Although many architects think of themselves as artists, John Yeon did not; he viewed himself as a landscape painter who could see the inner beauty of a site. Yeon (1910-1994) worked to bring out the beauty of a location rather than to create beauty within the space. 

“He was really adept at manipulating,” said Randy Gragg, curator of Portland Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes and Collections of John Yeon.” “He didn’t see conservation as habitat preservation only; he saw it as composing beauty. He was perfectly fine manipulating the landscape to make a more beautiful view.”

The exhibit is open now until Sept. 3. The Portland Art Museum’s exhibit on Portland native Yeon will feature photos of Yeon’s architecture, selected pieces from his extensive art collection and a large-scale model of Yeon’s famed Watzek House. Gragg said the exhibit is designed to showcase Yeon as a person, rather than just as an architect.

Architect John Yeon completed one of his best known works, the Watzek House, in Portland, Oregon, in 1937. (Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum)

“Yeon was involved in three spheres of influence,” Gragg said. “He was a prominent architect and he was an extremely prominent conservation voice as he helped preserve some important landscapes in Oregon. He was also a very studied art collector, so the goal of the exhibition was to showcase these three somewhat overlapping spheres of thinking and of influence.”

Yeon’s architectural style was revolutionary for his time. He was mostly self-taught, spending just a semester at Stanford University before returning to his hometown of Portland. Despite his lack of formal training, Yeon rocketed to stardom in his field. Completed in 1937, Yeon designed The Watzek House — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — when he was just 26 years old.

“At the time there were two strains of architecture,” Gragg said. “There was very traditional architecture and then there was a sort of avant-garde modernism that was mostly being imported from Europe. And then you have people like Frank Lloyd Wright who were off doing their own thing — that was considered to be fundamentally American architecture. The Watzek [House] broke with all of those traditions.”

The Watzek House essentially laid the groundwork for the “Northwest regional style” that became popular in the Pacific Northwest by relying on wood and large windows in his projects.

“John applied a level of innovation that was equal to, if not surpassing, any residential architecture of the time,” Gragg said. “But he did it using local materials … it was basically taking the notion of innovation in architecture, but knitting it to the local landscape.”

Gragg recalled hosting one of the world’s top architects, Glenn Murcutt from Australia, and touring some of Yeon’s buildings. Murcutt was fresh off winning architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker Prize, and the admiration Murcutt showed for Yeon’s style solidified Yeon’s place among the architecture greats for Gragg.

“[Murcutt] essentially led me on the tour as he discovered the [Watzek] House,” Gragg said. “And [Murcutt] is such an architect whose details are so beautiful. He saw Yeon’s work and afterwards he looked at me and he said, ‘Everything I’ve ever tried to do is here.’”

While art and architecture are often linked together as crafts, the methods for displaying art and architecture are quite different. For example, Yeon’s simplistic beauty and attention to detail can only be represented in photos, models and drawings in a gallery-type setting. This can pose some challenges for the curator.

“It is really hard to bring architecture to life because most people don’t know how to read architectural drawings,” Gragg said.

As to what value this exhibit might provide for a student, Gragg said inspiration can be found in the complexity and depth to Yeon’s thinking.

“There was really no difference in his mind between appreciating the curves of a Rococo sculpture, composing a view of the Columbia River Gorge on his property — that the university owns, the Shire — or deciding a beautiful door handle in the Watzek House,” Gragg said. “He saw it as a designer’s task.”

Today, much of Yeon’s architectural legacy is actually controlled by the University of Oregon. The John Yeon Center is part of the Portland branch of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. Although Yeon received a Distinguished Service award from UO in 1977, he had few ties to the university during his lifetime.

After Yeon’s death in 1994, his life partner, Richard Brown, arranged a deal with the university in which Yeon’s drawings and buildings, including the Watzek House, were gifted to the UO for the enrichment of the architecture program.

For more information about the exhibit, visit the Portland Art Museum’s website here.

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