Home AEC The Life and Legacy of Thomas Hacker

The Life and Legacy of Thomas Hacker

Hacker, Portland

One of Oregon’s most influential architects has died at 81

One of Oregon’s most influential architects, Thomas Hacker, 81, died on February 27. Hacker designed some of Oregon’s most prominent and beloved civic, museum, library, and educational buildings, among them, the High Desert Museum, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, Portland State University’s Urban Center, and a series of libraries, among them Beaverton Central Library and Multnomah County’s Woodstock branch libraries. As a teacher and mentor for 14 years at the University of Oregon, and through hiring talented young designers, he inspired and mentored two generations of architects. 

“Thom couldn’t have been more charismatic if he tried,” recalls Brad Cloepfil, one of his most accomplished students whose firm, Allied Works Architecture, has become one of the nation’s leading design firms. “He had a complete intensity and belief in what he’s doing. Every discussion had an ethical foundation and bigger aspiration. To this day, it’s rare that people talk about architecture in that way.” 

While strong wills, egos, and talent are a norm among leading architects, Hacker fortified his particular blend with a silvery baritone voice delivering staunch convictions that “architecture, at its essence, is a servant to humanity—the greater the power of its art, the more profound its service.” Ambivalent toward architectural stardom, he steered his firm toward civic projects in regional locales diligently toiling to meet clients’ and the construction industry’s pragmatic budget concerns while inspiring finely crafted buildings rooted in genus loci of their landscapes, culture, and building 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 public-funded buildings, the range of types and settings was wide. The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, for instance, balances the sheltering security of a simple post-and-beam construction found in any Indigenous plank house or common settler barn but with proportions befitting a basilica or temple framing views of the eastern Gorge’s sensually rolling hills. In contrast, for the highly urban context of downtown Portland, Hacker’s design for the PSU Urban Center features muscular brick-clad walls on three sides that opens with expansive glass and loggia-topped terraces to the central public plaza balancing the dignity of a Roman forum with the easy-going feel of a medieval marketplace. For one of his earliest and most noteworthy buildings, Oregon Health Science University’s Biomedical Information Communication Center (BICC)—completed in 1991 as one of the first fully computerized libraries in the country–Hacker and his team’s design rises between its urban and natural landscapes, facing the campus’s historical building and main street in stout forms of stone, while stretching into the wooded ravine behind with an open concrete grid that, infilled with windows and walls of glass block, reaches into the treetops. 

“Thom’s designs are brutally simple in plan, simple in section and simple in elevation,” says Robert Thompson who’s very different, but equally award-winning work emerged in tandem with Hacker’s in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “It is elegant, understated and beautifully refined. He understood context at the level of the street and the landscape. You drive around and can always recognize a Hacker building. They’re as good today as the day they were finished. You can’t say that about a lot of work.” 

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Hacker earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania going on to earn his graduate degree from the prestigious Master of Architecture program at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts in 1963, quickly rising to the top of his class, winning, in 1967 both the Paul Cret Gold Medal for Best Graduate Thesis Project, and the Alfred Brooks Gold Medal for Best Design Student. His talent caught the eye of the heralded professor and architect Louis Kahn, who hired Hacker as a draughtsman, swiftly elevating him to personal design assistant. Shoulder to shoulder with his mentor, Hacker worked on such 20th-century architectural icons as the Capitol Building in Dacca, Bangladesh and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. 

“Thom Hacker has the natural gifts of the artist,” wrote the often-Delphic Kahn in a 1970 recommendation letter. “His intuitive sense of validity leads him to Truth […] This gift makes his work full of humanity and his reaction to the works of others responsive and constructive no matter how simple or complex […] The smallest detail is never, in him, detached from the whole.”

An unflinching pacifist, he earned conscientious objector status in the American War in Vietnam. With Richard Garfield, a fellow student and colleague in Kahn’s office, Hacker trekked to UO to teach. In the late 1970she designed and built a house for himself and his wife, Margaret, employing his family members and students as builders, The home became a kind of educational annex during his 14 years at UO where he taught studios and his own free-form courses in “visual thinking”. 

“We listened to jazz, talked about art—he showed me Morandi for the first time—and taught me how to play the Japanese game, Go,” recalls Cloepfil.  “It was basically Thom expanding students’ consciousness.” 

