Image of people sitting in an outdoor lounge at nike serena williams building by skylab
Skylab Architecture, Nike Serena Williams Building. COURTESY Stephen A. Miller.

Portland’s Skylab Architecture Cultivates Kinetics

A new book chronicles the firm’s 25-year journey from scrappy rehabs to sleek landmarks and back again, united by futuristic flair.

Portland’s Skylab Architecture has hit the big time, at least if you measure in square footage or gross tonnage.

The firm recently completed the Serena Williams Building at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, at over one million square feet—the biggest project for both architect and client. Then there’s Royal Caribbean’s Skylab-designed Icon of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship upon its 2024 launch.

These projects figure prominently in the firm’s new book, Skylab: The Nature of Buildings (Thames & Hudson, 2023), which creatively reconceptualizes the standard portfolio-as-coffee-table-tome in an homage to classic seventies rock albums. Think Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, complete with an LP-like unfolding book cover and, affixed to its shrink-wrap packaging, a promotional sticker aping eighties-era parental advisory warnings for explicit content.

Publishing the book clarified for founder Jeff Kovel a kind of three-ingredient recipe for success: narrative, construction innovation, and regenerative design. “Now that’s really baked into our process,” Kovel says. “We’re trying to actively ask, ‘What’s the opportunity here to reset the balance of nature? What’s the opportunity to tell a unique story? What’s the opportunity to bring innovation so that we get more than the budget might have afforded otherwise?’”

cover of a book
Skylab: The Nature of Buildings (Thames & Hudson, 2023) COURTESY THE PUBLISHER.
interior of skylab architecture's office set in a quonset hut
Skylab’s new office located in a rebuilt Quonset hut. COURTESY SKYLAB.

Skylab’s New Digs

Skylab recently relocated into a rebuilt Quonset hut, circa-1947, in the city’s Northwest industrial district. The firm added copious fenestration to the existing structure, as well as an adjacent custom fabrication warehouse to one side, and an outdoor event space to the other. Employees have already nicknamed the Quonset’s interior the “Disco Tube” for how its Mylar-festooned walls and ceiling shimmer.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary next year, Skylab has progressed from houses and restaurants to corporate headquarters, cruise ships, and ski resorts without losing its signature style. Simple geometric forms and patterns rendered with angular kinetics offer a moody atmosphere with often darkly-clad facades, carefully situated within the surrounding landscape to welcome in natural light. The result is dynamic spaces that foster connection between man and nature.

Skylab “likes to hit on every sense,” says Claudia Munk-von Flotow, chief operating officer of Hood River, Oregon’s Key Development, for which Skylab designed the 21-story Yard apartment tower (2018), in Portland. Designed in collaboration with landscape architecture firm Studio, Yardfeatures a public park on its podium sloping downward in parallel with the riverbank. Flotow continues, “What does it sound like? What does it feel like? What is it like when you touch it?”

nike serena williams building skylab
Skylab Architecture, Nike Serena Williams Building. COURTESY Nike.

From Takeoff to Departure

Kovel, a 51-year-old New York City–area native, became interested in the profession as a child when his parents commissioned a house by architect Steven F. Haas. After studying architecture at Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP), he became enamored with emotive, future-minded builders like John Lautner and iconoclastic visual artists like Gordon Matta-Clark (who famously cut open whole buildings and made sculpture from salvage). After moving to Portland in 1996, Kovel spent three years working for architect Michael Czysz (later a celebrated motorcycle designer-racer), including a residence for musician Lenny Kravitz, before founding Skylab Architecture in 1999.

It’s easy to assume the Skylab moniker refers to NASA’s Skylab, the first U.S. space station, but it actually pays homage to an early rental house Kovel shared that had “funky charm, ribbon windows, and a great roof deck for hosting parties,” he writes in The Nature of Buildings. “At this house, the sky was always present,” he says, which “matched our attitude at the time: poetic, boundless, optimistic.”

Skylab first gained notice in 2005 for conceiving and designing Doug Fir Lounge, a live music venue, bar, and retro diner that became arguably Portland’s hippest aughts hangout. That led to 2009’s Departure Lounge, a contemporary penthouse eatery atop the historic Meier & Frank department store building, which launched celebrity-chef Gregory Gourdet’s career.

an image of a green light installation within a building
Camp Victory. COURTESY Boone Speed.

Locations for Curiosity

In its second decade, the firm’s eclecticism continued. First came 2012’s Hoke House in Portland’s West Hills, an initially-speculative venture retailored for its new owner, Nike chief design officer John Hoke. With a wood-clad main floor cantilevering dramatically over its forested hillside site, it figured prominently in the Twilight movie series, home of protagonist Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). That year Skylab also designed directly for Nike for the first time, with Camp Victory, a pop-up showroom outside Hayward Field in Eugene for the U.S. Olympic Trials: soaring, semi-opaque fabric structures meant to evoke runners bursting from their starting blocks.

“A common thing between Skylab and Nike is a forever-curious mindset,” Hoke explains in a Q&A featured in Skylab: The Nature of Buildings.

Skylab showed a flair for demonstrative green design with 2013’s Columbia Building for the City of Portland’s environmental-services bureau, with folded cast-in-place concrete roof forms channeling stormwater through a multipart eco-roof where it gathers in adjacent berms before draining in to the Columbia River.

interior of a retail store
Snow Peak. COURTESY Stephen A. Miller.

Skis, Racquets, and Water Slides

Kovel has long been a passionate skier enabling several Skylab resort projects––most recently the Humbird hotel at Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain Resort. While glass-ensconced guestrooms capture the postcard views, the hallways, seen through the building’s front windows, act as a kind of art installation. Each floor is clad in different photo-realistic wallpaper, collectively rendering the ground, middle and tree line of a snow-covered forest.

“The buildings that they create, they’re very story-driven,” says Ian Yolles, a Schweitzer board member who worked with Skylab on Humbird, one of several projects together. “They’re obviously deeply grounded in urban design, but equally they seem to get inspired by the natural world. And that’s perhaps a little bit unusual.” No wonder Japanese boutique-outdoor-equipment retailer Snow Peak turned to Skylab for its first U.S. store, completed last year in Portland.

image of a cruise pool.
Royal Caribbean. COURTESY SKYLAB.

And the Beat Goes On

At Nike’s new Serena Williams Building, named for the legendary tennis player, dark metal cladding evokes an armoured suit to honor Serena’s warrior-like play. The LEED Platinum design features a series of long, thin bars to optimize natural light, with outdoor green-roof terraces connected by sky bridges. Seen from above, it resembles a tree canopy; from inside, workers look out at an adjacent wetland.

Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas is a quarter-mile long and 21 stories high, with room for a record 7,600 passengers, boasting the world’s largest waterpark at sea. Yet Skylab’s curvy, asymmetrical design makes this next-gen Love Boat feel fluid and kinetic. The firm also got involved in designing details beyond the ship itself, from products to modular construction techniques, making it the most energy-efficient cruising Royal Caribbean has ever bankrolled and reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent.

If the ship seems like a departure for heretofore-terrestrial Skylab, that’s by design. “Our favorite projects are when we get a new process to learn,” Kovel says. “It’s what unlocks our creative thinking, and it’s the most exciting part of this career: being able to deep-dive into all those realms.”

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