UO Architecture Students Design for Haitian Healthcare Clinic REvive Jacmel
Students collaborate with professionals on an interdisciplinary, student-led project to create a new healthcare clinic in Jacmel, Haiti.
This summer 2013 REvive Jacmel, an inderdisciplinary student-led project to create a new healthcare clinic in Jacmel, Haiti, held a competition and subsequent awards reception at the University of Oregon in Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts.
With guidance from Waterleaf Architecture, UO in Portland Department of Architecture students Annie Ledbury and Beth Lavelle organized and coordinated the REvive Jacmel charrette and competition to develop a design for a small general healthcare clinic to be built in the Haitian city of Jacmel, a town continuing to recover from the 2010 earthquake. With direction from Nancy Cheng, UO in Portland Architecture Program director and associate professor, Ledbury and Lavelle, along with UO student Rachel Peterson as research assistant, worked with the project’s instigator, Dr. Michael Workman, a Portland-Vancouver based plastic surgeon.
Workman, Ledbury and Lavelle organized students from UO, the University of Portland and Oregon State University to work collaboratively on the design. Workman is part of RestoreHaiti, a group dedicated to improving healthcare conditions in Haiti. The REvive Jacmel project began as an addition to Workman’s efforts to organize “monthly health care teams [to] bring much needed medicine and staffing to local medical clinics” to improve health care in the region.
On his many volunteer trips to Haiti to administer healthcare, Workman saw the lack of modern medical facilities. He recognized a need for a clinic that could perform dental procedures and major surgeries using general anesthesia . The clinic would have to be approximately 2,500 square feet, fully functional off-grid with only generators for electricity, and otherwise operable with little access to utilities and modern conveniences. It would need to be built by local residents with their knowledge of and ability to construct using local materials and minimal direction.
The idea for the project began when Dale Campbell, member of the Associated General Contractors of America, connected Workman to Waterleaf Architecture’s Dick Aanderud. Workman approached Waterleaf Architecture to see if the firm was interested in partnering in the project. Wanting to integrate students from local universities, Workman reached out to engineering students at the University of Portland and to construction management students at OSU. Waterleaf’s Dick Aanderud (UO architecture alumnus) and Emily Refi (UO architecture alumna and adjunct instructor) felt UO architecture students should be involved as well. Aanderud and Refi approached UO’s Nancy Cheng. Emily Refi explains, “It turned out Dr. Workman and UO felt strongly about having a competition, and the idea to make it interdisciplinary with engineering and construction students teamed with architectural students— just like in the real world—emerged.”
University students in the REvive competition worked with architects at Waterleaf Architecture and engineers at KPFF Consulting Engineers, who are also involved in the project, to further develop their concepts with expert guidance.
At the September 5 competition awards reception held at the University of Oregon in Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts, the student teams presented their entries in the REvive competition.
The four student teams were comprised of:
Melissa March – UO Architecture
Rachel Peterson – UO Architecture
Scott Soukup – UO Architecture
Erik Sasovetz – Residency Physician, Peach Health Southwest Medical Center
Andrew Riley – OSU Construction Management
Sarah Cochenour – OSU Construction Management
Grace Aaraj – UO Architecture
Jackie Davis – UO Architecture
Matt Deraspe – UO Architecture
Adam Lawler – UO Architecture
Tim Niou – UO Architecture
Daniel Freitas – OSU Construction Management
Eli Rosenwasser – UO Architecture
Sermin Yesilada – UO Architecture
Mary Kate Cullinane – UP Engineering
Jeff Nakashima – OSU Construction Management
Brady Webster – OSU Construction Management
After the jury members deliberated and the assembled crowd had a chance to vote for People’s Choice, the team awarded Best Overall, Most Constructable Scheme and People’s Choice, was Grace Aaraj, Jackie Davis, and Matt Deraspe—all University of Oregon students.
Commenting on the projects, Workman noted that he was “amazed at both the quality of work-product and flawless follow-thru by all the students. If this is what the next generation has to offer we are indeed in good hands.”
Discussing her team’s winning concept and collaboration, Jackie Davis said,
I am thrilled to be working on the Haiti project with such a great team. Having both enthusiastic students and professional advisers in all the fields working together on the project is making for a very exciting learning experience.
From the designs submitted by each team, the best ideas will be further examined and selected by competition jurors and will be translated into construction documents in fall 2013 by students who will work closely with Waterleaf Architecture and KPFF. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in December 2013. Students Grace Aaraj, Jackie Davis and Annie Ledbury are confirmed to be contining with the project as it continues under the direction of Waterleaf Architects this fall and winter (2013-2014).
Davis continued saying,
Having our design chosen to get built was fulfilling in and of itself, but to now getting to see it through to the finish is an opportunity unlike any other in graduate school. It’ll be a steep learning curve with the tight schedule but I’m so happy to see things making progress for this great cause.
Davis’ team partner, Grace Aaraj was enthusiastic to point out the vast scope of the collaboration and the humanitarian goals of the project:
For the winning design, it is like a dream coming true: to be able to design a building, win a competition and then join a firm with a lot of professionals to help you develop it further and make it come to life.
