RIGGA: The Independents
Architecture, May 01, 1999 - by Raul A. Barreneche
Ages: Ean Eldred, 32; Richard Garfield, 55; Peter Nylen, 32; John Kashiwabara, 34; James Harrison, 31 (from left to right)
Education: Eldred: Cooper Union; Garfield: University of Pennsylvania; Nylen: Cooper Union; Kashiwabara: Cooper Union; Harrison: University of Florida, Bennington College
Current positions: Principals, interdisciplinary workshop, Portland, Oregon
Oddest commission: For an art installation based on the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, the group constructed such imaginary devices as a cerebraphone and a photon rake.
RIGGA, a small workshop in Portland, Oregon, runs its five-person practice with what principal James Harrison calls "a mixture of studied irreverence and religious orthodoxy towards architecture." Though Harrison and founding principals Ean Eldred, John Kashiwabara, and Peter Nylen all trained as architects, they clearly emphasize the group's artistic tendencies over the architectural. On RIGGA's letterhead, for instance, they tout the office as an art and design studio, not an architecture firm. Their mission statement speaks of producing "art, design, and architecture through an intensive, hands-on studio practice." And since launching their business in 1997, the group's most high-profile jobs have been commissioned installations at the Marylhurst College Art Gym in Marylhurst, Oregon, and the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle. It's not that the group eschews building or that the members don't see themselves as architects. (Two principals are licensed; two are close to qualifying.) Rather, their artistic endeavors inspire an architecture firmly rooted in craft. "We all approach architecture from a maker's point of view," explains principal Peter Nylen.
Nylen credits the group's education at Cooper Union in New York City with honing the craftsman's point of view. Nylen, Harrison, and Eldred became friends during architecture school there, and had all met Kashiwabara, who was two years older. The four migrated separately to the Pacific Northwest after graduation. They eventually reconnected while volunteering at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and decided to collaborate on an art installation at Marylhurst College. The experience convinced the foursome to work together permanently. They launched RIGGA in January 1997 with an old-fashioned vision of the architect's office as a collaborative workshop. Ideas develop through prototypes, models, and mockups, but RIGGA's youth ensures that computers are a key part of the studio environment. "It's funny that computers are often thought of as something that distances us from physical materials; but I think our generation views the computer as a tool that brings us closer to materials," Nylen explains.
Since its inception, the group has added just one new member: Principal Richard Garfield, a protege of Louis Kahn and former principal of Garfield Hacker Associates in Portland, joined the firm this past winter. With Garfield's addition, RIGGA is now exactly the size they want to be. The group refuses to sacrifice the cooperator dynamic they've created--they even admit to turning away new projects that would require adding staff members too quickly. This year, however, Nylen concedes that they will have to confront growth seriously, or risk missing projects that require more manpower.
For the moment, RIGGA's work continues to walk the line between art and architecture. The fivesome is working on designs for custom light fixtures and furniture; a rooftop garden for an art collector; the transformation of an abandoned viaduct into a neighborhood portal; and an urban-scaled sculpture, part of a percent-for-art project in Portland. RIGGA's self-proclaimed irreverence allows them to consider each of these projects as architectural, no matter what the scope. Their religious fervor toward the art of architecture ensures a universal attention to exacting craft--always from the maker's point of view.