The Nature of Design


Joy Watson and her husband, Doug, probably are every architect’s dream clients: When it came time to design their new home overlooking the McKenzie River east of Springfield, she said, “We just got out of the way and let Nir (Pearlson) do it.”

The result was something the couple never would have come up with themselves, “and we’re more than happy with it,” Watson said. “If I had been there putting my two cents in, we wouldn’t have gotten this.”

A lot of other people also appreciated the effort, because during the voting held last month during the Eugene Celebration, the Watson home won the single-family residential prize in the People’s Choice Awards, an annual competition sponsored by the Southwestern Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Pearlson also won the top spot in the commercial category for another of his projects, La Perla Pizzeria Napoletana, a complete redo of the building at 13th and Pearl streets in downtown Eugene that formerly housed the iconic red-and-white striped Farrell’s ice cream parlor and served as the birthday party capital for generations of local children.

You’d never recognize it now. Gone are the dark wood (and vaguely sticky) tabletops, the red-hot walls and the clamoring decor that gave the place a nonstop fever pitch. By contrast, La Perla is spare, sophisticated and subtle, a combination of Pacific Northwest sensibilities and overtones of traditional Italian shapes and colors. It’s just what Pearlson was aiming for when he and the building’s owners, Beppe Macchi and John “Gianni” Barofsky — who first made their culinary mark with Beppe & Gianni’s Trattoria at 19th and Agate streets — first sat down to come up with a design for La Perla, which opened at the end of June.

“The basic idea is a feeling of Italy moved to Eugene, but it’s a totally Northwest product with mostly local materials and lots of light,” Pearlson said. “We took some ideas from traditional Italian architecture, like arches and columns, and stripped them down to their essence, like a shadow of the original.”

After removing the old checkerboard floor tiles, the beat-up slab floor got a coat of stain and clear finish reminiscent of “a floor with a history and a story,” he said. The skylit atrium in the entry recalls shafts of light between tall Italian buildings, and the masonry and stone in the oven area recalls the earthen colors and textures of Mediterranean culture.

To Pearlson’s surprise, La Perla’s new vibrant green exterior and metal-clad base raised more eyebrows than any other aspect of its design.

“Someone called and said they didn’t like the color and that other people didn’t either,” he said. “What we did here, which we really didn’t think was radical at all, apparently was a little bit of a push for some people.”

Both of Pearlson’s prizewinning designs, and many others in the competition, share what appears to be a value among architects in the area to introduce interesting — if sometimes unexpected — building materials in designs that build on rather than dominate their landscape.

A major exception, of course, is Eugene’s two-year-old Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse that makes no pretense of anything but garnering attention. But Pearlson acknowledges that architect Thom Mayne’s controversial glass and stainless steel edifice with its swoops and angles “probably has helped to release something in local architecture.”

“Many people here are so hooked on gabled, traditional forms of design that it can be difficult to introduce new things,” he said. “I think a lot of architects in town wish they could move things a little faster, but the public is often quite conservative (about design). But I think the courthouse probably did help with that, that people who didn’t like it at first are getting used to it and feeling more relaxed about it.”


“We were originally thinking of building in traditional farmhouse style — old, old,” Joy Watson said. “We originally were trying to buy 100 acres near Creswell, and that went on for a long time and then the whole thing fell through. So we started looking at river property instead.”

After losing out on two other riverfront properties, they jumped at the chance to buy their five acres on Deerhorn Road, only to find afterward that most of it is zoned for exclusive forestry use, leaving just a small homesite area with a steep hill immediately behind it available for building.

“At that point, I was so upset about losing my original idea of farmhouse, acreage and chickens, I decided to do the total opposite and go completely modern,” Watson said. “We told Nir that we wanted a simple, very modern, minimalist house, and this is what he gave us.”

Essentially, the Watson house is two sections facing opposite directions, joined by a central corridor. The roof of the “public” area — open kitchen, dining and living rooms — slants upward from back to front to capture the view of the trees and the river. On the private side, the roof slants upward front to back, giving the master bedroom the opened-up view of the rocky hillside just beyond.

“Before I did the design, I came out and sat here for hours, getting the feel of the land,” Pearlson said. “This house is definitely designed for this site — it was not brought in, it ‘became’ here.”

A huge “sentinel” rock outcropping dominates the building site, and the house was pushed as close as legally allowed to the property line “to keep the building away from the rock’s line of energy,” he said. “But it’s an important part of the site — it looms there, definitely part of the design, and we wanted to incorporate it.”

Other large basalt boulders removed during excavation for the house’s underpinnings also have been incorporated in its landscaping, “merging the human creation with the natural,” Pearlson said. The house is mostly wood and glass, with exposed concrete floors and plastered walls whose colors blend into the hues on the adjoining outside surfaces. The roof sections, beam ends and trim are zinc-treated steel.

At 1,500 square feet with an additional 500 square feet of unfinished space below the main floor, the house is small by recent standards. Because of the challenging building site, the cost came in at about $220 per square foot, Watson said. Its size and clean, open spaces has encouraged the couple to declutter their lives. She’s delighted at the impetus to keep and acquire only what is essential.

“I’m addicted to modern now,” Watson said. “Design is something I just never thought much about, but this is just gorgeous.”


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Deerhorn Road

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