On a similar note, it means a lot to me to be part of this project since it targets directly a daily life and real situation problem. In my conviction, architecture like any other art or science (in fact, architecture is a symbiosis of both) should serve people. It was a fresh experience to stay away from any autobiographical move in the project, go back to basics and use the same language ( materials, needs, colors, traditions) of the locals in Jacmel. I hope the project will be really built, and I will be able to see it one day, and maybe volunteer in Jacmel as well.
The partners in the REvive Jacmel project include Workman, UO in Portland Department of Architecture, University of Portland Shiley School of Engineering, Oregon State University School of Civil and Construction Engineering Construction Engineering Management, Waterleaf Architecture, KPFF Consulting Engineers and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Oregon Columbia Chapter.
Workman, who deserves significant credit for a large part of the success of this project, remarked after the review process that the “collaboration between OSU, UO, UP and architectural/ engineering professionals [was] excellent.” Workman further noted that “The creative idea’s generated by all 4 teams was extremely impressive. They were able to both think outside the box, and to deal with the multiple issues involved in building a medical clinic in a third world setting.”
The following are comments from Grace Aaraj, who writes from a personal perspective on the project and the process, on the logistics between collaborating between time zones in her homeland of Beirut and Portland, bridging cultural understandings and asking the right questions…
I think the most important thing I learnt is how to design this real project, for real people in time of crisis. In architecture school we are usually limited to site constraints or specific clients’ needs provided to us through discussions with professors and students.
In Jacmel’s case, we knew so little about the site and the people. Google earth didn’t help so we extended our research to documentaries, talking to people and a kind of “role player” where we almost close our eyes and imagine to be a citizen there:
What will we need?
What would make us feel safe and cared for?
What is life like before the earthquake? How is life after it?
It was more like a recipe where we must fulfill functional requirements, and be “limited” to the local materials and craftsmanship. Towards the end we learned that we were not “limited” by these factors, rather INSPIRED: this is when Jackie, my teammate and I, were able to liberate our design and include interactive community spaces, shaded outdoors and backyard (etc…) using only local resources. We used the site disadvantage to create a prototype that could be adapted to sites with different slopes or orientation, not only for Jacmel, but possibly for other places.
We were very limited in time , Jackie and I, since I was in Tokyo for 2 weeks and then i came to Beirut and Dubai. So we managed to invest our time to the best use. We were very communicative and we tried forgetting about deadlines or stress. We would take walks, talk to people and watch documentaries.
All the decisions were taken before I came to Beirut. For the last week, we would work online and share files on Dropbox. It was very interesting to work with a 10 hours difference. It was also very rewarding to sleep, wake up and find the other person’s work on the shared folder. The synchronization was a big incentive for us to work.
Jody Mohney Pene, IIDA, LEED AP | Forty Years : Looking Back and Looking Forward
I was very honored to have Gunilla Finrow, for whom the lecture series is named, come down from Seattle to attend my lecture. And pleased also to have many colleagues, students and friends both from the university and from the Portland community attending. Some of which were from GBD Architects and team members on many of the projects I presented. It was nice to be able to share the highlights of my career with both old and new acquaintances.
Associate professor Alison Snyder from the UO AAA Department of Architecture introduced Pene, commending the visiting professor on a long and varied career that involved significant commercial and graphic design work and color expertise. Snyder remarked favorably on the opportunity to have Pene deliver her lecture both in Eugene (November 7, 2012) and in Portland; noting that it is a privilege to be able to “bring what we do in Eugene outside of Eugene to Portland and beyond—being seen and heard in places farther away” and to have the ability to provide lectures of this content and calibre to an interested community and metropolitan audience, such as that in Portland.Pene, in addition to her visiting professorship, is also on the UO AAA Board of Visitors. Professor Snyder thanked Pene for her ongoing and multi-tiered involvement with the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts.
Beginning by illuminating her design philosophy, Pene spoke of several key factors that have played a major role in her career: the need for having a strong concept, recognizing an individual culture and goals, and being able to identify the appropriate environment of the business or client—these factors merge together in the creation of a project solution that is unique to each design venture.
Pene graduated from the University of Oregon in 1972 with a bachelor of interior architecture. She immediately moved into her professional career relocating to Pittsburgh to work in graphic arts and interior design. At this early juncture, she found value in working with a team-based approach and discerned significant demand for her skills in signage and graphic design. In the 1970s, Pene relied on her, what she calls “old fashioned” handcrafting skills of drawing everything by hand and using tools such as pastels and pencil to convey ideas.
It was early in her UO studies and work career that Pene discovered her great love of “color and the play of patterns.” Calling upon this interest and her ability to bring together meaningful and attractive explorations of color and pattern once in a professional context, Pene’s career blossomed. She returned to the West Coast in the late 1970s to begin work with two highly significant Oregon architectural firms, Boora Architects (1978-1984) and GBD Architects Incorporated (1984-2010) where she held the position of principal for sixteen years and the principal-in-charge of interior design for twelve of those years.
Pene spoke of realizing the importance of collaboration in projects and of working with the entire team to create a strong concept. While her expertise would lie in the designing of the color palette and graphic arts component of the project, she consistently realized that it was vital everyone in the firm work together to pull the project together to create something remarkable.
