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"Builderly modern": visiting the 1310 Condominiums

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Last October the little-known 1310 Condominiums by Brett Crawford and Dana Ing Crawford won the Honor Award at this year’s AIA/Portland design awards. The Honor is the top prize, one of two given out along with Allied Works’ Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. The 1310 project, which has five units total (four with one bedroom apiece at 590 square feet and one two-bedroom unit at 930 square feet), also won the AIA’s Sustainability Award. (AIA/Portland is also a sponsor of this site.)

Not long after the awards, I made the short walk across Hawthorne Boulevard to have a look, and have since been back several times.

On the first visit, Brett Crawford was there to meet me. Although I’ve never heard his name bandied about much, he has a stellar resume that includes significant time at Thomas Hacker Architects (now THA Architecture), Opsis Architecture and Works Partnership: all very much upper-echelon local firms in terms of design talent.
Crawford used the phrase “builderly modern” to describe what he and wife Dana were going for. They were looking for “a box,’ a simple rectangular building that they could redesign and convert into condos, acting as architect, developer and even general contractor. They found it in a circa-1969 condo building on SE 14th Avenue just north of Hawthorne.

The most notable thing about the renovated project is the rain-screen and sun screens covering the façade. If you were photographing 1310, the money shot would definitely be the front, where there is a compellingly detailed array of sun screens and stairs to access the different units. It’s almost like fire escape as working sculpture.

That said, before and even immediately after first seeing 1310, it initially seemed possible in my mind that, while no doubt an impressive project in its aesthetics, its do-it-yourself spirit of architect as developer, and its admirably sustainable qualities, I had the nagging sensation of skepticism over 1310 winning the very top prize. Was it really better than any other project built in the city in 2008? Even Crawford was shocked when 1310 won. "You could have knocked me over with a feather," he told the Daily Journal of Commerce shortly after winning the Honor Award.

Indeed, there is nothing outright dazzling about this urban infill project, a conversion of an old apartment building already on that site. Compared to Holst Architecture’s Clinton Condominiums a half-mile to the south on Division and 26th, for example, with sumptuous mahogany and glass contrasting with rough COR-TEN steel, there is nothing quite so jewel-like about Brett Crawford’s project.

Yet the 1310 Condos have grown on me over time. I’m captivated by the project’s elegant simplicity, the completeness with which the Crawfords oversaw every aspect of the project from initial concept to the final escrow stage of a sale.

On his Portland Modern website, Bob Zaikoski wrote of 1310, “The completed building has an elegance resulting from its' geometry and form and a richness resulting from some very skilled layering and materials choices. The detailing and execution of the rain screen skin and also the way the stairs and the sun screen are constructed speak of an attention and pride in detail seldom found in most of the built environment.” (Portland Modern is also a sponsor of this website.)

The AIA awards jury, which gave 1310 its Honor Award, wrote, "The project clearly demonstrates the value of architecture as a transformative process. The building is strong, but also humble in its character."

The difference between 1310 and a more obviously aesthetically dazzling work of architecture reminds me of the change in scale that British sculptor Rachel Whiteread has taken with her show at the Portland Art Museum that I reviewed for last week's Oregonian. In the past, Whiteread won Britain’s coveted Turner Prize and achieved acclaim for her room-sized or even building-sized sculptures, in which Whiteread created plaster casts out of entire architectural spaces – literally giving physical form to the negative space inside buildings. Her new show at PAM is far less grand in scale, instead consisting of plaster casts made of everyday objects like poster tubes and packaging Styrofoam. As curator Bruce Guenther described to me, Whiteread’s new work boasts a hand-made quality that the grander earlier works lack, even if their scale is much less impressive.

That’s the way I feel about 1310. What’s special about this project, I think, is that it feels like a kind of hand-made architecture. Obviously the Crawfords didn’t hammer every nail and build 1310 entirely themselves. But acting as architects, developers and general contractors, they had a more intimate level of interaction with their building than most architects experience. This is not to say exceptional architecture can’t come out of big teams of collaborators, or that large-scale buildings are inherently boring. Even so, the subtlety and do-it-yourself quality of the 1310 Condominiums are part of what give the project its attractiveness.

Ultimately awards can’t be taken seriously. No matter how many times somebody tries to explain it to me, I’ll never understand how Academy voters in 1968 could select “Oliver!” for Best Picture when one of the greatest masterpieces in the entire history of cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was right there for the choosing. In other words, it doesn’t matter too much that 1310 won the AIA/Portland honor award. But I see the same high-quality design and comprehensiveness of approach that captivated the jury.

The 1310 Condos will also be part of an upcoming home tour called 11xDesign, featuring several projects around Portland both designed and developed by small firms and sole practitioners, including Path Architecture, SUM Design Studio, Ben Waechter, William Kaven, Design Department, Building Arts Workshop,  SEED Architecture, and Kevin Cavenaugh. I'll be writing a separate post on the tour shortly.

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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