Bob Frasca, architect who helped define Portland’s skyline, dies at 84
Robert “Bob” Frasca, the co-founder of Portland-based ZGF Architects and whose body of work helped define the city’s skyline, died Jan. 3 of complications from leukemia, the firm said Monday. He was 84.
The Oregon Convention Center, KOIN Tower and Portland World Trade Center are among his most recognizable works. Many of his other projects are part of the city’s fabric, including Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and Portland International Airport.
Frasca was born in 1933 in Niagara Falls, New York, to John and Jean Frasca, both Italian immigrants who had met in the United States. His father worked as a blacksmith who frequently drew designs for metal products. He taught his son to draw, and later enrolled him in art school.
Frasca earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where renowned architect Pietro Belluschi was a dean. Belluschi, who had a storied career in Portland, encouraged him to move to the city.
Frasca arrived in 1959 and worked at the firm Wolff and Zimmer Architects and at the Portland Planning Commission. He left Portland for a fellowship that took him on a tour of Europe, then returned in 1966 to found ZGF with Norm Zimmer and Brooks Gunsul.
He took a special interest in hospital buildings that included elements of nature and art. His work in this area included the Vollum Institute and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University in Southwest Portland.
He focused his work around the experiences of the people who would occupy the buildings and took special care to include pleasant common areas that would encourage spontaneous meetings and conversations.
Frasca particularly wanted doctors and researchers in his medical buildings to spend their time thinking about diseases and cures, without their environs getting in the way.
“He thought they were doing God’s work,” said Jeanne Giordano, Frasca’s wife, “and he was just building cathedrals for them.”
The Doernbecher project, in particular, won acclaim as a feat of engineering. It was built like a bridge to span a canyon and two roads, an effort necessitated by the OHSU campus’ hilltop terrain.
The idea began in a morning meeting, where Frasca and others working on the project were discussing the need for a bridge to connect the hospital to other parts of the campus. Frasca proposed making the building itself a bridge, said former associate hospital director Susanne Banz, and he started sketching out the idea on a napkin.
The work at OHSU helped raise ZGF’s profile, and other prominent hospitals across the country sought to hire the firm to design new facilities. Frasca would go on to design the Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health’s campus in Maryland.
The firm also designed the Justice Center downtown Portland, which houses the Portland Police Bureau headquarters and the Multnomah County Jail. That project also brought the firm national attention.
In 1991, ZGF won the American Institute of Architects’ Architecture Firm Award, its highest honor. The firm has remained prominent, and it was named the best in the United States in 2016 by Architect, the institute’s magazine.
Changing skylines: Portland’s ZGF Architects ranked No. 1 U.S. firm
“Bob always thought about how to use the client’s resources, whether it was people’s time or their money or budget, in the best possible way,” said Jan Willemse, managing partner in ZGF’s Portland office. “That kind of stewardship is something he taught to all of us.”
In recent years, Frasca split time between Portland and New York, but he remained actively involved in his firm’s projects.
Frasca had a lifelong passion for tennis, a sport he picked up in high school, and he often invited new employees at ZGF to play. He also traveled frequently and, coworkers recalled, he would occasionally send postcards from his trips featuring scenes he had sketched or water-colored himself.
But the trips often became research expeditions, his wife said, where he would absorb and memorize every detail of buildings and designs that caught his eye.
“Architecture was what got him up in the morning,” Giordano said. “Talking architecture, talking to architects, or talking architecture to people who were not architects.
He is survived by Giordano; his children, Andrea and Jason; his sister, Joyce Broderson; and his grandson Nicolas. His first wife, Marilyn Buys, died in 2000.
Donations in Frasca’s memory may be sent to Dr. Nicole Lamanna Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Research Gift Fund at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City or the Architecture Foundation of Oregon.