Pene feels a pinnacle of her career came with her work on the renovation of Portland, Oregon’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Here she worked on the interior to come up with fifty-four new colors that would accentuate the Italian Renaissance details and inform the aesthetic of the greater interior. Everything from overall carpet patterns and specific border patterns, to the overall interior design concept complete with soaring theatrical spaces culminates to present a space of intricate detail and graciously considerate historical appreciation. It became a space uniquely suited to its culturally-grounded purpose.
During her lecture, Pene discussed her range of work incorporating independent interior projects such as those at elegant Portland accounting firms and law offices. Pene recalls that she remained true to her own design philosophy whether designing way-finding signage for a stadium or the exclusive interior of a highly prestigious law firm: the importance of designing to the individual personality of the firm or the business always remained at the forefront.
As time passed and her career continued, Pene began to realize changes in the field and practical changes in the greater societal situation that would have consequences for how she worked and what she designed. In the early 2000s, Pene saw a shift in how people would relate to a building and how the interior design could be used to create spaces conducive to stimulating creativity. The design work at Wieden + Kennedy’s Dekum Building illustrated to her how a more casual building “painted white and with playful sculptural forms” could be used to encourage innovation and creative work.
This was a change Pene had seen emerging about a decade earlier. As the 1990s had progressed, she noticed that there was a transition occurring from traditional design to design that was more responsive to change and to the creation of warmth in spaces –spaces that could foster person-to-person interaction, collaboration, and conversation.
The future of design, says Pene, was venturing into the realm of exploring flexibility and adaptability in the workplace. This new approach embraced the concept of an open office that can be re-configured to contribute more effectively and cooperatively to a collaborative workforce. Some of the initial big businesses to adopt this free and flexible design philosophy were places like Wieden + Kennedy, Columbia Sportswear, and Nike. Pene’s design theory, readily adopted by the aforementioned clients, forged ahead creating spaces that affirmed creativity while retaining corporate identity.
By establishing connections to the corporate ethos and maintaining strong ties to the sense of a unified whole or corporate campus, Pene was able to design spaces that respond to a human element, are comfortably sociable, and encouraging to innovative thought. In addition to being sensitive to place and her understanding of the humanistic component, throughout her career, Pene advocated for a palette of materials as well as colors that would allow a positive psychological emotional response, physically provide a comfortable space, and energize inventive behavior. Sometimes inspired by “aesthetically unconventional interiors,” Pene spoke of the ability of a space to encourage or foster creativity and innovation.
As changes occurred in the economy and global marketplace, Pene traced progressions in the way designs changed for her clients. Developments in environmental considerations brought new products and the desire for sustainable materials. Pene saw opportunities to integrate the newly renovated spaces of previously industrial buildings into simple and contemporary spaces blending the existing exposed structural elements as a beautiful, raw part of the entire concept. Patina-coated steel columns would become exposed, a testimony of history and permanence and be combined with a new concrete structure to produce a relaxed and informal atmosphere encouraging teamwork. [Such as with GBD’s new Pearl District building.]
These innovative design principles intentionally promoted client and staff intermingling which was a distinct shift from the decades previous where offices might be cubicle-style, isolated or closed off to integration and interaction with others. Pene explained the changes in the nation’s economy and the world led to a more competitive global economy. This, in turn, brought about another change in the needs of corporate and office design: with the new digital age was the demise of the on-site printed book or need for prodigious library-like rooms in design projects for law firms. Instead, research could now be done online, at desks with computers in shared spaces and more open places.
Another change, altered the ubiquitous conference room. Communication was more electronic and conference centers could have multi-purposes with the invention of privacy screens and glass (technological innovations that changed the needs of the space). With economic and financial considerations in mind, saving money and cutting costs was a definite concern, too. Consequently, only one floor needed to receive and be open to the public thus decreasing overhead costs. Spaces were becoming lighter and brighter. People were to be encouraged to work together, to create in a more warm and welcoming environment and to realize to potential of shared spaces and daily interaction.
Pene highlighted development of trends we might consider commonplace today: the on-site workplace cafe and simple, social gathering spaces. Both of these concepts encourage on-site lingering collaboration, conversations and teamwork. People stay together longer, have more conversations and work gets done leading to greater productivity and the exchange of ideas. Even the advent of more modular furniture in the workplace allows for more space and more efficiency letting departments grow and shrink, use space and easy-to-move furniture as needed, and be more flexible to the needs of people.
The interior designer described how previously high-end law offices began to transition to interior spaces that were “home-like in quality” rather than strictly formal, dark and heavy. Pene associates these specific developments with creating spaces that let people “linger, relate, converse, and exchange ideas.”
Summing up her recent projects with slides of the Meriwether towers on Portland’s South Waterfront and the Center for Health and Healing (OHSU), Pene discussed her continued exploration into a design philosophy that creates a “living room feel.” At the Health and Healing center, Pene designed an interior that was restorative and innovative while being LEED Platinum: she was stunningly successful. She spoke of her work with Camera World and how she limited the palette there to mirror the products relying on black, silver, and nods to technology as a overall theme.
