Lever Architects Elevates Lumber Construction to an Art Form
The Portland, Oregon, firm is recasting the humble material as an urbane powerhouse, one project at a time.
By Ian Volner
Portrait by Dina Avila
January 17, 2018
Thomas Robinson in Lever's Portland office.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about building with wood, much of it infused with a certain back-to-the-land, eco-idealism. Not without reason: Wood can be sustainably harvested and easily recycled, and it sequesters carbon, the primary atmospheric agent behind man-made climate change. Especially in a place like Portland, Oregon—Stumptown, as it’s been known since the mid-19th century. In a city long-famed for its environmentally friendly political culture it seems only natural to turn to timber, and for local firm Lever Architects, working with the material has helped bring its energy-efficient projects to national attention. But for founding principal Thomas Robinson, there’s another advantage to lumber construction. “For us it’s really about creating a rich experience,” the architect says. “Materials are the medium for creating that.”
Robinson was interested in materiality and its experiential potential well before he settled in the Pacific Northwest. A native of Santa Barbara, California, the architect is a product of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and passed through three major offices before starting his own, beginning in Europe with master builder Peter Zumthor, then moving on to Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron and American outfit Allied Works. At Herzog, Robinson served as senior architect on San Francisco’s de Young Museum; the building’s perforated steel facade, notes Robinson, was intended to produce the effect of “dappled light under a tree,” a case of an innovative building technique utilized to largely atmospheric ends. The move toward wood, Robinson says, is an extension of the same philosophy: “The trick,” he says, “is connecting to this or that resource, and then using it elegantly and intelligently.”
Since launching his practice in 2009, Robinson has been a driving force in finding new moods and modes for working in wood on both the regional and national levels. At the recently completed L’Angolo Estate Winery in Oregon’s Yamhill County, Lever fashioned a kind of modified residential envelope—an A-frame-like ranch house, or a ranch-y A-frame, depending on how you look at it—out of cedar and Douglas fir, topped with aluminum cladding and plonked down rather casually in the sylvan landscape. “We were interested in the question, ‘What is architecture for this new region?’” Unlike the wine country of Northern California, where a stylistic struggle between historical and contemporary impulses has been playing out for decades, the Pacific Northwest is largely a tabula rasa for designers; Robinson and company appear to be inveighing on behalf of a local architectural identity that is at once pastoral and sophisticated, grounded in an unselfconscious organicism. That the building wears its ecological credentials so blithely hardly makes them any less impressive: The winery was literally homegrown, all the wood having been sourced in-state.
In a similar vein is Albina Yard, the Portland office complex completed last year where Lever now maintains its studio. The 16,000-square-foot ensemble was built with glue-laminated wood framing, strips of timber laid down in successive layers and sealed together with super-strong waterproof paste. Though pioneered well over a century ago, the approach is only now catching on in the American building trade, and Albina is the first U.S. project to deploy a related product, cross-laminated timber panels, throughout the body of a building. Complemented by stunning all-wood interiors, including a gracefully curving central staircase, the design gets a lot of mileage out of its structural system—but the most important aspect, for Robinson, is its emotional resonance. “People immediately connect to it,” he says, “either because it smells good, or they have somebody in their family who was in logging,” a once ubiquitous trade around Stumptown.
Robinson and scale models in Lever's Portland office.
At present Lever is engaged in what will be not only its largest wood building to date, but among the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. With construction set to begin this year, Framework will be a 12-story mixed-use tower in downtown Portland composed entirely of cross-laminated timber, a daring application that garnered the design the $1.5 million Tall Wood Building Prize from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a consortium of private industry groups. Robinson describes the commission as “a catalyst project, trying to change the norm,” and early renderings show a building that seems not just built differently but one that tries to express something different as well—a luminous gray waffle of slender vertical and horizontal elements, combining the simplicity of Mies van der Rohe with the warmth of the Northwest’s rustic regional tradition. That kind of mindfulness, according to Robinson, is exactly what Lever is trying to provoke in the architectural public. “I think a lot of times people see new buildings and scratch their heads,” says Robinson. “I want people to come to [them] and be able to see why architecture and design have real value and importance.”