Inspirationist exclusive: Interview with Jeff Kovel, Founder, Principal and Design Director of Skylab Architecture

From hip riverside restaurants and music venues to the house of a famous vampire (Hoke Residence – a multi-level timber-and-concrete dwelling with a cantilevered balcony) high in the hills, the city of Portland, Oregon is home to several iconic works by architect Jeff Kovel. In a city perhaps best known for flying under the radar, Kovel is challenging the status quo. “I think we probably push the boundaries more than other firms in town,” says Kovel of Skylab Architecture, the firm he founded in 1999.

Jeff Kovel, Founder, Principal and Design Director of Skylab Architecture

Kovel founded Skylab as a “laboratory to explore a departure from an industry of mounting standardization.” Skylab has built several private homes and commercial spaces around Portland using techniques and materials that blur the distinction between architecture and design, natural and synthetic, and past and future.

Other projects include the offices of the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant (CBWTP) in north Portland, where Skylab designed a solution for staff members who had been stuck working in individual trailers, while also preserving a cluster of old-growth trees and creating a best-practices showcase for stormwater management. 

Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant

Skylab’s modular approach to residential construction, developed with Method Homes, is a repeatable prefab module called HOMB (a combination of “home” and “honeycomb”) consisting of a 100-square-foot, triangular module made of LVL beams, steel, and SIPs. The module’s integrated structure enables it to be tessellated and configured in infinite ways.

In addition to Skylab, Kovel is co-owner of Doug Fir Restaurant and Lounge (a restaurant, bar, and music venue) in Portland, and KBP, a real estate development company. Kovel is also a board member of Oregon College of Art and Craft, and has served as a guest lecturer at the University of Oregon and University of Texas.

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We picked the architect’s mind about the evolution in his work over the years, the role of design and architecture in a global crisis and the importance of music in his personal and work life:

INSPIRATIONIST: Where are you from and where do you live now?

JEFF KOVEL: I grew up in Rye, New York (30 minutes outside of New York City) and now live on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon.

I.: What’s your background? 

J.K.: I studied Architecture at Cornell University in both Ithaca, New York and in Rome, Italy. After completing architecture school, I lived and practiced in Telluride, Colorado before moving to Portland. Once in Portland, I worked in a design-build construction environment, before heading to Miami to build a home and music studio for Lenny Kravitz. I spent two years on that project before returning to Portland and starting Skylab. I was 26 years old when I struck out on my own. Skylab’s first project was to develop / design / build a spec house in the west hills of Portland. 

Skylodge

I.: How did you fall in love with architecture and why?

J.K.: When I was eight years old my parents commissioned a young New York architect (Steve Haas) to design our family a ground up home. I spent considerable time roaming the construction project and became in awe of the process. Growing up in this modern design taught me about the power a building can have to enhance the experience for its occupants. The waterfront site was beautiful and the house was a constant filter of views and light, magnifying the power of the site. 

I.: Where do you spend most of your time normally, and what does a typical day for you entail?

J.K.: I have two houses, one in Portland that is a modern revision of a 1903 historic shingle style home in a great neighborhood near hiking trails and close to our studio downtown. I have two daughters, which keep me busy around the property when not working remotely. Our second home is in the Columbia River gorge and is a contemporary cabin overlooking the river. This property is much more rustic and we focus on nature, cooking, mountain biking and skiing in the area. 

The process around listening, researching, and responding intuitively to each challenge is what I enjoy most.

I.: What is your favorite part of your job?

J.K.: I love taking on new projects. We never can predict what’s coming down the pipeline and the sense of exploration around meeting new clients and unlocking the possibilities on new sites is always exciting. The process around listening, researching, and responding intuitively to each challenge is what I enjoy most. I also love to draw and build with my hands. I take a very hands on approach to our work. 

The Serena Williams Building

I.: Can you describe an evolution in your work from when you began until today? 

J.K.: Our work has grown significantly in size. Our most recent project at Nike World Headquarters, The Serena Williams Building, is over a million square feet. The project has five restaurants, retail outlets, a prototyping space, theater, and design studios for over two thousand people. It is essentially 10 normal size projects in one. Working at this scale presents a whole new set of opportunities and challenges.

I.: If you had to choose one single architect who has provided a source of inspiration for you personally – who would it be and why?

J.K.: I am most influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. I have always loved his role as innovator, engineer, builder, architect, provocateur. He was so ahead of his time…he essentially developed multiple genres of work within his own portfolio. He also applied some very practical theories and practices that still resonate today. It’s incredible to see how prolific he was at a time with little technology, slow communication, no computers, etc.

Owl Creek House

Our relationship to density is likely to be forever changed.

I.: Has the pandemic and the changes it brought provoked a shift in your design thinking moving forward? In how you’ll be perceiving and creating architecture from now on?

J.K.: I think we will definitely see long term changes out of this. Previous epidemics have had similar effects (polio, for example). With that said, I think it’s a little early to predict what the long term changes will be. My sense is that one of these will be the decentralization of the work environment. The foundations have been set for this, through technological applications. Now that we have seen a widespread turn to this, I have a hard time seeing many people giving up the benefits of a more flexible arrangement. I think also personal space requirements will not return to where they were for some time. Our relationship to density is likely to be forever changed. 

Luuwit Park

I think designers should be in leadership positions through this period of enormous change.

I.: What do you think is the role of architecture in a global crisis such as the one we are living and how can it contribute is a positive way to its management and perhaps overcoming?

J.K.: I think designers should be in leadership positions through this period of enormous change. We have the ability to assess challenges and communicate thoughtful solutions across a wide platform. Design thinking should not be limited to spaces, but rather systems as a whole. Assuming we move through our current predicament, how can we assess the impact and offer long term solutions that help us prevent the next one. One thing I have been very impressed by is our societies ability to rapidly change its engrained behaviors (not all of us, but many). 

Design thinking should not be limited to spaces, but rather systems as a whole.

I.: Which is your favorite building?

J.K.: I have so many…I seek out architecture all around the world. Some of my favorites are the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, The Berlin Philharmonic, the Seattle Central Library, The Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway, and Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles.

Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant

I.: Which of your designs is your personal favorite and why? 

J.K.: Our design for the Columbia Building at the city of Portland’s Wastewater Treatment Plant is my personal favorite. The building’s modest scale packs in a significant number of dynamic spaces. The dynamic, exposed concrete structure supports some very innovative green roofs that express and represent the bureau’s mission. It is also a project that was destined to be conventional, but has been transformed into a one of the more expressive buildings in our region. It has also served as an educational tool for our watershed. 

Bodecker Foundation

 I.: How do you unwind?

J.K.: I spend a lot of time playing guitar and exercising in the outdoors. I do my best thinking while immersed in nature with friends and family. You will find me sailing, skiing, backpacking, mountain biking, all over the west. Our studio has a rock band that has become a really fun release. We have played locally at the Gray Magazine Design Awards and other venues over the last few years. Our next studio space will most definitely include a permanent stage. 

Doug Fir Restaurant and Lounge

The devastating losses faced by the live music community during this pandemic are a major concern of mine at the moment. 

I.: What kind of music are you listening to at the moment?

J.K.: I listen to a mix of indie rock, funk, classic rock, jazz, and reggae. Seeing live music has been a big part of my life. I started a music venue here in Portland with a couple of friends (The Doug Fir). Over the last 15 years we have hosted thousands of international acts. I also often travel to New Orleans for the annual jazz festival. The devastating losses faced by the live music community during this pandemic are a major concern of mine at the moment. 

 I.: What is your favorite color?

J.K.: Violet, so much so I named my daughter after it!

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