Pioneer Courthouse Square, often called Portland’s “living room,” has been the metaphorical and physical heart of the city since it opened in 1984. If I ask anyone where the center of town is, they always pick the square as its centerpiece. In fact, it’s hard to remember anything else being there as the world-renowned plaza feels like its been there for ages. Perhaps it’s the design, reminiscent of the Renaissance Italian piazzas and the ancient Greek amphitheaters, that makes the open space feel older than it is, or perhaps it’s the lack of any overall impression of the parking garage that came before it (pictured above). Pioneer Square, as the locals call it omitting the namesake courthouse across the street, has received a lot of international attention, and the plaza has even received design awards like the American Planning Association’s Great Public Spaces in 2008 and the #4 World’s Best Squares and Plazas in 2004. The square is so popular now, that the park managers are turning away events so that the square can actually be enjoyed ‘as is’ from time to time.
I’ve often wondered about how things could have been different. Prior to the Meier & Frank parking lot, the block had been the site of the grandiose Portland Hotel until 1951. The hotel was built in the 1880’s designed by the local architectural firm Whidden & Lewis with Beaux-Arts masters McKim, Mead, & White. If this hotel were there today, how would downtown feel? Would it have a centerpiece? It was a grand structure and would have been an amazing asset for modern Portland, but how would Portlander’s feel about their city without ever knowing its ‘living room.’ Could a different block have the same effect as this one if the public square had been built elsewhere? Perhaps Waterfront Park could have been the heart, or perhaps a park block like Director Park.
Unfortunately, just as the fate of other McKim, Mead, & White masterpieces, like New York’s Penn Station, the Portland Hotel met with the wrecking ball in the name of post-war progress. After the dust settled, the block became a dual level parking lot for suburban drivers to shop downtown. Meier & Frank, the owners, proposed building a massive new 800-stall parking garage in 1969, but the idea was shot down by the city after a good deal of public outcry. I cannot even imagine how a parking structure taller than Jackson Tower could have changed Portland forever. Had the garage been built, would the downtown renaissance ever occurred? More than likely, but perhaps we would have a dead zone created by the shadows and unfriendliness of the parking structure as it probably would be still standing today. After years of negotiating and power plays, the city gained control and put out a design competition for a new public space. The competition came down to five finalists who all had vastly different ideas of what Portland needed:
The winner was Willard Martin’s design, which altered very little from proposal to construction. The main difference being that there was to be two glass “tea houses” instead of the single Starbucks we know today. Overall, I am pleased with the design competition judges’ decision to go with a more timeless design than the other proposals. The Halprin design disappoints, for he had designed the well-loved Keller Fountain and the other South Auditorium District fountains, and his proposal looked like The Jetsons version of Disneyland’s Main Street USA. The Halprin design would not have aged well, and would have cemented Portland as a post-modern cityscape especially with Michael Graves’ Portland Building being completed in 1982. The Eisenman and Robertson proposal was interesting, but I fear it wasn’t interesting enough to be a great gathering place, and looked to be less functional than the Martin design with the two glass enclosures and micro gardens. The Geddes and Kihn proposal had some nice elements: covered areas for vending and events, lighting elements for night usage, and a sense of focus toward the center with a large amphitheater for gatherings. The obtrusive ‘green’ wall against Broadway is a no-go for me, and the design lacked transparency on the North and South sides as well. The Machado and Silvetti design reminds me too much of a church and church plaza, which would be great if the public space was only to be used as a gathering place for speeches. The North and South street sides are lined afterthoughts, and the plaza is wide and square, devoid of sitting space and interesting topography.
I am thankful that Willard Martin’s proposal won the competition, mostly because his design is, in my opinion, as timeless as the old European plazas he gave credit to. I have to say that I like Pioneer Courthouse Square more than most of the European squares I have personally experienced. Just as Frederick Law Olmsted perfected the civic park and Daniel Burnham perfected urban design during the City Beautiful Movement, Martin perfected the American civic square.