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Architecture Firm WPA Offers Sleek Take on Portland Style

For a hometown firm that draws influence from the Portland landscape and the methodical, "hippie" mentality that informs local urban planning, it seems fitting Works Partnership Architecture (WPA) would name itself, in part, after a bit of a liberal rant.

"We were having a few drinks and talking about the proposal to take FDR off the dime and replace him with Ronald Reagan," says WPA partner Carrie Strickland. "That led us to begin talking about the Works Progress Administration and what it stood for."

When Portland transplants Strickland and partner William Neburka started WPA in 2005, the Depression-era public works program may have seemed like an odd reference, since Portland was in the early days of a massive period of growth and private development that continues to this day. But according to Strickland, it's a fitting reference. In more than a decade of award-winning design focused on adaptive reuse and clever mixed-use projects, WPA has been an instigator of introspective, innovative public projects. Adapting vernacular styles with a clean, sustainable aesthetic, the firm has created it's own riff on Portland architecture. With a growing list of urban infill work and projects outside the Pacific Northwest, WPA seems poised to bring that progressive take to a much wider audience.

Many of their early projects focused on adaptive reuse, according to Strickland, which helped WPA perfect the process of transforming wood-heavy warehouses into airy commercial and residential spaces, but also refined their style. The Bowstring Truss House, which found the duo transforming a warehouse and auto repair shop into a sleek live-work space, offers a recent example. Highlighted by a series of blond wood trusses supporting the roof, the building's focus on vernacular architecture, and elegant, cost-effective, wooden construction, reflects key parts of the WPA aesthetic. Throughout their body of work, the idea of reusing historic materials and ideas for modern building has been a constant theme. From numerous office projects, to mixed use structures such as the budget-conscious Langano Apartments, it's allowed them to rethink the idea of the modernist glass box.

A prime example of this "self-evident" style is the recently complete Framework commercial project, which opened this fall on the city's east side. The sleek, minimal structure pits four stories of glue-laminated timber beams atop a concrete base, a ship-in-a-bottle analogy of sorts that adapts and significantly slims the traditional warehouse structure seen in this part of Portland. With thin glass walls and open floor plans, it's a truly bare bones structure that takes advantage of advances in timber construction to maintain the material palette while reducing bulk. The delicate shell also allows tenants to appreciate the region's rapidly changing light conditions.

"We had just finished adapting a somewhat similar structure," says Strickland, " and thought, 'Why can't we do this for a new building?''"

The Frame Works projects hints at where the firm, now a decade old and "not a startup anymore,' is headed. Neburka sees the challenge as one of scale. With proof of concept in hand, they're now taking the idea to bigger markets and bigger projects, looking to adapt their sensible approach. While they've picked up commissions outside of Portland before, including designing an LA roastery for hometown icons Stumptown Coffee, they're currently in the midst of expanding their profile nationally. Upcoming projects include a new building in Arts District in Los Angeles, a music venue in Denver, and a larger urban project in Cleveland. And, they're continuing to work on very exciting projects locally, including an expansion of the hip Jupiter Hotel as well as an in-the-works heavy timber tower for the in-progress Burnside Bridgehead development that, if it gets approval and the green light from developers, would stretch 210 feet tall.

"One thing we latch onto is a type of pragmatism," says Neburka. "We're minimal in the sense that we don't have massive budgets, so we need to be thoughtful and sparing about how and what we employ."

"There's a lot of bullshit that gets piled onto the word authentic," says Strickland. "But I think that's our design, it's beautifully minimal in its own way."

Three recent and in-progress projects from WPA: 43rd and Division, a 23-unit building on SE Division Street offering a new spin on the modernist glass box; Block 75, an in-development project seeking to revitalize the Burnside Bridgehead; and Langano Apartments, a mixed-used 30-unit apartment building and retirement investment for an Ethiopian couple who owned a restaurant on the ground floor of the complex.

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