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September 12th, 2001 Brian Libby | Visual Arts
 

Hidden Treasures

Robert Oshatz designs some of Portland's most intriguing buildings--if you can find them.

     
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For more than a decade, Portland has been accused of passing up innovative architecture in favor of urban livability. Perhaps the larger problem, however, is more universal: Good design is readily available, but it's not something most people understand.

Take the work of Portland architect Robert Oshatz. Whether it's a modest house addition or a massive tower, Oshatz's designs defy categorization and boggle the imagination. Yet driving through Portland, you'd be hard-pressed to find many examples of his work. "Only about 25 percent of the jobs I get commissioned on actually get built," Oshatz says. "Sometimes I've felt like people were hiring me just to see what I could do."

Hired in 1976 to design the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, for example, Oshatz made a stunning departure from any local ecclesiastical structure: two separate octagonal structures forming traditional Russian domes that vault overhead in overlapping layers, like peels of an onion. "The clients liked the design very much," he recalls, "but they were afraid to go forward. They said they felt the building was too beautiful, and that people would think they were throwing all their money into it, even though in reality it didn't cost very much. I'd design something a little bit less, and then a little bit less, and finally out of irritation I drew up something and said, 'This is exactly what you want, but I won't do it. Take it to somebody else.'"

Another unrealized project, Oshatz's C.A. Bright Tower (1978), would have made virtually anyone's list of intriguing downtown buildings, for this was no staid model of Portland livability. Resembling in design a stack of China plates, or perhaps an apartment complex inhabited by the Jetsons, the Bright Tower was unceremoniously scrapped when its visionary benefactor died shortly before construction was set to begin. It lives on only as a JPEG image on Oshatz's website.

In recent years, Oshatz has found a niche designing homes for clients who aspire to transcend the banal boxitecture of the age. The Gibson Boat House in Lake Oswego is a clandestine head-turner, featuring a curved roof layered in sod to conceal it from neighbors. The Rosenthal residence in Portland is a series of triangles that seem to float over a wooded hillside, while the spectacular Stevens/ Harnell residence in Los Angeles looks like an abstract rendering of Godzilla, its massive cantilevered living room seeming to hover in space. Yet all were created strictly according to the clients' wishes. "I never think in terms of my own style," says Oshatz. "It's all based on the clients' wishes for the kind of home they want to live in. The clients have no idea what they're going to get when we get started, because I have no idea either. It's a matter of trust and believing in the same things."

Oshatz, like a sort of architectural Zen master, has a complete disregard for style, be it traditional modes or his own--which, oddly, is what makes his work so distinctive. In other words, it's the classic concept of form following function--otherwise known as livability born from design.


Robert Harvey Oshatz, Architect
P.O. Box 19091
Portland, OR 97219
www.oshatz.com




"An architect is an artist, creator, logician of evolving aesthetic structures, a designer of not only the visual but the internal space. I see architecture as a synthesis of logic and emotion, exploring and fulfilling dreams, fantasies and
realities."
--Robert Oshatz
 
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