In order to gain a more holistic understanding of architectural design I wanted to take on an existing building for my graduate design thesis. Being able to understand the cultural importance of a building for the reuse of its purpose, and lengthen its legacy, became a primary driver of this design/research project.
The vacancy of a 1901 US Custom House in Portland, Oregon began this discussion on the reuse of a historic federal property. Called into question was the process of disposal that the federal government adheres to in order to sell off federal architecture that is no longer deemed as useful. This particular building has been vacant since 2004 when the then occupant of the building, the Army Corps of engineers vacated the structure. The Custom Service had already left the building in 1965 for a newer building 4 blocks north of the current site. Through the federal process of disposal many developers had made submissions as to the reuse of the building: a boutique hotel, the new home for the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, a International school.
Many factors contributed to the failure of all these schemes to coalesce into a solution to the vacancy of the historic structure, one major factor is the cost to renovate the building and reinforce its structure against earthquake forces. When I decided to take on the US Custom House as my design project the building had just been sold to the PREM real estate management company, based out of Portland, Oregon. PREM, with over 1 billion dollars of real estate holdings, wanted to make this building their national headquarters. Through research and speaking with a local architecture firm that had completed the seismic analysis for the building, I had found that PREM had defaulted on the online purchase of the building. This strengthened my argument that the General Service Administration should, rather that selling of the historic architecture for the cost of the land, reinvest in the building of cultural importance and use it an extension of its original use as US Custom House.
Through a diverse design methodology of historical research, performance installations at the site, and first hand contact with the individuals who hold personal experience with the building a proposal for the US Custom House to become a Center for Cultural Exchange was made. The US Custom House would be composed of a branch of the federal organization ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the modern entity of the US Custom Service, as well as cooperation of local NGO Immigration Services, whose mission is to help those in the process of Immigration to United States. The new Custom House would become a seat of Cultural Debate, where trough first hand experience of individuals and their traditional customs form their native countries, a new understanding of the immigration process could be made, and immigration reform could take place. The bi-cameral nature of the Center as partially Federal and partially non-governemnt based would dissipate and the unifying goal of helping those immigrate to United States would drive this center as one cohesive unity.
This design/research study culminated in the understanding of a building's personal narrative could lead to an architecture solution based on both the historical nature of the building as well as the contemporary situation in which the building sits, in this case a vacant federal building seeking a use to make the architecture relevant once more.
Status: School Project
Location: Portland, OR, US