With a full and productive career, Pene now plans to continue semi-retirement sharing her time between Oregon and her beloved home in Montone, Italy where she finds pleasure in photographing and drawing the fields and farmland. This rural Italian paradise provides Pene with plenty of time to discover history, art, architecture and landscape…..and she continues to enjoy depicting her environment (by hand) in pastel, appreciating and being “enthralled by the seasons, the colors, the patterns.”
Pene showed a series of her photographs and pastels: a collection of images including poppy fields, mustard fields, a field of onions in bloom, sunflowers, an olive orchard. She spoke with great affection for the natural and agricultural environment that surrounds her in Italy and explained the “sense of revealing, in color and texture and shape, the potential of light and shadow, the symmetry and order, the curve and line, even in a random, eclectic pattern of blooming poppies in a field.”
As she looks towards a future well-immersed in the things she loves and still active in a field she has made great contributions to, Pene noted that with her recent experience at the University of Oregon as an instructor, she has now discovered a new interest: teaching and working with students. She would like to teach abroad in Italy to exchange students traveling there for the first time. Her career, she says, has allowed her to see the importance of international study to enhance the forward progression of one’s design ability and knowledge, reviatlizing creativity and bringing fresh perspectives. She encourages all students to step into the international sphere of educational experience to ignite their creativity and expand their reference. And, even in an age of digital dominance, students, she recommends, still need to learn to draw by hand.
Regarding her own continual exploration of trends, and innovative design thinking, Pene says she relies on her photography, her sketching and various sources of media to help inform and expand her knowledge and bring inspiration. She also gratefully acknowledges her frequent world traveling and attendance at fairs such as the The Milan Furniture Fair (Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano) and NeoCan Chicago as key in continuing to fuel her creative energy and staying appraised, or even ahead, of trends. Keeping in touch with the pulse of the contemporary design field is further accomplished, she says, by reading a plethora of online sources and publications.
A current that continually flows through Pene’s design work and consistently infuses her ability to design meaningful, thoughtful and yet dramatic and captivating interiors, is her understanding of the importance of collaboration on her projects. While she acknowledges the design community has changed over her forty year career, she cites how important her graphic design experience has been in assisting her creative work from the beginning. There is “a strength and a clarity” to projects today, she remarked, to the way people work together which she finds quite beneficial and refreshing. Being conscious of patterns and color, and tying a project together by identifying what is required to accomplish the specific goals remains the main objective of Pene’s work ethic. She emphasized the interaction between all involved, but overall, it is the sense of collaboration that is the sine qua non of every project.
Remarking on the tremendous changes in the design field, both in approach and materials that has taken place during the last four decades, Pene recalled that as trends emerge, and change is inevitable, the observation of what is needed, and wanted and being able to adapt that to a design is a vitally important aspect of any project.
The years have defined a gradual progression in her work projects—projects that moved from the creation of formal spaces to the innovative and imaginative formulation of casual spaces. And along with this inventive approach to the workplace, human, and space interaction, Pene has seen that letting people be comfortable encourages interaction, bringing about more creative and worthwhile production, and, in the end, making a more successful product.
Picnic at The Shire was a benefit to raise funds for the Yeon Center at the University of Oregon. The Yeon Center owns The Shire in addition to Yeon’s Portland-located Watzek House, and Cottrell House. After Yeon died in 1994, The Shire was donated in 1995 by the John Yeon Trust, the Watzek House the same year by Richard Louis Brown, and the Cottrell House in 2008 from the Cottrell family. The University of Oregon took full responsibility for the Watzek House in 2010. Yeon Center director, Robert Melnick notes,
“The Yeon Center provides a great opportunity for students and the general public to understand not only John Yeon’s extraordinary work, but the importance of regionalism is design. John’s work – whether in architecture, landscape design, environmental activism, and furniture making – was inextricably tied to the Pacific Northwest. He understood the essential integration of those efforts.”
Melnick goes on to illuminate the responsibilities and role of the Yeon Center,
“The properties under the responsibility of the Yeon Center provide us with a unique opportunity to practice the best preservation efforts, and to teach those to our students. At times, this includes long-range preservation and conservation planning, while at other times it requires immediate responses to pressing problems that any homeowner or property owner might have, such as minor leaks, or plumbing or heating issues. Our goal is to complete these projects using the very best and very latest preservation principles and practices, thereby ensuring protection of the properties for generations to come. It is truly an honor to be able to care for such remarkable and important places.”
Tours of The Shire were held throughout the mid-July weekend. Together with the tours, Picnic at The Shire was a collaboration between Randy Gragg’s Portland Monthly magazine and University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts. In a generous gesture of support and collaboration, Portland Monthly and Randy Gragg are donating all proceeds from the weekend to the Yeon Center.
Frances Bronet, Dean of the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts responded to this collaboration observing,
The Yeon Center can be seen as a leader connecting those extraordinary visceral experiences specific to the Pacific Northwest, and epitomized by Yeon’s work…connecting elements of the built and transforming environment. Taking on both Robert Melnick’s and Randy Gragg’s charge to both steward the intersection of landscape and building, as well as inspire a seamlessness of beauty and ecological care.
