Northwest Modern: Architect John Yeon

Northwest Modern: Architect John Yeon

Our downtown Portland shop is fortunate to be a literal stone’s throw from the Portland Art Museum, which is the oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest. PAM, as it is known, mounts a wide range of art exhibitions, but it is the Museum’s collection of works by Northwest artists that really sets it apart from other institutions. Recently, PAM turned its attention to Northwest architecture through its new exhibition “Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon”. Curated by Randy Gragg, the exhibition presents the life and work of this important architectural figure.

As a founder of the Northwest Modern style, John Yeon, along with a handful of other area architects, explored the concept of a regional modernism. The Northwest Modern style departs from the related, European-based International Style in both its built forms and materials. Meant to reflect the characteristics of the region, the style is defined by the extensive use of natural wood (often cedar), rooflines with deeply overhanging eaves, asymmetrical floor plans, large expanses of glass which blur the lines between indoors and outdoors, and the subtle influence of traditional Japanese architecture. Yeon designed a number of private homes throughout the Portland area, though his award winning, 1937 design for the Aubrey Watzek house is his most acclaimed and recognizable residence.

By all accounts, Yeon himself was handsome, wealthy, driven, thoughtful and respected. In addition to his architectural work, Yeon was a forward-looking planner and conservationist. Yeon purchased a stretch of waterfront property along the Columbia River Gorge and created The Shire, a 75-acre nature preserve that remains intact today. One of the strengths of the exhibition is the inclusion of some of the special landscapes that the architect created or fought to preserve. Filled with meticulous drawings and photographs of Yeon’s designs, an assortment of his own collected international art and antiquities, and a series of impressive models, “Quest for Beauty” is hosted in the main Museum building designed by Pietro Belluschi, one of Yeon’s contemporaries and another key figure in the Northwest Modern movement.

The exhibition, with its strong regional identity focus, comes at an interesting time for Portland, a city which is experiencing an unprecedented construction boom and whose built environment is rapidly changing. Perhaps Yeon and his work can serve a touchstone for Northwest architecture moving forward.

The exhibition runs until September 3rd.