native Californian youth, and the claim of being an “unwavering optimist.”  Pilloton has been a pioneer in using design as a process rather than a product, and in being a community catalyst rather than an artifact.  She whole heartedly believes that “smart design coupled with innovative education can change the world.”   She is a Pop Tech social innovation fellow, has spoken at TED, and has appeared on the Colbert Report as well as recently publishing a book on the power of humanitarian design.   Currently, Pilloton is located in Bertie, North Carolina.  Since August 2010, she has been a faculty member of Pitt Community College in Bertie County, NC and teaches “the shop class” at the local high school where she runs the Studio H educational program along with partner, Matthew Miller.

Emily Pilloton speaking at UO | Portland | White Stag Block | Event Room | image s samiee

Designing the curriculum for the high school shop class involved an approach that taught design as critical thinking.  Pilloton recalls that her curriculum progressed as more and more creative and critical with the intent to produce something for the overall community benefit.  The Pilloton-Miller Studio H team asked themselves what the community was lacking and what the community needed to survive.  Their observations of the area led them to identify four key elements that needed to be addressed:  citizenship, creativity, capital and critical thinking skills.  Studio H fully embraced the idea of teaching design as a way to get excited about creative thinking and use this as the impetus towards community development.

Offering to the high school students an opportunity to earn one college credit and a guaranteed job at the school year’s end, Studio H is navigating a group of kids through two semesters of design, engagement and a final building project that will give paid employment.  The implementation of allowing the students to earn one college credit for their work encouraged the young people to participate early in a directed college track for future plans.

Below is a video Pilloton produced about the beginning of Studio H:

While Pilloton spoke of the challenges of bringing her students “from zero to sixty”  with key skills such as using a ruler and basic power tools, she successfully taught her students basic skills with a “boot camp-like” enthusiasm. Imparting the skills necessary to operate a table saw with safety, interpret a planned section and elevation, understand rudimentary color theory, employ safety skills, and have a familiarity with measurement systems and layout compelled the Studio H instructors to be consistently and constantly in tune with their students’ backgrounds and experience and be able to adopt work to mesh with and instruct the students’ abilities and comprehension levels.

Studio H embarked on a series of student-fabricated projects all with an end result of community benefit.  The initial project involved designing and making a Corn Hole board for the simple, colloquial, and locally popular game.  The boards were auctioned off for use in the community.  The second project was to design and build a chicken coop.  The Corn Hole board project introduced students to the graphic design process, how to use tools such as a drill press, and the importance of accuracy.  From this initial experience, students graduated to having two chickens in the classroom as “the client” to observe and to develop ideas that would be used in the design/build process of a coop.  The community of Bertie is economically dependent on  poultry meat production as the sole source of income for the majority of the residents.  Students had rarely seen a chicken as anything but a source of financial gain;  youthful perceptions viewed poultry as animals raised by the tens of thousands in crowded inhumane warehouses and simply for slaughter.   Pilloton challenged her students to “look at the chicken through a different lens” and to see a chicken in one’s backyard as a source of food in the form of fresh eggs and as a living thing to be kept healthy and happy.  For three days the students “observed the client” and watched the chickens to determine their habits, lifestyle and health and well-being needs.


While Henrietta and Jezebelle, the two chickens, gained three architecturally designed coops, the 13 students involved in this project used this experience to develop structures out of reclaimed materials, to understand the confines of working within a strictly defined budget, and to acquire a firsthand knowledge of the power of design and building in tandem.  As Pilloton says, she “pushed [her] students beyond what they knew to be a chicken coop.”  The three coops that were created were ultimately donated to the community:  one stayed at the high school, one went to a family-in-need, and one was installed in a local park.

The next Studio H project slated for building the summer of 2011 is the organization of a farmer’s market and the structure necessary to house this venture.  At this point, the spring semester students are in the research phase travelling to other local farmer’s markets in their region.  Pilloton decided on a farmer’s market as she realized there was a need in this agricultural community for such a venue.  As Pilloton comments, this is a chance to “move design away from being product-driven to be process-driven,” and an opportunity to “focus on the process rather than the product and bring this to a place….”

Watch the discussion here:


As of yet, Pilloton’s “business card,” she says with a smile, reads “High School Shop Teacher” and, as she calls herself the unwavering optimist, she hopes her innovations help “build creative capital and that this becomes more of the norm….”

A quick update on Pilloton’s work with the chicken coops can be viewed at Studio H | Chicken Circus Delivered to the Parker Family, March 14, 2011.

Project H and Studio H| Emily Pilloton | image s samiee

Watch the podcast of Emily Pilloton’s lecture: .


story and photos | sabina samiee | Studio H videos provided courtesy of Emily Pilloton and Studio H