Paint by Letters

In 1998 the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) moved to a renovated warehouse in Portland’s burgeoning industrial-chic Pearl District. But by the time the overhaul was complete, there was no budget left for the exterior. However, when president Tom Manley came to PNCA two years ago, the school began discussions about a new look. “It had to embody the innovative energies of a design college,” Manley says.

PNCA contacted architect Randy Higgins—a member of the building’s original design team seven years ago—to formulate a bold exterior that nevertheless met rigid local building-code restrictions regarding murals and signage. In arriving at a concept, the school wanted Higgins to follow the rigorous analytical process PNCA encouraged in its students. “We looked at how students are taught to observe things and to enter into situations without preconceived notions,” Higgins says. Working with a committee of PNCA leaders and faculty, the architect meticulously studied the building’s form and context for ideas.

Higgins came up with an abstract pattern of gray and chartreuse rectangles that resembles a Piet Mondrian painting, giving this previously drab gray square box an exterior that not only catches the eye but also feels familiarly architectural. “The neighborhood is a lot of rectangles,” he says, referring to the mix of renovated warehouses and high-end condos surrounding PNCA. “So we just decided to make a language out of rectangles.”

The pattern is actually a translation of text: the sizes and colors of the wall’s painted rectangles correspond to different letters of the alphabet. Higgins left it to PNCA to decide on the textual source for the encrypted pattern, with the caveat that the paint job would look best with a phrase that wasn’t too long and didn’t have too many As.

The school first considered using a mission statement or other expression of values, but decided that was too literal. Instead they selected a poem by Arthur Rimbaud called “Departures,” which speaks of “sounds of the cities in evening,” “the pauses of life,” and “departure into new affection and noise.”

Completed in January, the new paint has helped reengage PNCA’s relationship with the neighborhood and the city, as the school sets a more ambitious course for the future. Portland architect Brad Cloepfil, a rising star on the international architecture scene, recently signed on to design a new master plan for the school. And PNCA itself is transforming from a traditional art school to one that incorporates more experiential design.

“It’s about asking ourselves, What does this institution believe in, and how do we express that in the building?” Manley says. “Design is a function of culture and vice versa. I very much think the process showed that.”

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