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Splitting the split-level: Works Partnership's tandemDUO

splitting house

Last year Portland firm Works Partnership Architecture won two local AIA awards for unbuilt designs, one for a workforce housing tower and the other for a duplex. The latter, called "tandemDUO", has since been completed. (The liberties taken with upper and lower cases are theirs, not mine.)

Situated at the corner of Southeast 28th and Pine, tandemDUO takes advantage of a nexus of nearby restaurants, bars, a grocery store, Music Millennium record store and the Laurelhurst Theater. It's also one of numerous contemporary projects in the area to be built in recent years, such as Kevin Cavenaugh's Box + One Lofts and Holst Architecture's Sunrose Condominiums.

In their application for last year's design award, Works Partnership described tandemDUO as a new interpretation of the split level house:

    "The mid-century post war split level suburban house offers inspiration for the current urban in-fill lot.  Those models were located on larger lots and their configurations allowed for gracious views across and through to the slightly offset levels.  The urban in-fill lots in close-in Portland have been most recently been dotted with skinny lot housing with basic stacked rooms over a street facing garage.  

    Finding the essential spatial beauty in the split level concept pulls from Le Corbusier’s Villa Carthage  - The main living areas hover above the ground plane and the internal spaces interlock and stack to culminate in an exterior roof garden that looks out across the neighborhood.

    Capitalizing on the cues the split level provides, we have taken those traditional spaces and shuffled them like a deck of cards.  The internal rooms stack and shift vertically; finger- jointing together around a central staircase.  Any one space is always just a half level above or below the other.  The stair acts as a screen and a light source; tying the spaces together.  The big house becomes small but experientially expanded by the gracious views across and through."

Visiting the house several weeks ago, I was most struck by how the stairway acts as a spine from which adjoining rooms are interspersed on either side at half-level intervals. As with the Z-Haus in North Portland by architect Ben Waechter, which has a similar half-level succession, you can stand in the stairway and look up or down at two different floors of the house. It makes for a special kind of architectural connection, almost like watching a split screen or televisions at once.

Whereas the Z-Haus stairway was broken down into zigzagging sections of stair treads that correspond to each level, tandemDUO has one long continuous stairway, for a more dramatic effect. In fact, the walls of the stairway become a transparent, almost sculptural form, with no drywall and just the wood frames left exposed. When I first entered the house, I thought, "Wait a minute. I thought they told me the construction was finished." But the more time I spent there, the more I found myself quietly mesmerized by the semi-permeable walls and perforated steel stair treads, which not only have a tactile quality but help distribute natural light.

The exterior has the two residential units adjoined like two people locked arm-in-arm. But these are not twins. Although the units are identical in spatial layout, because one faces 28th to the east and the other Pine to the north, the facades are different. They share certain forms such as a garage and a balcony with perforated steel, and the same material combinations of wood, masonry, glass, and weathered steel, but each is differently articulated.

I love the idea of the interlocking boxes, and proportionally tandemDUO seems to work well. If I have a criticism, it's that the the exterior looks just a little bit clunky, with a few too many of these materials interwoven together. But overall, I still liked the project a lot, especially inside with the aforementioned half-level configuration. The entire square footage also feels bathed in natural light. And while garages don't necessarily make the best neighbors at street level (a visible front door and porch is ideal), it is slightly sunken into the ground to be more discreet, and the elevated height of living spaces above the garage give one a more tranquil removal from the business of the neighborhood.

The project was developed by David Mink of DPM Development and built by Tamarack Construction.

photos by Brian Libby

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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