The Architect Who Brought Modernism to the Pacific Northwest

An ongoing retrospective at the Portland Art Museum celebrates the life and work of John Yeon, who was also a conservationist and landscape designer.

The architect John Yeon drew attention to the Modernist style of the Pacific Northwest. Perched on a hilltop, the Watzek house of 1937 blends with the Oregon landscape. Courtesy Jeremy Bittermann

“I am not a broad-brush artist of large-scale effects. I niggle laboriously with small brushes over small details, like Vermeer or van Eyck,” architect and connoisseur John Yeon once said of his design process. Currently on view until September 3 at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon is a retrospective of his work. Yeon’s buildings brought international attention to the regional Modernism of the Pacific Northwest, and this comprehensive exhibit includes drawings, photographs, models, and a selection of the decorative art from his personal collection that influenced his life and work.

Reluctant to compromise, and independently wealthy with no financial need to practice architecture as a profession, Yeon, who died in 1994, is perhaps not well known to the public because of the small number of his finished projects. During his career he would design 65 houses and buildings, yet he saw only 18 completed. But he did more than design houses. He was also a pioneering planner and conservationist who fought to preserve the Columbia River Gorge, the Oregon coast, and Olympic National Park. His concern for the natural environment and celebration of its splendor were evident not only in his approach to architecture but also in his landscape design, which began when his grandmother hired him to create a rose garden as a youth. “His landscapes were thoughtful, but they were also dynamic, flamboyant,” the retrospective’s guest curator Randy Gragg explains. “He was using native plants very early on.”

Yeon had a painter’s touch with color, embracing an uncommonly vibrant palette—he used variations of blue-green shades that evoked the surrounding flora, a range of colors collectively named “Yeon blue” by his peers. An avid collector, he amassed pieces from an eclectic range of eras and cultures—from Japanese screen paintings to French and Italian furniture of the 18th century. He believed that such pieces should be displayed, and would always select at least a few furnishings and artworks for his clients. Gragg believes that this primacy of the visual is Yeon’s lasting legacy: “John was not a minimalist; he was a synthesizer. He believed in beauty, and he brought that design thinking to multiple scales. There’s a pleasure and humanism in his work that is relevant today.”

Recent Viewpoints