Brian Libby

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit


Resistance: Relocating Minoru Yasui’s prison cell

Civil rights hero Minoru Yasui’s former jail cell, relocated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, bears witness to an ongoing struggle

As the only Oregon native to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Minoru Yasui arguably should be a household name in the state already. Yet only recently—nearly eight decades after Yasui’s most heroic act—has his journey become known to a wider audience. 

“Many people don’t know his story,” says Lynn Fuchigami Parks, executive director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “But he really is a civil rights hero.”

Minoru Yasui in 1946/Image courtesy of the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project

Anyone who encounters Yasui’s former jail cell, which has been relocated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon and restored over several months by artist Brian Borrello, will find his story hard to forget. The museum has been in the process of relocating from its longtime home on Second Avenue to the Old Town Lofts building at NW Fourth and Flanders. It’s set for a by-appointment reopening on May 7. Once it does reopen, visitors can get a vivid sense of life in Portland’s Japantown—or Nihonmachi—through a collection of artifacts and photographs from the museum’s permanent collection. Yet nothing can quite compare to the arresting power of this eight-by-eight-foot steel cell, where Yasui spent nine months in solitary confinement in 1942 and ’43.


Patrick F. Smith: Recovering Old Portland

A trove of 1970s and ‘80s photographs floods social media, putting a worthy spotlight on a humble veteran photographer

Sometime during the late-summer wildfires I saw Patrick Smith’s photo for the first time. Taking time out on a September day from stuffing wet rags into the crevices of my apartment’s old casement windows (a last resort to keep the smoke out), on Facebook I came across Smith’s black and white shot of Hawthorne Boulevard in a suddenly recognizable haze, as if the horizon had disappeared. It was just like what I was seeing out my window.

Only this wasn’t a shot of the wildfire smoke that devastated Portland and the western United States in 2020. It was taken in May 1980, during one of numerous Mount St. Helens eruptions that filled the skies and ground with ash. I’d never before thought of how the volcanic eruption I lived through as an eight-year-old in McMinnville (where ashfall made the gutters fall off my parents’ house) was the closest comparison to a wildfire event so mammoth in scale that novelist Jon Raymond wrote, “we basically nuked the Cascades.”

But there was a lot more to this photo, and not just that it was taken a few blocks from where I’ve lived for the past 22 years. Without embellishment in Photoshop, it was gorgeously cinematic, dryly humorous, and exquisitely balanced. 

Ashen skies along Southeast Hawthorne Blvd in Portland, 1980/Photo by Patrick F. Smith

In Smith’s vertically-framed shot, a couple is walking down Hawthorne Boulevard, the only visible sign of life on an otherwise empty street. Because of the ash-laden air, acting like a kind of dirty fog, the visibility extends only a couple blocks. It’s almost as if they’re walking into an abyss. Yet signs of everyday banality, or at least of keeping calm and carrying on, still abound. The couple is approaching a shop marquee advertising INCOME TAX PREPARATION, as if to heighten the sense of absurdity. And the man is gesturing with his left hand, suggesting they’re immersed in conversation. More subtly, the couple, though walking right next to each other, is bisected by a line in the sidewalk that transitions to the lines of a telephone pole and bisects the entire frame, and the space taken up by the sidewalk in relation to the streetscape going by follows the Golden Ratio almost exactly.

As the year draws to a close, I haven’t stopped thinking about this photograph, perhaps because it led me to others.


Spaces: Artists make room for the arts

Our series on artist spaces continues as artists try to figure out where to make art during the pandemic

Thirty years ago Ken Unkeles first began renting space in his family’s collection of riverfront warehouses to artists, starting with the Carton Service Studios on Northwest Front Avenue. 

Completed in 1911, the building was initially home to the world’s largest prune-processing plant, then during World War II it served in the U.S. Navy as a ship-building complex, and from the 1960s it was a Standard Steel warehouse. The Unkeles family took their Carton Service cardboard-box-recycling business to the space in 1984, and in 1990 began renting unused upstairs spaces to artists Dana Lynn Louis, David Airhart, and Kathryn Hathaway. Though the Unkles family sold the Carton Service company in 2006, they retained the building, and today all three original artist-tenants are still there.

Today, Unkeles rents studios in three more converted warehouses: the North Coast Seed building, River Street Studios and NW Marine Artworks, the last of which is expanding. Building 5, currently under construction, will be home to an artist and maker space anchored by the nonprofit FLOCK dance group when it is completed next spring. “It’s going to be a sensational situation,” Unkles says. “It’s going to be momentous, I think: something positive. That’s kind of our attitude: ‘Let’s do something positive.’”

Ken Unkeles will add Building 5 to the NW Marine Artworks studios in spring 2021./ Photo courtesy Dana Lynn Louis

Unkeles strikes an optimistic tone, but he’s never seen anything like 2020. “It’s quiet, that’s for sure,” he says, but amidst the pandemic “the studios are getting used, because they’re the perfect environment for distancing,” he says. “Everything is really spread out. Some people have caught on to that. They’re using it as a refuge and a way to hunker down. But some people are really struggling.”


