Lessons From Colombia

The entire Propel Studio team is inspired by the world around us; and it inevitably influences our office’s design work. Both for pleasure and business, we spend a lot of our time traveling, exploring new places, and learning what we can in order to design and advocate for better cities back home. The following post is a continuation of our thoughts while experiencing new or far off destinations.

La Ciudad Perdida

Propel designer, Sam Sudy, spent a week in Santa Marta, Colombia, exploring la Ciudad Perdida (or “Lost City”). Older than its similar counterpart, Machu Picchu by some 650 years, Ciudad Perdida is an archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. The site consists of over 150 stone terraces carved into the mountainside and a network of tiled pathways that connect smaller grassy plazas. The hierarchy of the stone terraces is evident in that there are distinctly two larger rings among the rest. These foundation relics were where the men and women’s wooden huts once sat. The men’s hut faces the landscape and any pending attack from down the hill. The women’s hut faces the community where the rest of the terraces meander up the mountain. It was a spectacular view, either way.

… But to get there, you have to hike for a few days. There are no roads to la Ciudad Perdida, just a trail.

The Trek

The trail to la Ciudad Perdida can be considered slightly treacherous, requiring a good level of fitness. As a long distance runner, I thought it would be a breeze. But after just the first day, out of four, I was questioning every ounce of weight in my backpack that I had brought. The trek had it all. A stark contrast of obstacles are scattered along the trek: sketchy rope bridges, steep inclines and declines, river crossings sans shoes, boulder hopping, sun exposed dry stretches, jungle humidity, and a scourge of mosquitoes, just to name a few. To top it all off, the trek also equates to the distance of a marathon up and down a 4,000ft mountain.

Compression and Release

In architecture, we have a phrase called “compression and release.” It is the practice of creating smaller, compact spaces and hallways that then open up onto more expansive rooms or views. This architectural device has a profound impact on the psyche, evoking appreciation, awe, and sometimes spiritual illumination.

After trekking my butt off through the Sierra Nevada jungle, I realized upon reaching the precipice of la Ciudad Perdida that I had bared witness to the very device I utilize in my practice - and it felt amazing gazing over the open terraced hills after emerging from the compression of the jungle confines. All of the hard work it took to get there made the experience that much better. The claustrophobic, stuffy jungle had been preparing me for the contrasting grandiose, expansive views I was inundated with upon reaching the summit.


Too often, modern day architecture does not make use of compression and release. With technology at our fingertips, our society has adapted to become impatient, and that has translated to the design of our built environment as well. This “mundane architecture,” as I like to call it, has filled our public spaces with uninspiring banality, where the flow from space to space offers little, if any, variety.

One thing that was very evident in Colombia, was that society seemed more present. People still know how to take their time. Sometimes, there must be toil before reward. We forget it is this struggle that makes each accomplishment that much more gratifying. This is true in life as well as architecture, where the choreography of a building, and the flow of spaces can have a dramatic impact on our experience and enjoyment of the built environment.


Hiking through the Sierra Nevada jungle has reinvigorated me to bring the idea of contrast, compression/release, hierarchy of scale, back to my design efforts. Most days, I am working on the ADU designs that come through our office. But, just because projects are inherently small, does not mean they can’t have big moments.

¡Gracias Colombia!

Lessons from Quito, Ecuador

All of us at Propel Studio are inspired by the world around us. We learn from places we visit and use this information to help inform our future design work. Particularly, we are fascinated by the diverse urban environments of cities around the world. Both personally, and for business, we spend a lot of our time traveling, exploring new cities, and learning what we can so we can design and advocate for better cities back home. 

Propel partner, Lucas Gray, spent a week in Quito, Ecuador exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town with hundreds of churches, dozens of plazas, winding alleys, and mountains surroundings the city. His main takeaway is that Quito is doing many things that Portland and other American cities can learn from. Even though it is still a developing nation and a city still modernizing, it is far ahead of most cities in America, especially with their transportation systems and creating places for people. 

