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Curves and collisions: visiting the Eyebrow House

Eyebrow House, design

A recent visit to the Eyebrow House served as proof that first impressions can be misleading. I had just arrived at the Southeast Portland house near Mt. Tabor with the home's architect, Edgar Papazian of Doon Architecture, and at first glance it seemed, while quite striking, to be a bit of a clunky mishmash of an old home and curvy post-'90s design. There was a huge half-oval window on the second floor that was incongruent with the little cottage's perpendicular and triangular forms. A new metal roof was colliding with an existing old shingle roof.

But the more of the project I saw, and the more I got talking to Papazian, the more the Eyebrow House won me over. Papazian and his wife came to Portland two years ago from New York City, where he worked for some of the nation's most acclaimed firms. At Polshek Partnership, he worked on high-profile designs like the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock and the New York Hall of Science. With Japanese firm SANAA and Gensler, he worked on the highly praised New Museum of Contemporary Art. His tenure also included time in the office of César Pelli.

Papazian, who was born in St. Etienne, France and grew up on Long Island, is also a double Ivy Leaguer, earning a bachelor's degree in art-in-architecture from Columbia University and a masters in architecture from Yale University, where he won the Drawing Prize and the James Gamble Rogers Scholarship.

Also while in New York, Papazian, who is of Armenian descent, became acquainted with the leadership of the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial and produced a proposed design. The museum was at the time getting ready to renovate an old classical-revival style bank building in Washington, DC, and Papazian designed a very striking expansion for the museum next door that looked a little bit as if the Hindenburg crashed into the original building.

Architectural collisions are a part of Papazian's design DNA, and they also help explain the Eyebrow House. In the past decade, we've seen a wave of new architecture in Portland, but so much of it at the scale of single-family homes and mixed-use neighborhood condo buildings have been boxy buildings with slatted natural wood. That look can be gorgeous, Papazian says, but he wanted to do something different. And the Eyebrow House's small budget helped drive that ingenuity.

The curve one sees on the front of the Eyebrow House extends inside and throughout the house. Inside, a double-sided bookshelf separating the foyer and kitchen/dining room is curved and fastened to the wall with rivets; the same goes for a living room fireplace. It gives the interior a ship's cabin feel.

The original home had two small bedrooms facing the backyard, which Papazian removed and converted into the new kitchen/dining room. This space also overlooks the back yard through floor to ceiling glass. Papazian also designed a roofed and walled-in deck that cantilevers out from the house and makes for a beautiful and usable indoor-outdoor space. From a sculptural design standpoint, this is my favorite part of the project. Standing in the backyard, the house seems to have been blown wide open like two French doors to let everything - light, air - inside. The back of the house also has a curving half-oval window, which makes the exterior of the project seem more holistically done when you see that the curves are on both sides.

The two second-floor bedrooms each look out through the curving roof, which forms the ceiling of each space. It's corrugated metal, recalling the old Quonset huts of the early to mid-20th Century. Maybe the curving corrugated metal and the curve of the new roof seem strange there, but to be in these rooms, with the light reflecting off the folds of the metal, is a very pleasant experience. The interior is also decorated with several paintings by Papazian's mother, Janet Gasson, an abstract expressionist who has worked from the 1970s and '80s through today. His mother's paintings also seem to provide an influence for Papazian, for her paintings, while abstract, have clear hints of human, anthropomorphic forms.

In that way, I can see the curves he added to this otherwise boxy little house as a way of introducing organic forms to the geometric. It's the same principle that, on a much larger scale, makes Memorial Coliseum special: the juxtaposition of geometric (the glass box) and organic (the curving concrete seating bowl) forms.

And while Papazian is a New York transplant who has only been in the city for two years, something about the Eyebrow House feels very Portland to me, in the same way that the Rebuilding Center does. It's that sense of a building being stitched together with old parts in a way that doesn't even attempt to be spotless but has character to spare. This is a low-budget home renovation that refused to be quiet about it.

Two things that have nothing to do with architecture also helped me appreciate the Eyebrow House. If you look at the drawings of the project, the architect has quietly placed his all-time favorite automobile in the driveway, a late '60s Citroen, a car that looked like no other and largely because of its curvy, sloping form. And inside the house, beside the architecture books and the artwork, are books about Papazian's favorite movie (and mine): Star Wars. The Eyebrow House is a little bit like the Millennium Falcon: certainly not pristine, but attractive precisely for its bolted-together personality and the hutzpah of its owner. And looking out the window of one of the Eyebrow House bedrooms looks a little like the view out the cockpit from Han Solo's ship.

So if you are like me and see that first image of the Eyebrow House with skepticism, don't fool yourself so easily. Have a close look at Papazian's work, because it's far more complex, interesting, and informed than just putting a Quanset roof on an old cottage.

Photos by Brian Libby

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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