For culture aficionados and urban folks, a National Guard Armory might be a place to go see plays, like at the Gerding Theater, the 19th-century armory Portland renovated into a posh, LEED Platinum home for Portland Center Stage. Or maybe the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York which stages huge art shows and performances.
For the National Guard, an armory is still an armory: a place where our citizen soldiers go once a month to train for disaster relief or war. Like grange halls, they’re used for community events, too. These places are humble warehouse-like structures. Many are old and barely functioning, and often in need of safety upgrades.
But Oregon also has a couple of new armories — now called National Guard Readiness Centers — featuring rooms for training and industrial kitchens. They have state-of-the-art firing ranges, using guns connected virtual reality simulators. And the newest one, the Col. James Nesmith Readiness for the 162nd Engineer Company of the Oregon National Guard in Dallas, Oregon, also has great architecture. Courtesy of a pioneering program called “Design Excellence,” the firm Hacker—well known locally for its elegant buildings for branch libraries, the PSU Urban Center, and Mercy Corps—applied its considerable talent designing a 21st century armory.
I recently traveled to the Nesmith Readiness Center to meet the person behind it: Col. Christian Rees. Located among the Willamette Valley’s huge farm warehouses on vast tracks of land, the center fits right in, rising in a series of pitched roof volumes. But as you get nearer, you notice the huge rock-filled wire-mesh bricks – called gabions — that shape a long, elegant wall stretching to the parking lot. A bridge crosses a stormwater cleansing pond (this also serves as a blast barrier, so bomb-filled vehicles can’t get near). And inside, 100 men in gym gear are training under the watch of officers in camouflage fatigues.
Col. Rees is a combination of old and new influences. His father, Maj. Gen. Raymond Rees, is a former adjutant general for the Oregon Guard. (He now serves in a training and readiness post with the Pentagon.) Col. Rees points out in the 1980's and 1990's his father was "very passionate about improving the infrastructure for the Oregon National Guard, and a big advocate for pursuing federal state resources so that we could better that infrastructure through out the state, understanding that we had older facilities that were aging, that needed some investment and recapitalization.”
Col. Rees followed his father’s footsteps and embarked on a military career. But after that he trained as an architect “When I came off active duty in the late ‘90s,” he said, “I went back to the University of Oregon and received a masters of architecture.” Rees still recalls his thesis project: a museum for Alexander Calder’s mobiles. “I think,” he said, “it gave me a different perspective than many other folks within military construction administration.”
But he was called back into service in 2001. "About the time I finished [school]," he said, "the events of Sept. 11, 2001, happened, and my career moved back toward the military full time.”
After serving as a battalion commander in the Iraq War, he put his skills as an architect and a military leader together in a new role: construction facility administrator for the Guard. And along the way, he discovered the Design Excellence Program used by the U.S. General Services Administration for federal buildings. The program started in the early ‘60s, but sunk in the federal bureaucracy until another ex-military guy and architect, Ed Feiner, brought it back to life under then-President Ronald Reagan.
Steiner, said Rees, “had taken what was the program originally set up during the Kennedy administration for Design Excellence and had revived it in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and used the federal courthouse system, which was undergoing a lot of recapitalization at the time, and was very successful in bringing sort of high quality design to the federal courthouse system.”
In fact, it began the largest federal building campaign in American history. Three of the pioneering projects happened in Oregon:
- The Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland by New York's KPF
- The Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse in Eugene, by the avant garde Los Angeles firm Morphosis
- The Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in downtown Portland — a dreary old federal building reskinned with sun shades and plants and topped by a huge, angled plane of solar panels.
For the latter two, the architects were selected through design competitions — previously unheard of in federal architecture. And, in fact, it was a Portland architect who literally wrote the book on how to do the competitions: Don Stastny. Stastny managed more than 65 national and international design competitions, starting with the Portland Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Most government buildings are designed by firms who specialize in them—kind of like chefs who make a limited-menu for cost and efficiency. What design competitions do is highlight the flavor. The ingredients and even budgets might be the same, but the focus is innovation and quality.