Bike Share
Although Quito is still car-based, there are a range of other options to navigate the city. They have a bike-share system within the urban center with bike docks scattered around the more popular neighborhoods. There many bike lanes lining the streets and alleys, and many of them are protected - separated from cars with curbs or bollards - something Portland is sorely lacking, and seemingly afraid to implement despite our reputation as a bike-friendly city. 


Bus Rapid Transit
The other big lesson is their use of Bus Rapid Transit as a primary form of public transit. Their system uses traditional and all-electric buses, and most importantly the main routes have dedicated lanes. This means busses can zip around the city even as the streets clog with car traffic. Portland's traffic is getting worse and there is no reason buses should be stuck in the same traffic as cars and other private vehicles. We need to prioritize efficiently moving people and creating dedicated bus lanes is something that is relatively affordable and something we could implement immediately. It is only a lack of strong leadership and vision that is preventing Portland from adopting this proven, safe and efficient system in our city. 


The bus system in Quito doesn't stop at just dedicated lanes. Another impressive feature was that many of the bus stops are designed to resemble metro/subway stations, with elevated platforms, fully covered stations, and glass enclosures with doors that opened upon the arrival of the bus. This gives the system an elevated status and comfort not found with our dingy little bus stops that can't shelter more than 2-3 people from the rain. Comparatively, Quito's bus stations could easily and comfortably shelter 100 people or so, a huge benefit that affects the comfort and image of the system. The glass doors also increase safety as people are protected from traffic and moving buses until they are stopped and ready to board.

Further, the buses themselves more resembled long metro cars than typical city buses. They often had 3 segments, with a variety of seating and standing roof designed to fit as many people as possible. The design of the buses to accommodate so many people is imperative considering how popular the bus system seemed, as each time we rode one it was packed. 

The next lesson learned is that the City of Quito is forward thinking and not settling for it's existing infrastructure. A new underground metro is being built which will further complement the existing bus system. Although only one line is currently being planned, stations are already under construction. This shows that even a developing city with fewer resources than a place like Portland can see the advantages of investing in mass transit, as a better alternative to moving people around the city - opening up new opportunities and better serving the diverse residents. 

Meanwhile in Portland, rather than thinking big and investing in public transit systems, we are about to spend over $400,000,000 widening a 1-mile stretch of freeway. Imagine what our city would be like if we took a lesson from Quito, and adopted a range of proven, safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly public transit systems like Bus Rapid Transit, an underground metro to compliment the MAX and streetcar lines already in place, and a network of protected bike lanes. We could start living up to our reputation as a city that is transit-focused with progressive urban planning that focuses on moving people rather than cars. 


Tactical Urbanism
Beyond the transit systems, pedestrian streets and plazas in the old town, and bike lanes throughout the city, it was also fun to stumble upon some tactical urbanism installations that reclaimed parts of the streets for pedestrians. Propel Studio has designed a handful of street seats/parklets around Portland and it was fun to see these types of projects were happening around the world. In the trendy neighborhood of La Floresta we stumbled upon a series of installations including traffic calming devices, painted street art, parklets and artistic bollards and benches that reclaimed street corners for people. 

Quito Pano.jpg

Our time in Quito was a wonderful experience, and our first taste of South America. It offered an incredible diversity of urban environments from colonial small towns, to historic dense urban villages, to high-rise business districts. It is bustling with life and is surrounded by dramatic mountainous landscapes. The people were welcoming, the food was delicious and the historic buildings and plazas were fun to explore. I'd highly recommend Quito as a destination for architecture lovers. It will only get better as the metro line opens, more streets are pedestrianized and the bike share system expands. We look forward to returning again soon.

Aridagawa Design Charrette with Propel Studio and PLACE


Propel Studio  traveled to Aridagawa, Japan last October to run a community design workshop in collaboration with PLACE and the Portland Development Commission. The local town government is interested in the Portland planning process of engaging the public and community members. Our team ran a series of workshops to explore ideas for how to reuse a soon to be closed Nursery School building as a community focused entrepreneur center, how to activate a bike path that runs through the town, and how to make the town a more livable, sustainable and attractive place to live.