Spaces: Arts groups and the Portland real estate game

Artists Repertory Theatre and other performing arts organizations seek space and stability in an era of boom, bust and scarcity 

It’s a rainy evening outside the Tiffany Center, a circa-1928 Art Deco building in Goose Hollow that was first constructed for the Neighbors of Woodcraft fraternal organization. Inside, an elegant ballroom has been transformed by Artists Repertory Theatre, which has long been located across the street but will be itinerant for the next two-plus years while seeking to rebuild its theater building. 

For the play about to begin, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, there are no rows of audience chairs facing the stage. The ballroom is instead configured for dinner, with perhaps 25 circular tables and a no-host bar. While caterers serve a choice of fish & chips, Reuben sandwiches or corned beef and cabbage on paper plates, cast members are mingling with the attendees, remaining in character enough to retain Prudencia’s called-for Scottish accents, but not so Method as to refuse questions from munching ticket-buyers.

For the next few years, Artists Repertory Theatre will be on a tour of performing arts spaces in the city, including the Tiffany Center for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, as it works on building a new theater headquarters./Photo by Kathleen Kelly

“My prom was here,” an actress visiting my table confesses. But she’s really there to instruct us: We must tear our paper napkins into shreds and, when cued a few minutes later, toss them into the air, simulating falling snow for a scene set in a blizzard.

Dinner theater is not Artists Rep’s stock in trade, but a play masquerading a theater as a pub is perhaps fitting for a theater company using this 92-year-old ballroom and various other locations around town. That’s to say nothing of Artists Rep’s offices, which also have temporarily relocated, in this case to the former Zidell Marine Company building in South Waterfront, as has the group of 11 fellow nonprofit arts organizations renting office space from Artists Rep as part of what’s called the ArtsHub; four of those have relocated here too, including the Portland Actors Conservatory, Staged!, the Portland Area Theater Alliance and the August Wilson Red Door Project, and Boom Arts recently moved in, too. (The actress at my table, a non-speaking member of the cast, was a Portland Actors Conservatory student.) Seven others have had to seek temporary space elsewhere.


River and Elliott: Remembering two troubled princes of 1990s Portland

River Phoenix and Elliott Smith brushed Portland and maybe Portland brushed them

There’s a name you keep repeating
You’ve got nothing better to do

— Elliott Smith, “Alphabet Town”

From James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain to Heath Ledger, we have immortalized a constellation of famous artists—especially musicians and actors—who died young and, then, through a combination of their talent and the public’s grief, lived on. Robbed of the futures we imagined for them, yet frozen in time and thus never to suffer the indignities of aging or late-career artistic mediocrity, their luminosity—and our love for them—intensifies as if in proportion to the tragedy.

Portland and Oregon haven’t traditionally produced a lot of bold-type names that have endured in the international pop zeitgeist. Far from America’s entertainment capitols, this is arguably a place where talents are nurtured, not where one becomes a full-fledged star. The most high-profile artists, such as the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko or Simpsons creator Matt Groening, have tended to move on and live their career-defining creative moments elsewhere. Yet even if their time here is fleeting, sometimes these artists don’t just remain culturally relevant long after their deaths but also come to represent something essential about a particular time in the city.

Last month brought reminders of two such one-time Oregonians and what they left behind. October 21 was the 15th anniversary of musician Elliott Smith’s death, at the age of 34 in 2003, while Halloween brought the 25th anniversary of actor River Phoenix’s death, at the age of 23 in 1993. They died a decade apart, but each moment of mortality came in Los Angeles, and the two sites are less than nine miles away from each other: Phoenix outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room club after an accidental overdose, and Smith by stabbing at his home in Silver Lake (a presumed suicide but never officially determined).

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho

The coincidences don’t end there. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith were born within a year of each other: Smith in Nebraska (he was raised until age 14 in Texas) and Phoenix in Madras, Oregon (raised mostly in Florida). Each arguably made his most famous work in collaboration with director Gus Van Sant. Phoenix co-starred (along with Keanu Reeves) in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “Miss Misery,” on the soundtrack to Van Sant’s 1998 film Good Will Hunting. Each struggled with drug abuse, which in different ways led to each artist’s untimely death. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith presumably never met, yet each is a kind of fleeting prince of ’90s Portland, and their work acts as time capsule and talisman for the days many locals now look to longingly: a grittier, more affordable and off-the-radar city that predated Portlandia, a succession of swooning New York Times stories, and an ensuing wave of tourism and gentrification.

Like Rothko, neither stayed here for good. But also like Rothko and many of the city’s other most famous sons and daughters, Phoenix and Smith were transplants to the city who saw Portland with fresh eyes. Like rain clouds that give way to bright sunlight almost daily for much of the year, each artist’s Portland-based work is personal and often deeply melancholic, yet also joyful, lyrical and instinctual. It’s not always pretty, yet we are drawn to their work again and again.