One of Oregon’s most influential architects, Thomas Hacker, died on Feb. 27 at the age of 81. Hacker designed some of Oregon’s most prominent civic, museum, library, and educational buildings.
Hacker’s design portfolio included the High Desert Museum, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, Portland State University’s Urban Center, and a series of libraries, including the Beaverton Central Library and Multnomah County’s Woodstock branch libraries.
The history of his work spans from the 1960s Philadelphia school to the French rationalists of the 19th century, the Renaissance, the Gothic, and, ultimately, Roman classicism.
Hacker enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, at a time when the institution was contributing to the reinterpretation of architectural thought in the U.S. Hacker was exposed to profound architectural and philosophical concepts in this setting, which influenced his work over the past three decades. He was hired by the architect Louis Kahn to work in his office initially as a young draftsman and later as Kahn’s design assistant.
Hacker worked on the design of several projects, which became icons of the 20th century American architecture, examples include the Capitol Building in Dacca, Bangladesh, and the great Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
As a teacher and mentor for 14 years at the University of Oregon, and founder of the firm Hacker Architects, he shaped the minds and careers of promising talent in the field.
Hacker was a staunch believer of the conviction, in his own words, “Architecture, at its essence, is a servant to humanity—the greater the power of its art, the more profound its service.” Indifferent to achieving fame in the architectural world, he directed his firm toward civic projects in regional locales, striving to meet client and the construction industry’s budget concerns while crafting fine structures rooted in “genus loci” of their landscapes, culture, and traditions.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great architects,” says Ginnie Cooper, former director of the Multnomah County Library system, who worked with Hacker on a series of new local libraries, additions, and restorations, before she went to oversee new libraries in Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. “I would put Thom in the top echelon. He had a rare skill of listening to people—how they would use the building and what mattered to them. He also had a magical ability to give his staff wings while still making a Hacker building.”
While Hacker focused tightly on projects backed by public funding, the range of types and settings was wide. For instance, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles balances a simple post-and-beam construction, common in Indigenous plank houses, with proportions similar to a basilica or a temple, mounting the views of the scenery.
On the contrary, Hacker’s design for the PSU Urban Center, located in downtown Portland, features brawny brick-clad walls on three sides, opening to the central public plaza on the fourth side with massive glass facade and loggias. The design balances the dignity of a Roman forum with the relaxed atmosphere of a medieval marketplace.
The Biomedical Information Communication Center (BICC) at Oregon Health Science University, which was completed in 1991 and was one of the region’s first fully computerized libraries, is one of Hacker’s earliest and most significant structures. The design by Hacker and his team embraces the urban and natural settings of the campus, stretching into the ravine behind the trees, with an open concrete grid featuring glass windows, while facing the campus’s old building and main street in sizeable forms of stone.