This video shows the design team working at PLACE's creative office space, developing our design ideas to present to the town this June.

Thank you to PLACE for producing the video -

Cháu Chào Gà!

Image Slideshow - Use right and left arrow keys (or swipe) to advance images [soliloquy id="1350"]


As I sit here on Christmas morning at Novotel hotel in Ha Long Bay there are many thoughts and experiences that I have had during my first week in Vietnam. I would have liked to share these earlier, but we have had a busy itinerary and it's been hard to keep up! Many thanks to the Vu family who have welcomed me into their home and kept me fed with a marathon of food every meal. Also many thanks for showing me new and exciting cultural experiences daily.

First, I'd like to mention the weather in Northern Vietnam this time of year. Vietnam lies around 10 and 25 degrees north latitude, with Hanoi being 21. Contrary to what I had thought, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are not hot, but mild, even chilly at night. During the winter one can expect rain from time to time making it even colder, but luckily we have had only sunny weather. The temperatures in the day have averaged 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and night time lows are around 50.

One busy day we headed across Hanoi to Tuan's aunt and uncle's house for an amazing lunch. The occasion was to welcome Tuan and Linh back home as they spent most of the year in the United States and also celebrating the extended family being together. This includes Tuan and Linh's grandmother and their granduncle who also live permanently in the home. Their uncle is an architect and their home is very nice, including a 3 story atrium with large skylight over the kitchen. It is about the same width as Tuan's family home, and has many similarities in layout. The home has many bedrooms and what were once bedrooms for the kids are now bedrooms for the grandparents. In Vietnamese culture, care for aging family is at home by the oldest son. This respect for the elderly is a very noble aspect within the Vietnamese culture.

In addition to lunch, we were also visiting so that the Vu family as a whole could pay respects to their late grandfather on their mothers side who passed away in the spring of 2012. Today is the first time the extended family has been together since so these prayers are due. This took place in the altar room on the top floor of the home. The altar room has many windows which are opened to allow the burning of incense during prayer to slowly escape. The room has a metal ceiling, slightly blackened with years of use above the multiple incense pots. There are many flowers, candles and decorations around the altar and incense sticks from months of use are still present in the pots full of sand.

Already in a week I have seen multiple occasions of praying for those who are no longer in this life and am learning the factors behind when these respects are given. As I understand it these times are when everyone is together such as today, but also on the anniversary of a loved one's death. The Vietnamese celebrate the day of one's death because it is an absolutely clearly defined moment in time. To them, celebrating the beginning of life is not as precisely defined. Timing in their culture is very important and each year, day, hour, minute, and second mean something new and there are opportunities related to each individuals Vietnamese Zodiac animal and the lunar moon that must be taken. Before arriving to this house today, we were in a rush related to timing, and gathered different types of fruits, sticky rice, candles and other gifts quickly to be offered in prayer for their grandfather on the other side. These goods were placed around the altar in odd numbered quantities and were offered to the grandfather in his after life as well as blessed in the process. During the time of prayer, many incense sticks were lit by each and set around a picture of their grandfather - again in odd quantities - usually 5 from each person. After prayer, and the incense burning completely, we packed up the gifts said thanks and goodbye to their aunt and uncle.

Next we headed to the cemetery to continue paying respects where grandpa's ashes are kept. The cemetery is laid out with a reflection pond upon entry and exit and has many traditional and symmetrical, 2 story open air structures. Each structure contains multiple rooms, and in each room there are stacked compartments 360 degrees around containing ashes of the deceased. Once again, the goods were spread around their grandfather's area and praying was with incense. This time I participated and offered incense. Later that day we consumed the blessed food gifts offered up in prayer to their grandfather.

