John Yeon’s Quest for Beauty

John Yeon State Natural Area, photo courtesy Portland Art Museum

I’ve always been fascinated by architecture, as it is both a large scale form of sculpture, and a form of three-dimensional art that is mostly inaccessible to artists that can easily work in other mediums. But even among architects, there are those that take their work to a scale even larger, and begin to shape the landscape, as well as the interior spaces that humans like to inhabit.

Representing architectural work in a gallery is always a challenge, but thankfully the show Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon at the Portland Art Museum was replete with images and models, giving a sense of the architect’s work over the course of his career.

John Yeon shaped a good part of Oregon’s history, informing the aesthetics of architecture that is now considered classic to the Northwest. And he went even further than that, shaping the very terrain of Oregon itself, underneath his buildings.

The Shire, photo courtesy Portland Art Museum

Yeon’s father built the Columbia River Highway, a route of glorious vistas along the Columbia River Gorge that still stands out as a scenic byway above the more direct I-84 freeway along the river’s edge, below it. One of John Yeon’s first projects was the Neahkahnie Mountain Highway, one of the last stretches of US 101 to be completed along the Oregon Coast. The road required harsh bites to be excavated out of the mountainside, and large retaining walls were constructed to keep the road surface from tumbling down the steep incline into the Pacific Ocean. While a road might be thought of as merely infrastructural, without the artistry of architecture, it nevertheless leaves a visible mark across the environment. These sorts of marks would be central to Yeon’s work.

Shaw House, photo courtesy Portland Art Museum

Many of his houses were situated on Oregon’s natural vistas, either cliffsides or hilltops. Although his design for the WPA Timberline Lodge hotel were not selected, his image of a building growing as an outgrowth or crown upon a prominent Mt. Hood ridgeline were characteristic. His 1950 Lawrence and Anne Kishner Shaw House was the first work of what would called his “palace style.” With sweeping verandas and large open windows and doors looking out on the environment, these buildings weren’t just fit for royalty— they also made the surrounding environment sovereign, as if adding a jewel-encrusted headdress onto the top of nature’s pre-existing majesty.

Yeon’s success in architecture allowed him to move on to the landscape directly. “The Shire” was the architect’s name for a mile-long stretch of the the Washington shoreline of the Columbia River, directly across from the awe-inspiring Multnomah Falls on the Oregon side. Yeon saved this land from development, and shaped it according to the English landscape style of the picturesque. With the dramatic backdrop of the waterfall across the river, Yeon created a landscape painting in three dimensions.

Neahkahnie Mountain Highway, photo courtesy Wikimedia

Perhaps his most breathtaking legacy is the John Yeon State Natural Area, a stretch of coastline south of Ecola State Park along the Oregon Coast. Another parcel that he purchased to save from development, this land now forms the foreground of a stunning view of the Pacific basalt monoliths from Ecola Point all the way south to Haystack Rock. In this case, Yeon did not shape the land, instead simply allowing the Pacific Ocean to continue the same work it has been doing for millenia. In juxtaposition with Yeon’s other magnificent work, the visitor to the retrospective is forced to ask a difficult question: what if the most beautiful thing an architect could do to the land, is nothing at all?

By Adam Rothstein

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