The Groundbreaker

Architect Carrie Strickland Leads an Acclaimed Portland Firm into a New Era

With Strickland taking control, Works Progress becomes the largest female-owned architecture company on the West Coast.

By Brian Libby September 18, 2018 Published in the Design Annual: 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

For Carrie Strickland, the operative word these days is “next.”

The word appears in all caps mounted over the front desk of the new hotel building Strickland’s firm, Works Progress Architecture, designed as an expansion of the Jupiter Hotel on East Burnside. Jupiter NEXT, as it’s called, is architecturally bolder than its predecessor, a run-down, 1960s-era motor hotel renovated in 2004 into a party-friendly hipster ground zero. The city’s Design Commission originally rejected Jupiter NEXT’s façade of asphalt shingles on a black-jewel-like angular form. City council overruled the commission, expressing a desire to “reward innovation and creativity.” The matte-black asphalt shingles make the windows glisten in contrast.

“The building’s got some grit, and it needed that,” Strickland says. “We started with this very traditional box, then we tried to push and pull at the façade and to do something clever but still cost-effective with materials. The asphalt shingles allow this pretty bold thing to have this more subtle sexy appeal. There’s a softness to it that is unexpected.”

Carrie Strickland

The future-forward aesthetic suits WPA’s current moment, as one of Portland architecture’s signature firms of the last decade morphs into a new era, under new leadership: specifically, Carrie Strickland’s leadership. Founded by Strickland in 2005 with partner Bill Neburka, WPA first gained notice for a succession of warehouse renovations in the Central Eastside, such as 2007’s Olympic Mills Commerce Center. The firm then transitioned to new buildings—and won bigger accolades. Two snagged American Institute of Architects design awards: East Burnside’s bSIDE6, with its Tetris-like façade of protruding metal and glass balconies, and 2016’s Slate at the Burnside Bridgehead, an eye-catching blend of apartments and offices resembling a stack of differently sized black and white boxes.

Over WPA’s first decade, Neburka became regarded by some as the firm’s central creative mind, and Strickland a tough project manager, even though that stereotype probably wasn’t fair. “We always joked we made two halves of one great architect,” Strickland recalls. “But we collaborated on every project that came to the office.”

Now, that stereotype is being tested in earnest. Earlier this year, Neburka abruptly left WPA—which also changed its name, perhaps tellingly, from Works Partnership Architecture to Works Progress Architecture. Neither partner is talking about why. Nondisclosure agreements have been signed, but beneath Strickland’s official statements one detects a sense of relief—and new purpose.

“Sometimes the things you thought were reinforcing you were actually weights,” she says. “You shed some of your baggage, and you realize you could be in a very different place. I’ve been able to flex all the muscles as an architect, and our staff has really stepped up.”

Now, as Strickland takes control of one of the city’s most acclaimed firms with new partner Jennifer Dzienis, WPA becomes the largest female-owned architecture company on the West Coast. Good design arises from good creative process, not just individual talent; the key going forward, according to Portland State University School of Architecture director Clive Knights, is simply doing what WPA has done all along.

“Works has always been very good at identifying a guiding concept for the building, something that transcends all the pragmatic stuff—the program and the budget and the code—and nothing detracts from that,” explains Knights. “It’s something you see in the city’s best architects, like Brad Cloepfil, Ben Waechter, and Lever Architecture. But it’s still early days in terms of seeing how that plays out with this new identity for the firm.”

“Carrie has an interesting mix of talents,” says Brad Malsin, founder of Beam Development, a longtime client of WPA. “She can dissect the components of a design and re-assemble them. She’s got an eye for form and function and materiality. But she’s also the kind of person who digs in when you hit obstacles and issues. She likes a challenge.”

WHAT’S DONE (top row, from left): The lobby of Jupiter NEXT, WPA’s hotel expansion on East Burnside; the firm’s nearby, seven-story bSIDE6 workspace, completed in 2009
WHAT'S NEXT (bottom row, from left): A forthcoming 600-unit tower at 520 S Mateo St in Los Angeles and an upcoming 90,000-square-foot office building at 151 SE Alder St

Strickland, 44, grew up on a farm in southern Ohio, an hour’s drive from the nearest grocery store. As a child, she first dreamed of being a cowgirl, but in fifth grade she switched to architect. “I have a clear memory: my dad was a union concrete finisher,” she explains. “He would come home and talk about these big jobs they were on and complained about the architect making him do a correction. I remember thinking, ‘That person has power over my dad.’ From that moment on, I thought, ‘I’m going to be an architect.’” Once that decision was made, she says, it never occurred to her to do anything else.

As a teen Strickland became obsessed with surfing. “I have a surfer girl on my high school class ring. I remember my mom being confused. I’d never surfed. I’d hardly ever seen the ocean,” Strickland says with a laugh. Strange as it was, this fixation inspired a move west after college at the University of Cincinnati. Even then, two marriages, two children, two divorces, and building a new firm made it tough to get to the waves, until about seven years ago, after WPA reached a level of success that allowed her to leave the office for the beach now and then. Strickland now travels the world in search of waves—Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, even Iceland.

The waves keep crashing, and, now, Strickland wants to prove the doubters wrong. Has her rep as the project and process boss left her underestimated as a pure architect? “Yes. I believe that to be true,” she says. “I have to answer that question a lot: ‘Where are the ideas coming from?’”

“This project began with Bill and Carrie both at the table. She and Bill were both offering solutions,” says Jupiter’s co-owner Kelsey Bunker. “My experience with her these past three years has been as a dynamic creative force.” Bunker hesitates for a moment and adds, “Women do have a different approach. We are better when we have diverse input.”

Indeed, many of WPA’s biggest clients not only supported Strickland in taking over the firm, but even see it as a special opportunity in the age of #MeToo and within a male-dominated profession. “More than a few of them, when I sat down to talk about Bill’s departure, said to me, ‘I don’t even know the name of your firm. I just know I work with you,’” Strickland says. As if to cement that role, in June Strickland was officially made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, the profession’s hall of fame.

And here again, the word “next” comes to mind. In October 2016, WPA opened a second office in Los Angeles, where they’ve designed a 33-story tower, now under construction. And in Denver, the firm designed a music venue prototype for mega-promoter AEG that combines the flat-floor experience of a dance club with surrounding terraced theater-style seating. If successful, versions of the venue could be built in several other cities. Locally, WPA is working on projects like Flatiron, a timber-framed mixed-use building in Northeast, and 151 SE Alder, an office project in the Central Eastside.

Is there a metaphor in her favorite hobby, surfing?

“You’re riding something with power so far beyond you that it’s humbling,” Strickland says. “It’s a constant reminder of being able to adjust and roll with forces you’re not creating.”

Top Image: WPA’s boxy, ten-story Slate building opened on lower east Burnside in 2016, bringing more apartments, office space, and retail to the suddenly hot neighborhood (courtesy Joshua Jay Elliott Photography)

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