When asked to comment on the collaboration, Melnick expressed gratitude to Gragg and the Portland Monthly connection.
“Portland Monthly, and especially it’s editor-in-chief Randy Gragg, have been great supporters of the Yeon Center’s efforts to expand the knowledge and appreciation of John Yeon’s pioneering effort, both at the Watzek House and The Shire.” Melnick continued, “Randy has been especially generous with his ideas and initiatives.”
What follows is the story of the event, a glimpse into what was a truly amazing evening. 18th century poet, William Mason wrote several works about the wonder of the English landscape garden and was influential in advancing the idea of the picturesque in a landscape. His sonnet below begins our discussion of Yeon’s Shire, as it sets the stage for our foray into a landscape design philosophy that is both “liberal though limited, restrained though free.”
Smooth, simple path! Whose undulating line,
With sidelong tuffs of flowery fragrance crowned,
“Plain, in its neatness,” spans my garden ground;
What, through two acres they brief course confine,
Yet sun and shade, and hill and dale are thine,
And use with beauty here more surely found,
Than where, to spread the picturesque around,
Cart ruts and quarry holes their charms combine!
Here, as thou leads’t my step through lawn or grove,
Liberal though limited, restrained though free,
Fearless of dew, or dirt, or dust, I rove
And own those comforts all derived from thee!
Take then, smooth path, this tribute of my love,
Thou emblem of pure legal liberty!
— A sonnet by William Mason, from The Oxford Book of Garden Verse, reprinted in Perspectives on Garden Histories
The July 15th mid-summer afternoon spread out upon John Yeon’s Shire with a myriad of weather possibilities. Glorious Gorge sunshine was tempered by billowly, smoke-gray clouds reaching into shades of navy, while a soft breeze blew that anyone with Gorge-savvy knows could switch to gale force in minutes. Roughly a half hour drive eastward on Highway 14 out of Washougal, Washington, The Shire is carefully tucked away behind a screen of thick forest and a lone, single bar metal gate. This modest entry draws you down a path-like driveway that winds its way brushing by lush bracken, below cathedral canopies of tree foliage, and along surprise reveals of capricious meadows, streams and ponds. Anticipation for what awaits builds. This suspense yields to curiosity as the driveway, with a Gorge-like windy rush, gives way to an expansive lay of grass, an elevated horizontal berm. In almost art historical text-book form, and in a brilliantly planned moment of design genius, a ground line is formed by the top of this berm catching Multnomah Falls, a small perpendicular vision far away across the Columbia. Walking to the top of this knoll and captivated by the view, remembrances of English poet William Mason’s “one ample theatre of sylvan grace” (English Garden: A Poem in Four Books, Book 1, line 548, 1786) comes to mind, an essential feature of the 18th century English landscape garden. Into this autochthonous scene (a term used to describe indigenous aspects of the 18th century English landscape garden), The Shire is a landscape garden furnished with countless features of a natural landscape only one of which is this first introduction to the theater. The “amphitheater” [from Gragg’s Portland Monthly article, The Long View] is an en plein air setting, a strappingly thick arc of land inviting the river to smoothly swirl in and approach visitors. This is your first indication that The Shire will unfold like a painting, gloriously saturated with Arcadian charm, a place where reality and the ideal seamlessly blend.
This afternoon, The Shire looked nothing short of basking in promise—freshly primped and trimmed. I arrived expecting greatness, and was greeted by Randy Gragg, co-host of the Picnic; I was also welcomed by a bustling staff from the Art of Catering who were fully mobilizing to create the fabulous evening meal. Bouquets of fresh flowers, bottles of uncorked wine, and the epicurean smells of what lay ahead made it clear no stone had been left unturned, this was definitely about to be an extraordinary event.
Gragg wandered off to, as he put it, “get reacquainted” with nearby recently mowed walks and I got the distinct feeling he was in a nostalgic mood eager to enjoy a landscape that to him was like an old, dear friend. Somewhat pleased at being left alone, I turned my attention to the swelling knoll of green laid out before me.
Under the afternoon’s tenuous skies, presided over by Washington’s craggy south-facing basalt-striated precipice and Oregon’s north-facing Gorge cliffs down which cascade the misty Multnomah Falls, a bashful Bridal Veil Falls and delicate wispy of a falls with a name I do not know, sits The Shire. As a landscape, The Shire appears quiet, calm and self-assured. Its prominent features available to explore via politely trimmed paths and a kind consideration to all blooming plants. Equal prominence is given to the lace cap baby blue hydrangea as is to the wild sprawling hot pink sweet peas. Every growing thing has space to express an individual beauty. The prevalent sense was that Yeon had an appreciation for nature’s habit of embracing variety, excess, and a lovely sense of balanced disorder.
The curving composure of The Shire’s most prominent feature, that gorgeous arcing riverbank lies almost as if in wait, comfortably content to be rediscovered, to be appreciated for its languishing splendor. This was four o’clock in the afternoon. Within the next hour and as the sun played with the idea of appearing and disappearing, about 70 guests, would arrive to converge on this pristine riverbank and experience The Shire, many discovering this place for the first time.
