Watzek House entrance, by Jeremy Bittermann
January 4, 2017

Portland Architect John Yeon's Deep Connection to Place

When John Yeon was a child, he told his grandmother he wanted to be an artist or a florist when he grew up. The Portland, Oregon, architect did both, in a way—and a lot more. Though he’s not well known outside the Pacific Northwest, Yeon left a strong imprint on the region through his Midcentury Modern architecture, landscape design, and conservation work.

Yeon was born in Portland in 1910, and he maintained a strong attachment to the area throughout his life. During his youth he worked as an “office boy” for A.E. Doyle, Portland’s pre-eminent architect at the time, and after brief stints at Stanford and Columbia Universities in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, he returned to the city and began his design career.

His daring plan for a Modernist house for lumber magnate Aubrey Watzek unnerved Watzek at first, but eventually Yeon got the green light. The resulting U-shaped, wood-sided house (shown) was completed in 1937 and “put John on the map,” says Randy Gragg, executive director of the John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape at the University of Oregon.

A series of other houses followed, all exquisitely tailored to their sites and designed to reflect and inhabit the region’s verdant landscape. “He and Pietro Belluschi were really the first in the Pacific Northwest to attempt to divine what an architecture would be that was appropriate to this place,” Gragg says. “He had a really, really deep love of place.”

Watzek House, design by John Yeon, photo by Jeremy Bittermann

Now a National Historic Landmark, the Watzek House (1937) is used for retreats and public tours.

Yeon wasn’t constrained by conventional professional expectations; it seems like he designed whatever interested him, from speculative houses to museum exhibitions to gardens. His father, a lumber baron and real estate developer, had led the construction of the Columbia River Highway, the first major paved highway in the Pacific Northwest. An ardent conservationist, Yeon poured his own energy into pushing for the creation of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which became a reality in 1986.

He also played an important role in advocating for the designation of Olympic National Park in Port Angeles, Washington. And his lush 75-acre property in the Columbia River Gorge, known as The Shire and now owned by the Yeon Center, is seen as a model of landscape preservation.

Watzek House wisteria, design by John Yeon, photo by Jeremy Bittermann

Yeon's landscape plan for the Watzek House included wisteria draped over the courtyard pond.

Soon, Midcentury Modern fans will have another avenue for learning more about Yeon. From May to September of 2017, the Portland Art Museum will host a comprehensive exhibition, Quest for Beauty, devoted to his work as an architect, landscape architect, and art collector. The show should draw more attention to Yeon's holistic way of thinking about design, an approach that happens to be popular right now.

“Architecture was not just about buildings for him,” says Gragg, who is one of the exhibition’s curators. “It was about the landscape, the view corridors, and also the door handles. He was a big thinker.”

Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.


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