Few architects have influenced so many facets of a region as John Yeon (1910-94). For those acquainted with the name at all, he is most widely remembered as an architect, in particular for a series of houses—most prominently, the 1937 Aubrey Watzek House—that drew an international spotlight to what came to be known as the Northwest Regional style of modernism. His far-reaching innovations in construction and in what today is called sustainable design and his stylistic freedom from modernist dogma anticipated later movements ranging from the ecological modernism of Glenn Murcutt to the postmodern eclecticism of Robert Venturi and Charles Moore.
Yet as a planner, conservationist, art collector, historic preservationist, urban activist, and, perhaps most of all, connoisseur of elegance and craft, Yeon showed equal vision, whether crafting the gentle curves of a chandelier, shaping precedent-stretching gardens, choosing notable works of Asian and European decorative arts, or preserving what are now some of the Northwest’s most enjoyed vistas. Yeon wrote the first environmental impact statement for the Columbia Gorge, stopped roads and development that would have marred treasured scenic vistas at the Oregon Coast, played a pivotal role in the creation of Olympic National Park, and prevented the demolition of the Greek Revival First National Bank in Portland.
Yeon once compared his attitude toward architecture to that of a “landscape painter imagining what would look good in his landscape painting.” The primacy of the visual—the quest for beauty—applied to Yeon’s every pursuit.
The exhibit features original models and drawings, along with photographs by a trio of the midcentury’s greatest architectural documentarians—Ezra Stoller, Maynard Parker, and Roger Sturtevant. Newly developed models and axonometric drawings will invite a greater understanding of Yeon’s careful siting of buildings and his cutting edge construction and sustainable design techniques. A high-definition time-lapse video records the changing seasons at the stunning 78-acre preserve in the Columbia Gorge, The Shire, that Yeon saved from development and, in the tradition of the English picturesque, designed with a series of vistas of Multnomah Falls. A collection of magazines and books and other ephemera featuring Yeon’s architecture and writings will also be displayed, among them, Architecture Forum, House Beautiful, and a series of Museum of Modern Art catalogs.
Quest for Beauty is the largest exhibit the Portland Art Museum has ever devoted to a single architect. But what makes it unique, even among architecture exhibits, is the blend of buildings, landscape, art, furniture, and objects that together showcase a restless eye and mind that could absorb the lessons of centuries of Asian and European art while developing an original vision for the Pacific Northwest.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether you go or not, Of Barns and Palaces: John Yeon Northwest Architect is the first detailed monograph on Yeon’s work - devoted primarily to his residential architecture and his unique approach to their design. Yeon’s own descriptions enrich the Illustrated with his own drawings and contemporary photographs, and there are many new drawings and diagrams made for this book. Largely self-taught as an architect, John Yeon (1910-1994) designed some of the most beautiful and influential structures in the Pacific Northwest, among them the Watzek House of 1937 which received national acclaim as a new paradigm of modern regional architecture. Several of Yeon’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or have National Landmark status. At the same time, he built an important legacy
as a tireless advocate for parks and for the protection of sweeping natural landscapes of the region, including the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area