The cemetery also had a fire pit nearby. Another interesting religious belief is to offer money, clothing, and other gifts for grandpa to use in his life on the other side by burning paper replicas of life's necessities. We offered these necessary items, including American $100 bills and large bills of Vietnamese currency called Dong by tossing them into the fire pit. Although looking genuine, each of these are made out of a light tissue paper and burn quickly without too much smoke.

Another interesting and new experience I've had is simply being outside and observing the TRAFFIC!

Traffic in Hanoi appears completely wild at first but their is an order that I am coming to learn. The lines in the middle of the road are completely ignored for the most part, and when you consider traffic on the shoulder of the road, there are sometimes 4 lanes flowing in an American 2 lane road width or less. For the most part traffic is two lanes, however on the shoulders of the road their are often bicycles, mopeds and pedestrians going against, meaning the 4 traffic flows alternate. Often a sidewalk is filled with outdoor seating to a restaurant or packed with moped parking so pedestrians need to walk around by entering the street. This, combined with many intersections without signals or people simply ignoring signals, makes for some really interesting intersections. As a pedestrian, the key to safe crossing (which many do at any point along the road) is keeping your intentions clear with a consistent walking speed. Exception to this are cars, trucks, buses, and other large vehicles. These are king of the road, and if you encounter one halfway through crossing the street, you most often have to stop. I am sure there are many sad accidents with this approach, but I recognize the extreme efficiency of it with 90% of people on mopeds and seldom stoppages. From above traffic flows like water and I am surprised to see that after 1 week of very close calls nobody has collided.

Last, I would like to explain the title of this post, Cháu Chào Gà! One of our funniest moments so far has been my meeting their grandmother. Needless to say my Vietnamese is horrible. I have been getting quick briefs of what to say in certain situations, and this time it's simply "Hello Grandma". Cháu Chào means hello and Bà means grandmother. I accidentally said Cháu Chào Gà, and have come to learn Gà means chicken. "Hello chicken?!" We all laugh about it every I time visit their grandmother... :) The next post will include beautiful pictures from our trip east to Ha Long Bay. Stay tuned!

-Nick Mira

Travel to Vietnam


Today I am leaving Portland and traveling through San Francisco and Seoul on a 24 hour journey with the final destination of Hanoi, Vietnam. I've never been to Asia before and this is a dream come true. I am traveling with my best friend and architecture colleague, Tuan Ngoc Vu who is originally from Hanoi. While working together on building design projects over 4 years, it has come up many times that I should check out Vietnam. Now I am taking him up on the offer and am very excited to spend time with his family for the holidays. It will be nice to see his sister Linh again and meet the parents who raised two of the smartest, most talented, friendliest, hardworking and genuine people I have ever met. Tuan's father is a professor of English and his mother is a travel agent. I have briefly chatted with them on Skype and we had an interesting conversation with lots of laughs and smiles. Their English is great and I was surprised to learn they already knew so much about me. I look forward to more time and conversation with this awesome family.

This trip is more or less an open book without many reservations - my favorite way to travel. I'm lucky to be staying at their home (instead of a hotel) to experience real living while having a better understanding of the local news, events, music, culture, food, art and architecture. In addition to spending most of the time in Hanoi, we will be taking a trip down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Southern Vietnam.

During our trip we are meeting international architect friends of Tuan, development executives, and Dr. Do Tu Lan, a national official working at Vietnam's Ministry of Construction. Dr. Lan is the deputy director at the Urban Development Agency, holds a PhD in architecture and is an associate professor. She has an interest in eco-cities and Tuan and I had the opportunity to meet her when she came to Portland this year. She was visiting Portland seeking urban development expertise across the world. I do agree Portland is a great place to look for a few ideas - both build and even larger ideas waiting to take shape.

Throughout this trip I want to learn more about Vietnamese culture, planning and development through first hand experiences and look forward to discussing design process and issues that they are dealing with. It will be great to have an exchange of ideas about building sustainably and compare challenges and solutions from each of our regions.

-Nick Mira