There is an important heritage to The Shire site that helped propel guests to attend the exclusive event. Gragg describes it as “the heritage of everyone who enjoys the Gorge.” Taking his cue from the women of the Portland Garden Club who originally gathered for the first Yeon picnics at The Shire in the 1980s (organized to garner support for the Columbia River Gorge environment), Gragg conceived the idea of the Picnic event and initiated the attendance of seven of those original PGC women who had been part of that first “Committee to Save The Columbia River Gorge.” Gragg comments, “it’s imperative to bring these kinds of histories to life….in a phrase, [Picnic at The Shire] was a celebration of elders.” It had been these women supporters who two decades ago would come to play a key role in ensuring the Gorge would thrive. Gragg describes this group of conservation activists as, “the proto-version of Friends of the Columbia River Gorge.” This afternoon, Mary Bishop, Susan Bodin, Nancy Frisch, Betsy Smith, Marie Hall, Dottie Schoonmaker and Pat Wall were the esteemed seven. Their participation substantially enriched the evening’s conversation.
With the guests having arrived, we turned all attention to our guides, Randy Gragg and Hannah Bryant, current Yeon Center graduate teaching fellow. I was allocated to Gragg’s group and so we moved in the direction of the setting sun finding ourselves on a path that ended with a curving tree branch right at eye level and a surprising view directly behind of the river, a yellow floating bridge and a creek gurgling into the vast Columbia. We were introduced in that very moment to Yeon’s captivating penchant for ‘garden folly’….and as the group collectively became mesmerized by this clever manipulation of our view, Gragg began to enlighten us.
Gragg explained Yeon’s sensitive touch that brought to the landscape a sense of the “inverted picturesque” and a wistful “nostalgia.” Experimental in carefully and subtly diverting streams to create creekside walks that culminate in viewpoints, Yeon has given us a place to pause and notice the natural: places Gragg refers to as “the follies,” reminiscent of the term “folly” as it applies to a traditional English landscape garden, a feature within the landscape used primarily for decoration. At The Shire Yeon shaped the land with less-than-delicate tools, a bulldozer, a chainsaw, adding plantings along the way. But even with these machines of modernity and ruggedness, Yeon’s vision created a picturesque landscape and elevated natural, not architectural, features to the status of folly.
Each thoughtfully crafted peek of waterfall or framed vista of landscape, is an “ode to the Gorge,” continued Gragg. In other words, this is a garden where each view confides an aspect of enlightenment and wisdom. If we are to examine The Shire as Yeon intended, we need to look at this, suggests Gragg, as “a metaphor for how Yeon thought the Gorge should be treated.” Gragg gently prompted us to see in these crafted spaces, open to the sky, a testimony and appeal for the care and consideration Yeon so desperately longed to happen for all the Gorge. Yeon’s mission, Gragg pointed out, was to ask Portlanders, and beyond, to think about the landscape as a canvas that if painted upon needed to be done so with great consideration and thought for both what would be changed and what would remain untouched.
Gragg continued explaining Yeon’s theory: “if you are going to touch the land at all you need to design it.” Yeon’s great aspiration for his Shire was for this landscape and the Gorge to be a national park. But this dream proved quixotic as Gragg touched upon: the Washington side of the river would remain more about industry not environmental preservation.
As our little group walked, commented, and wondered aloud, Gragg talked, encouraging and responding to individual questions with the knowledge and expertise given to him by his connection to the designer and years spent lecturing and writing about Yeon. Gragg painted a vivid picture of Yeon, the consummate gentleman, intellectual, handsome, with piercing blue eyes, a striking figure. The vision was one of the slightly eccentric, English country squire-like, educated, creative, outspoken but reserved, appreciative of his surroundings, an arts and culture partisan able to appreciate the unusual as well as the commonplace; and to embrace both Western and Eastern cultures, (Yeon called the Columbia River Gorge “my Chinese landscape”).
With a new understanding of the person that was Yeon, Gragg prompted us to move on to new discoveries in the landscape. Stopping at a small meadow, Gragg gestured to the flaxen colored grasses and turned to address Yeon’s design aesthetic. “See,” Gragg explained, “Yeon’s design was very much about compression and release.” First, we are suppressed by a Tolkien-like forest-winding walk heavy with trees overhead and dark with overhanging foliage, and restricted light; then we are liberated by a flowing meadow expansive in all directions. As a comprehensive work of art, The Shire shows a sense of liberty balanced by a sense of restraint; perhaps providing a moral stage as if to lecture on the story of preservation and conservation.