In 2014, Judith Sheine, a professor of architecture in what is now called the UO School of Design, bought Hacker’s house.  Soon after the purchase, Hacker’s entire office, accompanied by Thom and his wife Margaret went to revisit it. “It was an emotional experience,” Sheine recalls. “The office gave me the model of the house, with a base of solid wood that Thom made. The house speaks to both his time working with Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and his experience in Oregon, with wood as the dominant material. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture.” 

In 1986, Hacker and Garfield left full-time academia to start Garfield Hacker Architects in Portland. The BICC became the fledgling firm’s first important commission. Competing against Portland’s most experienced firms, Hacker rode his bike to the hilltop campus for the interview, turning the presentation into equal parts architectural history lesson and a celebration of the opportunities of the complex hillside site. The ensemble of former students Hacker and Garfield hired to design what was one of the most beautifully wrought works of architecture since Pietro Belluschi’s 1948 Commonwealth Building included influential future teachers and award-winning architects like Cloepfil, Richard Potestio, David Rockwood, and John Cava. 

Hacker’s talent, rigor, and ambitious approach sometimes proved problematic. To the bemusement of his peers and mentees, the artist and Kahn-office wunderkind failed his American Institute of Architects registration examination twice—ironically on the drawing test; transforming the test’s simple measure of technical skills into a larger architectural exploration he couldn’t finish in the demanded time. 

But the firm continued to flourish, winning commissions and local and national design awards. In 1992, Hacker split from Garfield to become Thomas Hacker Architects. Distinct from other offices, the firm worked almost solely on civic, cultural, and educational buildings and steadily expanded to do work beyond Oregon, most prominently the Yellowstone Arts Center, Spokane Public Library, Pacific Highway’s US Port of Entry, and the Bend Public Library.  

For the common user of his many buildings, particularly the libraries, Hacker’s architecture is most beautifully experienced in the careful scaling, proportions, and craftsmanship of the main public rooms. Hacker considered and designed these spaces within a long history of buildings by the likes of Henri Labrouste, Viollet-le-Duc, H.P. Berlage and his mentor, Kahn.  In them “a great public space serves both as a pinnacle of architectural achievement and as an expression of civic democracy,” wrote the architect and writer John Cava in “Architecture as Art,” a monograph of Hacker’s work. Cava writes that in each of Hacker’s buildings he combines “an expression of structural forces with a grace and beauty integral with the character of the space.”

Two of the most exceptional examples Hacker designed for suburbs: the Midland Library in East Portland and the Beaverton Central Library. Midland rises like the nave of a basilica lit from above by monitor windows and capped by ceiling featuring a mural Hacker designed to echo a noted Northwest painter Lucinda Parker’s swirling abstraction of nature that shimmers like a stained-glass window at one end. And at Beaverton, a central stairwell rises to a square reading room in which a grid of 16 laminated wood columns splay upward like trees to elevate a canopy of beams, crisscrossing in a basketweave of grids. 

Of any type of building, Hacker most loved libraries as “places of discovery,” he explained in a 2017 interview.

“Libraries are places of discovery. I think they’re the most fundamental places for learning and finding answers to things, and finding inspiration, that exists in our society.”

Thom Hacker continued to practice architecture until his retirement in 2018.  For a full decade leading up to that, he worked intentionally to ensure the values and purpose of the firm would be carried forward beyond his own career.  

“Thom instilled people around him with the sense that everything we did was part of something bigger than ourselves,” says David Keltner, Principal at Hacker. “One of the most profound expressions of this was when he stepped away from the firm that bore his name while he still had so much to give in order for others to have space to make it their own. Not for their sake, but for the legacy of the work to continue beyond himself – beyond all of us.”

Always a practicing artist, Thom reinvested himself in his sculpture and painting post-retirement, with he and Margaret spending half of their time living and working in Neahkahnie. Alongside Margaret, his wife of 60 years, Thomas Owen Hacker died due to complications from an abdominal surgery in September. He is survived by Margaret, son Jacob, daughters Sarah and Alice, and grandchildren Noah, Ava, Owen, Gibson, Leon, and Moss.  

Donations in his name can be directed to the Portland Japanese Garden, the High Desert Museum, or the Lower Nehalem Community Trust.