One of Portland’s more prolific midcentury architects, Saul Zaik can be self-deprecating when talking about his own work, once describing his career as experimenting with integrating indoor and outdoor spaces and simply “building boxes with a bunch of windows.”
But the homes’ simple forms belie a deep connection to the landscape—and Zaik’s role in the evolving school of Pacific Northwest Modernism. When talking with Portland Modern about his own philosophy on designing homes—from angular beachfront condos to timber-lined residences in the Willamette Valley—Zaik referenced childhood memories of “stacked cord wood and wet sawdust fuel piles” by the simple barns and cabins found in the forests and farmland. His work begins by asking simple questions about, and being aware of, the environment.
“I think people have to learn a little more about how they want to live in a house,” he said during a recent interview with Coast Modern. Zaik’s deceptively simple style, discreet designs for those who want to connect with the outdoors, creates ample space for contemplation of that very question. He was part of a postwar generation that wanted to change the idea of architecture; he just did it with a little more reserve than most.
Zaik came into architecture through drawing; as a kid growing up in Portland, he was entranced by an ad for a 1936 Ford sedan, started sketching, and began exploring art and design. He later served in World War II as a naval radio operator in the South Pacific, and after after returning home to the Pacific Northwest, turned his passion for sketching into a career, enrolling in the University of Oregon's school of architecture via the GI Bill.
Zaik graduated in 1952, at the dawn of the midcentury design era, and quickly found work in a variety of local firms, including a stint at Belluschi, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In 1955, he started his own firm, sharing office space in an old Victorian home at the edge of town with fellow University of Oregon grads. This gathering of architects—William Fletcher, Donald Blair, John Reese, Frank Blachly, Alex Pierce, and designer George Schwarz—was known as the 14th Street Gang. They shared drinks and ideas, and eventually helped popularize modernist design in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1960, Zaik teamed up with one of his 14th Street friends, Donald Blair, to form Blair & Zaik Architects. It lasted until 1966, when Zaik partnered with Jim Miller, forming Zaik/Miller Associates (Zaik went solo again in 2004, when Miller retired). The bread and butter of his practice was residential design—marked by wide, swooping rooflines that often concealed sprawling open-floor plans inside—but he also created condos and resorts for a local developer, John Gray, as well as a string of local churches.
Buildings to know
Zaik is primarily known for residential design, including the Feldman House and his own residence. But his best-known project was built around an idea that he readily admits wasn’t his own. In 1970, shipyard magnate Arnold Zidell asked Zaik to design a home for him in the foothills surrounding Portland.
The design brief was slightly eccentric: He wanted Zaik to use the 67-foot-tall mast of the USS O'Hara, and bolt the home on like an umbrella. Zaik took the idea and ran with it, and while he didn’t deliver everything Zidell wanted—a rotating residence proved too much—the result stands as one of the city’s most well-known designs, a minimalist treehouse with a sunken living room and expansive corner windows providing perfect perches to view the city. (You can see for yourself: It’s available to rent on Airbnb). During construction, the wood frame resembled a merry-go-round.
Another project that shows a different angle on Zaik’s architectural vision is the Longhouse Condominiums project, located in Salishan, on Oregon’s rocky Pacific shore. Completed in 1964 during his partnership with Blair, the building has an almost pyramidal design, and was constructed after studying local sun and wind patterns to match the rugged profile of the surrounding beach.
Legacy and reputation today
Zaik was and is a critical part of Portland’s architectural heritage. From resorts and homes to larger corporate projects (he designed an early, unused master plan for Nike’s corporate headquarters), Zaik has always been held in high regard by his colleagues, and has won numerous honors from the local and national AIA.
Today, buyers and fans of modernism feel the same way. Recent tours of Zaik’s designs have helped introduce him to a new generation of homeowners, and his homes command a premium when they make a rare appearance on the market. In 2014, with input from Zaik, contemporary Portland designer Jessica Helgerson renovated the Feldman House, a project profiled in Dwell magazine.