Gragg concluded his tour by leading the group into yet another meadow, this time we stood expectantly ready to admire the beauty of the simple, vegetation-surrounded, circular meadow. But, in customary Yeon form, we should have realized there would be so much more. Gragg said to us, “Now if you would all turn around,” he cast his gaze behind us. Turning to the south, we saw a well-trimmed, tall and precariously narrow key-hole parting of the trees revealing a perfect view of Multnomah Falls clear across the river—a long view to the Oregon side of things and an insightful opening up of the possibilities and relationship between both sides of the river. Showing us this snipet of perfection, the last piece of The Shire completed in 1989, Gragg quietly declared, with a nostalgic smile, “The folly is the falls.” And as numerous smartphone cameras were raised by their holders in silent capture of this last meaningful drama of The Shire, we were confronted with the realization that this precious resource is fragile, in constant need of well-planned maintenance and care if Yeon’s painterly vision is to be sustained. Indeed, it befalls upon us as guardians of our great Northwest environment to recognize Yeon’s contribution and keep it as he would have wished, as he was the ultimate caretaker with purely selfless visions for the Gorge. Yeon was instrumental in forming this priceless painting of his Columbia River hideaway, it is has been trusted to the Yeon Center to preserve and protect.
I discussed future of The Shire with a few of the original garden club women looking to discover their thoughts about the landscape. Some remembered it differently than it was today. Having picnicked in this landscape years ago and having a sense of the nostalgia for the place, the original group expressed great affection for the memory of Yeon’s touch on the landscape. Yeon’s own keen aesthetic sense guided the clipping, pruning, and cutting that cultivated this place and that might be lost forever without listening to those who have experienced this place in its prime. One woman commented with a bit of melancholy, that she recalled how Yeon used to mow the grass so as to produce a beautiful woven pattern in the cut lines. She hoped this would be remembered and done again; it was the little details that seemed to matter the most in the memories of The Shire’s early days.
Our evening wound down while the river played catch-up with the sea, the sun played hide-and-seek with a heavenly cumulus, and a few drops of rain nourished The Shire’s flora and fauna. The privileged guests of the first Picnic at The Shire, 2012 sat down to dinner at white-clad tables, the clink of cutlery and dishes, and the warm tones of content conversation filling the balmy evening.
As guests enjoyed the beautiful meal, merely across the river, and barely audible on The Shire side, the hum of summer traffic on I-84 was an inescapable reminder of the fight Yeon had led to transform the highway department’s planned straight, rigid road to curve and flow with the contours of the river, being ever respectful to the existing river path. Due to Yeon’s efforts, the road that exists today is much more sensitive to the river’s countless years’ journey carving out a path of least resistance.
Part of Yeon’s vast creative genius lies in his acute awareness of what it takes to get us to stop and notice a simple framing of a scene that reveals information about a place. The Shire’s vistas of far-off waterfalls, panoramas of meadows, hobbit-like wanderings through lushly mysterious forest—these are all features shown to us in enchanting ways, the “follies” of Yeon’s landscape. When you visit The Shire these vistas of pure brilliance and escape are, like Gragg so aptly describes, a landscape of “compression and release” with focal points designed to inform. The Shire is where Yeon in his craft and artful ways, with great enlightenment but never missing the drama and the magnificence, and like William Mason’s garden sonnet, always “liberal though limited, restrained though free” shows us just how great this place is. The Shire is one of our region’s finest treasures, a garden, “the purest of human pleasures; ….the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man.” [William Mason, English Garden: A Poem. In Four Books, 1786].
Taking the quips and conversation overheard from the original seven supporters, the Shire, might even be said to have offered similar enchanting sights and smells on the July 15 Picnic that it had each day, of each season since 1989—just enough to evoke the nostalgic conversations of the garden club ladies, and, indeed, that of our tour guide as well. Yeon was an impeccable expert on this tutelage of the natural, and sensitivity to the environment. So beautifully does he guide us to awareness, compassionately revealing that sometimes nature has to be sculpted, crafted, or framed in such a way as to be put on display. The Shire is a sanctuary of crescent river banks, flourishing meadows, meandering footpaths and charming reminders of how to appreciate the magnificence of nature. Into this landscape, Yeon’s legacy seems carried on the winds of the Gorge, with the potential to be either fleeting or strong and steady. We can wonder how it used to be those 20+ years ago when Yeon invited his first, and perhaps most influential guest, Nancy Russell to the evening picnic that launched a wave of conservation effort [read about Yeon’s connection to Nancy Russell and his Columbia Gorge preservation efforts in The Long View]. Does the river smell the same wet, sweet earthen? Did the ospreys glide overhead on river drafts? Did similar soft breezes explore the Gorge’s craggy cliffs and the same robust green of freshly cut grass infuse the air? The same grasses growing that once supported the Persian rugs laid down to comfort Yeon and his picnic guests? Were the liberating spaces in the trimmed trees as wide, as long, or perhaps even more revealing? What can we do to ensure this places thrives yet remains true to Yeon’s vision? With the existence of the Yeon Center, we have the ability to recreate, or as Gragg encourages, to revive the Yeon aesthetic and keep it pristine. I asked Gragg to comment on the need to plan, preserve and protect The Shire and the existence of the Yeon Center as a vehicle to make that happen. Gragg said,
“The Yeon Center is very much a work in progress. Robert Melnick did a great job of landing the properties, figuring out how the university could be stewards, and getting the Watzek House listed as a National Historic Landmark. Programming is the obvious next step. I think there are two questions: how does it enrich the university community and AAA’s pedagogy? But also how can it inspire the region? Every fiber of John Yeon’s will was devoted to designing and advocating for Oregon’s beauty and sustainability—two words that, to him, were synonymous. That seems like a mighty fine mission statement for some organization because, right now, none exists. Maybe its the Yeon Center.”
