There is a reoccurring conversation I hear in Portland about the city’s somewhat drab architecture. For a city with an enormous amount of fantastic design talent, there is seemingly very little to show for it between the city’s streets. This city itself is nationally recognized as a leader in urban design, community involvement, transportation and land use planning, but Portland is seen near the bottom when it comes to perceived architectural innovation. Local critics will always remind the world of Pietro Belluschi’s Commonwealth Building’s place in history, the hidden jewel that is the Marilyn Moyer Meditation Chapel, and the devastating effect that Graves’ Portland Building had on civic architectural competitions, but the few notable outliers are usually masked over by the underwhelming banality of the rest of the urban fabric. What is it that makes Portland feel so bland?
There are several unprovable arguments for why this is, many of which have valid and observable truths behind them. There are just as many theories on how to foster capital ‘A’ Architecture here as there are explanations for the supposed lack thereof, but the conversation usually revolves around one of three main concepts. Those conversations can be categorized as opportunity for experimentation, starchitecture, and the most dreaded of all topics money.
I hear the conversation about lack of opportunity the most. International Architectural competitions have, in large, fallen out of favor in the US, especially in post-Graves Portland. Most projects are now short-listed, bureaucratically chosen, or small committee approved, even though our most prized public space was the result of a grand publicly-involved competition. There are still design competitions, of course, the short-listed and over-budget Aerial Tram competition comes to mind, but they are few and far between and most commonly in the form of a localized and risk-wary Request For Proposal. In a city whose two-decade monetary focus has been on non-auto transportation infrastructure, with a dash of public parks and library building thrown in, can we bring back international competitions for civic buildings without falling into the political quagmire that currently surrounds it? Seems like a hard sell to me in the currently perceived economic climate, but perhaps an international public competition could be feasible for a larger project like the upcoming Multnomah County Courthouse instead of the usual RFP methodology. Perhaps change could come from including innovative design into the RFP language, or making the competitions more lucrative to bolster more involvement.
Public buildings are not the only source of potential ‘Architecture’ though, as the private realm creates far more of the urban landscape. A few daring firms have attempted to design build their way into the city’s history, but few have made any dramatic changes to the skyline. Skylab’s proposed 27-story Weave Building back in 2008 was unrealized primarily due to the recession, and now a 10-story version sits idly on the shelf awaiting brighter days. There is also a notable lack of architectural philanthropy in the city. Many mid-sized American cities have privately-funded civic constructs that help define their urban personality, whereas Portland’s most visible gifted landmarks include the Moda Center Arena and the almost 120 year-old Union Station clock tower. There are plenty of philanthropists in the metro area, but it appears none have recently been architectural enthusiasts. As architecture becomes more of a common interest, how can we change this?
My least favorite conversation is the one regarding ‘starchitecture,’ the desire by many to have a starchitect come to town to put Portland “on the map.” The Bilbao Effect has reemerged in the American dialogue, as Dubai and Beijing embrace Bigism, and “Architecture” is getting replaced by brand names worldwide. The Bilbao Effect has been proven to be a mixed bag of opportunity, much like our Streetcar is to urban renewal: it has to be the right kind of intervention with the right kind of external and preexisting conditions to make it work. ‘Brand name architecture’ can also sink or swim a project, and not just because of the now-socially accepted cost overruns. The real risk is that of its fashionability and the Internationalism of the designs. A Gehry or Hadid may look good today, but how will it age? How easy is the design replicated by others, or themselves, elsewhere? Most importantly, how does it fit into the local context? Usually the answer is that it doesn’t fit, and that’s the point. It’s flashy decoration pure and simple, a decoration based on a brand image.
I personally find those constructs obtuse and inappropriate, especially to the local populations and immediate environs. Many will disagree with me, as they should, but I would take the unadorned elegance of a Zumthor any day over the blunt literalism of a Koolhaas (really, you made the ‘heart’ of the Seattle Library a giant red aorta?). Portland has the Portland Building as a permanent reminder of the dangers of fashionable architecture and their associated costs, short and long term, and I have seen that wariness turn away projects by both Maya Lin and Frank Gehry back in the early days of the Pearl District. Could a starchitect bring an architectural presence to Portland? Sure, just be careful what you’re asking for…
When it comes down to it, architecture is driven by money one way or another. Whether it’s government offices or a condo tower, a building has to pencil out financially or it won’t be built. Market rate construction is far more susceptible to financing issues, and is simultaneously the single greatest source of boring architecture. In Portland, our culture and climate have made indoor environments the primary concern of tenants, both for work and housing, and has had a resulting effect on the exteriors of buildings. Only recently has there been a renewed focus on skins, with the upcoming Burnside Bridgehead buildings as prime examples. Materiality and details are also socially acceptable to be in a rough form, with only high-end restaurants and boutiques spending money on innovative finishes. There are very few examples in town where the interior, exterior, and materiality all come together to make unique and enjoyable spaces, to make great Architecture, spaces that move you.
The given reasoning behind our standardized urbanity is usually prepackaged in a four-letter word: cost. Which is fair to an extent, but then how do you account for the success of Rural Studio or the like? The real issue is the lack of trust in innovation and the systemic structure of construction financing. The highly unusual design of the Fair-Haired Dumbbell by Guerrilla Development would have had a hard time getting loan approval had it not crowd-sourced its financing and proven themselves previously as crafters of great spaces and masters of minimized budgets.
There is, of course, more to this conversation than stated. Too many times do we see innovation squelched by budgetary issues, funding strings, design review differences, or in the misguided name of historic preservation. At the same time, the last two things save some projects from having very real negative effects on the community, whereas the first two almost always end up making things worse. Regardless, all of these factors make architecture the hardest art form to maintain vision, especially those of a single visionary for better or for worse.
How do we then craft good architecture as teams or individuals? Do we need a cultural shift, or do we need to change at all? Is Portland’s blandness part of its livability? Perhaps, but I sense that there’s more to it than that, and things have been slowly changing over the last decade. For every ten schlocked together McInfills, I am starting to see at least one genuine work of architecture unceremoniously root itself nearby. All of the buildings featured in this post, along with many unmentioned, are not the most Pinterested of architectural works, but those that have experienced them first hand know the difference between them and the kitsch next door. They may appear bland, but they are truly innovative design, they are part of Portland’s Architecture.