Northwest Modern Style

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A LOCAL LEGACY

A Portland Art Museum exhibit devoted to architect John Yeon celebrates the Northwest Modern style

In 1936, lumber magnate Aubrey Watzek hired a then-unknown architect, 26-year-old John Yeon, to design a home in Portland’s West Hills that would frame views of Mt. Hood from its hilltop site and celebrate the use of wood inside and out. The ensuing home, completed in 1938, would not only make Yeon famous (with its publication in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1939 book “Art in Our Time”), but would also mark the beginning of a new regional genre, Northwest Modern, that would flourish throughout Oregon and Washington.

Like the International Style modernism made famous by architects like Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright, Northwest Modern houses were teeming with glass and stripped of historical ornament. But they were more practical and local, with pitched instead of flat roofs to keep the rain out, and built from plentiful Pacific Northwest timber instead of masonry or steel. They also incorporated the influence of traditional ranch houses, with simple rectangular forms and large overhangs. The Northwest Modern Style was our region’s own twist on changing times.

This spring a new exhibit at the Portland Art Museum called “Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon” (opening May 13 and continuing through September 3, 2017) will celebrate that pioneering spirit and its legacy. And each summer the Watzek House, which was bequeathed to the University of Oregon, is available for public tours.

Yeon, as it turned out, would come to design a handful of additional midcentury-modern houses—gems like the 1950 Swan House and the 1951 Cottrell House—as well as public buildings like 1948’s Visitors Information Center in Portland, but much of his future career was devoted to environmental activism and museum-exhibit design. As the exhibit makes clear, he appreciated beauty in all its forms, be it natural or human-made.

Yet the Northwest Modern movement soon took on a life of its own, leaving a constellation of midcentury-modern homes by a variety of Northwest architects, many of which can still be seen today on historic home tours.

While Yeon was overseeing construction of the Watzek, for example, Seattle architect Paul Thiry was embarking on a new phase of his career, abandoning the more traditional style of homes he’d designed in the 1930s and, after touring Europe and seeing the work of architects like Le Corbusier, began embracing a modern style. Like Yeon, Thiry’s career took off in the late 1930s with houses, and with a book—in this case James Ford’s “The Modern House in America” in 1940. Thiry would go on to design larger landmarks like Frye Art Museum in 1952 and Washington State Library seven years later, while acting as supervising architect for Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. Few of Thiry’s houses remain, unfortunately, but gems such as his circa-1952 McGrath Residence in Seattle’s North Beach neighborhood have been opened to the public for tours. And the Seattle Architecture Foundation regularly offers tours of local neighborhood architecture, much of it midcentury modern.

Perhaps the most legendary Northwest Modern architect was Portland’s Pietro Belluschi, who collaborated with Yeon on the Watzek House and would go on to design a succession of celebrated midcentury-modern houses, including 1938’s Sutor House and the circa-1948 Burkes House. Eventually Belluschi relocated to the Boston area to become dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s architecture school, and would go on to design landmarks like New York’s Pan Am Building and San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in 1971. Local home tours occasionally feature Belluschi’s work, but midcentury-modern enthusiasts can also find many of his other Portland buildings intact and available to visit, such as the Portland Art Museum, the Commonwealth Building and the Central Lutheran Church.

But while Belluschi and Yeon are Portland’s midcentury-modern favorite sons, they also inspired a whole generation of architects whose work remains beloved today. This September, for example, brings Restore Oregon’s annual Mid-Century Modern Tour (restoreoregon.org/event/mcm), this year devoted to local architect William Fletcher, whose work has been celebrated in several design publications.

Yet a conversation about Northwest Modern always comes back around to John Yeon, who seemed to be not just a talented architect but a sensitive soul, appreciative of a natural vista like the Columbia Gorge or Ecola State Park on the Oregon Coast, both of which he was instrumental in preserving. There is an unmistakable connection between Yeon’s architecture and his environmentalism: both were ultimately about celebrating and framing views of the landscape.

Visit portlandartmuseum.org for details about the “Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon” exhibit.