The University of Oregon’s Yeon Center has in Professor Melnick and Randy Gragg invaluable resources and champions of all things Yeon. As Dean Frances Bronet commented, the Yeon Center “[takes] on both Robert Melnick’s and Randy Gragg’s charge to both steward the intersection of landscape and building, as well as inspire a seamlessness of beauty and ecological care.” Through the Yeon Center, both Melnick and Gragg have made a significant difference in educating the public and academically oriented university students about Yeon’s legacy and have successfully worked to keep this highly creative design genius in an Oregon, and, indeed national spotlight.
During his years as an art and architectural critic and, now as Portland Monthly editor-in-chief, Gragg has magnanimously devoted great quantities of ink to championing Yeon as an icon of the Northwest designed environment. In seeking to open our eyes to Yeon’s design philosophy and aesthetic, Gragg effectively has helped to preserve and promote key Yeon spaces and places consistently reminding his audience that Yeon has had an incredible positive impact on our region that can continue if we are educated of Yeon’s work and legacy. Gragg met Yeon in 1992, visiting both The Shire and the Watzek house with Yeon as his tour guide and confidante. The respect and admiration Gragg feels for Yeon and the understanding he has for Yeon’s design aesthetic is nothing short of impressive and translates well in Gragg’s lectures, writings and, indeed, heartfelt remembrances of Yeon, both in general fact and anecdotal detail. Perhaps a meeting of mutual admiration, the Yeon and Gragg camaraderie established in those early visits, seems destined to help preserve Yeon’s fundamental greatness and lasting heritage. In Gragg, Yeon would connect with an empathetic and attentive listener and gain the attention of someone passionately devoted to sustaining and understanding Yeon’s significant contributions to the Northwest region. Gragg comments about his initial 1992 meeting with Yeon and his involvement with the Yeon Center,
“I became fascinated with [Yeon’s] work and story—and increasingly over the years with his lesser-known early work in planning and his life-long behind-the-scenes advocacy for landscape design and historic preservation. I’ve written and lectured about him numerous times over the years. I served on advisory board to the Yeon centers at UO for two years.”
Well-connected and well-informed, Randy Gragg is in a springboard position to advocate, promote, and educate, not to mention connect and network for topics he feels are of relevance to this region. With his commanding post at Portland Monthly, and with the significant distribution of the magazine to an enthusiastic and receptive audience, Gragg found he could truly make a difference in providing information about our history, our icons, our places, and our community. Appreciating this opportunity and with a willing publisher, Gragg realized an occasion to offer to partner with the University of Oregon to help benefit the Yeon Center and bring his passion for Yeon advocacy to a broader audience. It would be a collaboration that would educate his PM readers about something truly special in their environment, something of great relevance to Gragg, himself, and help solidify the well-deserved place of Yeon in Northwest history and culture, not to mention financially benefit the Yeon Center, all Picnic proceeds going to the center. The UO Portland Monthly collaboration has helped to increase knowledge and awareness of Yeon’s work and reached out to embrace an hospitable, and new, perhaps younger audience. It was by no means a coincidence that the Picnic event arrived shortly after Portland Monthly released an issue focused on the Columbia Gorge featuring an article written by Gragg on John Yeon and specifically addressing The Shire, (see The Long View).
As Gragg explains,
“When we have opportunities, I like to extend [Portland Monthly’s] content into the world by inviting people to experience the places we write about. What better match to a cover-feature on the Columbia Gorge and the role the Shire played in its preservation than tours and a dinner at the Shire!”
I asked Robert Melnick to offer a comment on the Yeon Center as a closing to this post looking both to the future and to the past, and in the words of Randy Gragg, across the river to the long view:
“The dinner on July 15 was just one example of the work of the Yeon Center. The Center has a primary responsibility to protect and preserve the Watzek House, The Shire and the Cottrell House, but also to educate others about these remarkable designs. We do this first at the University of Oregon, for students studying architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture, product design, art, and historic preservation, through tours, lectures and publications. We also open the Watzek House and The Shire to public tours, through which interested professionals and the general public can fully understand and appreciate this work.
[The author expresses many sincere thanks to Randy Gragg for his insightful tour of The Shire and his comments for this post, and to Robert Melnick; as well as to Portland Monthly staff and the UO AAA for her seat at the Picnic at The Shire table.]
About Randy Gragg: For over a decade Gragg wrote on architecture for the Oregonian before becoming editor in chief of Portland Monthly. A 2005-06 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, he has long championed Yeon’s place in Northwest history: as an architect, but also as a historic preservationist, a conservationist, and one of the primary players in the protection of the Columbia Gorge.
About Robert Melnick: Professor Melnick is the first director of the Yeon centers. He was dean of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts from 1994-2005 and was responsible for securing the donation of the Yeon properties and its endowment for the school. Melnick is a nationally respected expert on cultural landscapes and preservation issues. He has been on the UO faculty since 1982.
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