Stastny said, "When you see something that is well designed, it really takes into account materiality, functionality, image, that it is a place that really tells a story in a way. That speaks to the user in a different way than just kind of your standard, bland government building. The issue [we run into] is 'Does design cost more money?' What we've proven is: No, we can actually get better buildings, if we just take care of design and utilize design the right way."
Col. Rees heard Feiner speak and met him at an Oregon Design Conference. He decided Feiner's process could be used for National Guard armories. Working with Stastny to develop the guidelines, so far, he’s applied them to two projects: the Fort Dalles Readiness in The Dalles and the Nesmith Readiness Center in Dallas.
Design architect David Keltner, from Hacker, won the competition over other firms.
“We wanted to make a building that felt like it belonged to the community,” Keltner said. “The guard's people … they're from that region. We approached it the way we would a library for the community, or something like that. What are some characteristics that they identify themselves with?”
Dallas, he notes, is an agriculturally active area.
“When you drive around,” Keltner said, “there's all these big pole barns and things like that. So we wanted to make a set of forms that felt like they fit, not only with the kind of shape of the roofs and things, but also just with the scale and simplicity of them.” They're just like usually big shed buildings, or big gabled buildings.
The community’s potential use of the building was at the heart of the project, Keltner said.
“The very first thing we did is we actually divided the entire site into a very, public side, and then a private side.” Arriving in the building, visitors are greeted by a big, barn-like form, warmed by a cedar gabled roof. The rest of the structure is simple, with smaller shed roof structures off to the side, forming an administrative wing and other additional spaces. It presents a low profile, while suggesting function.
Though filled with beautiful Oregon basalt, the gabion walls also have meaning to soldiers: they are frequently used in military operations as barriers for camps — a stouter form of sandbags you might see in World War II movies. 162nd Engineer Company of the Oregon National Guard is an engineering unit, and proud of it: they build bridges and roads and such. Or sometimes, as in the war in Afganistan, they clear them of explosives. So gabions here are a symbol of a real part of these citizen soldiers’ lives.
David Keltner notes that Hacker’s founder, Thomas Hacker, was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. The firm had long discussions whether to even apply to do the building. I asked David Keltner how the Readiness Center ultimately compared to other clients and buildings the firm has designed.
“There's a side of society that most people don't understand is there and it's happening,” he said. “That entails one of the greatest sacrifices and risks that anybody puts themselves in for the greater good. It's intense. They're just all there for their community in a way. “This one felt more to me like that kind of ceremonial honoring of the work that's going on there. I haven't worked on a lot of things that are about a sense of significance in that same way. For me, it was just really moving that sense of trying to create something that was worthy of the kind of power I see happening there.”
As we stand in the main room, Col. Rees describes it elegantly: “You come in here and it has a formality that conveys a sense of dignity. It also, I think, has a sense of comfort by sheeting this room in this wood, It’s a material that really softens a very large space. You've got a beautifully polished concrete floor here, which, at first glance might be a sort of hard, unwelcoming texture, but I think when you wrap it in this wood cladding, with nice lighting it gives it just a glow. It really is an uplifting space.”
I asked some of the citizen soldiers what they thought of their building. Most noted the century-old building in downtown was falling down, but they still missed its sense of history, of the many citizen soldiers who had come before them. Reese and the architects brought a large piece of the that armory’s floor to the new Readiness Center. All the soldiers I talked with noted it.
Sgt. 1st Class Hugh Lee, a 20-year Guard veteran, talked about the old armory’s history.
“I mean every time you show up there,” Lee said, “you know that there's thousands and thousands of people that were there before you. With the old unit, you felt like you're a part of something. This one, it's new, so I'm starting that new tradition. The guys after me will be feeling like they're carrying on the tradition.”