It was the compelling power of towering snowcapped mountains, deep forests, and sharp peaks plunging precipitously into the Pacific Ocean that served as the driving force of John Yeon's life. Born in 1910, he grew up in the shadow of an ambitious father who began as a logger, rose to become a leading figure in Portland, Oregon, and in 1913 supervised the construction of the state's first paved highway along the Columbia Gorge, the nation's first scenic route. Equally important was Yeon's mother, whose pioneering family began as homesteaders in Portland in the 1850s and through whom her son acquired an appreciation of the arts. Thus early on Yeon was drawn to the vast scale and powerful pull of the natural beauty of untouched wilderness—the rugged Oregon coastline, the deep Columbia Gorge with its powerful river, the flora and fauna of the forest—but also to the small scale and refinement of fine art.
Having grown up in privileged circumstances and inherited wealth, Yeon turned to architecture in his late teens. He worked summers in the offices of A. E. Doyle, Portland's largest and most successful architectural firm, whose practice followed the classicizing tradition of McKim, Mead & White, and in the office of the Beaux-Arts–trained architect Herman Brookman. Granted access to their extensive libraries of architectural books, Yeon acquired a knowledge of and taste for European traditions at once Palladian and English picturesque. His interests were broadened by a trip to Europe in 1928 and by a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin in Wisconsin. He also developed a love of Asian, especially Chinese, art, which he began collecting as a young adult, as well as an Arts and Crafts sensibility. This last was acquired through Doyle, whose design for a cottage for the painter Harry Wentz on the Oregon coast influenced Yeon. This rich, diverse mix of artistic traditions, coupled with his love of the natural beauty of the Oregon wilderness, shaped Yeon's architectural direction. A decade after his European trip, he designed the 1937 Watzek House, the residence that drew national attention to an emerging Pacific Northwest regional modernism and for which he is primarily known (Figure 1).
However, as shown by the Portland Art Museum's exhibition Quest for Beauty, Yeon's legacy in environmental preservation is equal in importance to his other accomplishments. It was an exquisite exhibition, as exacting and low-key in demeanor as Yeon himself. Portraying his multifaceted pursuits, it provided a richly textured picture of Yeon's eclectic tastes as well as the range of scales and diversity of mediums in his work and his collecting, from architecture, landscape design, and environmental activism to his collection of Persian miniatures, Chinese scrolls, surrealist paintings, and Alvar Aalto and French rococo chairs. The exhibition focused on Yeon's lifelong quest for beauty—in his architecture, to be sure, but also in the broader environment, both natural and built. Architecture dominated, but as Yeon was never a licensed architect and his body of built work was small, the exhibition included photos and text of his efforts in landscape design, urban planning, and preservation (much of which was behind the scenes, in planning and lobbying through letters, testimonials, and meetings), focusing on now-famous tourist sites such as Chapman Point on the Oregon coast, Olympic National Park in Washington State, and the Columbia River Gorge (Figure 2). Then, too, there was his extensive art collection. All this was adroitly pulled together into a single cohesive portrait of the man and his all-but-obsessive pursuit of visual beauty.
The exhibition was organized roughly chronologically, with displays of Yeon's architecture, landscapes, and art collection interwoven; thus, beautifully crafted wooden models, original drawings, and photographs of his buildings (the Watzek House, innovations in a series of plywood houses of the late 1930s, and several postwar houses) were displayed alongside enlarged photos of his conservation endeavors and objets d'art mounted on pedestals. What held everything together was Yeon's exacting eye and sense of visual order.
With its seemingly studious avoidance of Yeon's role in the larger context of architectural history, the exhibition prompted further analysis—of Northwest regional modernism and of Yeon's relationship with Pietro Belluschi, who was only briefly mentioned, despite the fact that it was in Belluschi's office (then still under A. E. Doyle's name) that the Watzek House was produced. Further, without Belluschi, the house would not have been known to John McAndrew, then curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art; it was also clearly Belluschi who commissioned the famous Walter Boychuk photo, with its “fortuitous shadow” (as Yeon described it in a 1986 lecture), that led to the building's fame.
Then, too, the Watzek House, now a National Historic Landmark and iconic in discussions of Pacific Northwest regional modernism, might have received more analysis; for example, how, in his first significant built work, was Yeon able to come up with such a polished statement? The accepted view is that it was informed by the Doyle-designed, Arts and Crafts–inspired simple wooden Wentz Cottage, coupled with Yeon's interest in Asian art. But surely there was more to it than that—the influence of Beaux-Arts traditional historicizing architecture, for example, and the legacy of both Doyle's Palladian classicism and Brookman's eclectic manor houses. To my mind, Brookman's Tudor 1925 Fir Acres (today the M. Lloyd Frank Estate and part of the Lewis & Clark College campus), with its banks of mullioned windows and projecting temple front facing onto a broad landscaped vista with Mount Hood in the distance, subconsciously or otherwise served as a model for the Watzek, endowing it with Palladian poise and stature.
Yeon's innovations in plywood could have used more architectural context. Instructive, too, would have been a comparison between Belluschi's and Yeon's professional practices: the one with an innate classicism absorbed in his native Italy, the other whose classicism was largely academic; the one struggling to maintain the Doyle office after Doyle died and to keep it alive during the lean years of the Great Depression, the other independently wealthy and free of such economic imperatives. Even more intriguing might have been an exploration of the parallels between Yeon and Philip Johnson: both independently wealthy, both immersed in the arts from an early age, both taking European trips in the late 1920s, both with close connections to the high-end art world, both architects, both gay. In addition, both designed their own landed estates—Johnson in New Canaan, Connecticut, and Yeon several years later on the Columbia Gorge—sculpting the natural environment to meet their personal psychological and emotional needs.
But again, the exhibition's avoidance of distractions of this nature was no doubt deliberate. Curator Randy Gragg, along with collection exhibition curators Maribeth Graybill and Dawson W. Carr, nimbly sidestepped such contentious issues to focus simply on Yeon and his remarkable artistic legacy.