Portland State University has transformed dramatically over the last two decades, what was once the State of Oregon’s third largest university has now leapfrogged both Oregon State University and University of Oregon in student enrollment. The school’s existing classroom space, student housing, and other facilities have been strained by this growth, and PSU’s downtown location makes expansion both difficult and costly. THA Architecture’s Urban Center and Plaza, completed in 2000, is one of the urban school’s most dramatic additions, not necessarily the great architecture of the building, but the influence the project has had on the entire campus itself. Previously, PSU was naturally focused toward the Park Blocks, usurping the city-owned parkway in the absence of a traditional Jeffersonian green space, but the addition of the Urban Plaza has reoriented the entire school further to the east to its actual geographic center. This new urban node is now framed by Yost Grube Hall’s Recreation Center and by the intersection of Trimet’s light rail extension and Portland Streetcar lines. Due to this reorientation, Mongomery Street has become the cross-Park Blocks axis of the campus, stretching from the athletic fields to the Urban Plaza and beyond to the Lawrence Halprin fountains and pedestrian network. Future plans already call for Montgomery to be completely pedestrianized, envisioned as the central ‘green’ promenade, showcasing the school’s dedication to sustainability.
The PSU School of Business Administration is now looking to upgrade its image and rectify the last generation’s mistakes regarding their home, the Urban Plaza’s place-deadening neighbor, with a complete remodel and addition to their full block site. The original building, completed in 1981 between SW Montgomery and Harrison streets, was designed to limit connectivity and street presence, a design philosophy based on late-70’s brutalism and urban renewal theory. The existing 100,000 sq. ft. structure will be extensively renovated, upgrading the facade and utilities to contemporary environmental standards while simultaneously reorganizing the programmatic elements. The building’s half-block landscaped plaza, that has been primarily ignored by students and staff for three decades, will be removed along with the existing pedestrian bridge over the site in order to make room for a new 31,000 sq. ft. addition. Two new entry plaza ‘eddies’ will open up the new construction to the east and west flow along Montgomery with an intermediate atrium and north-south lobby which will act as the overall building’s heart, complete with terraced seating and informal meeting spaces.
The Boston office of Germany based Behnisch Architekten is working with SRG Partnership to design the full-block remodel and addition, which is currently undergoing design review. Behnisch Architekten has crafted numerous educational facilities, primarily in Europe, and have specialized in creating dynamic atmospheres for students to engage in. Similar to the John and Frances Angelos Law Center for the University of Baltimore, the firm has centered its design on the main atrium space, a multi-level interior open space crisscrossed by a web of stairways and intermixed circulation. Portland-based SRG has worked with PSU before remodeling the School of Architecture’s Shattuck Hall, and are also the architects behind the UO School of Business’ Lillis Business Complex in Eugene.
The program is organized in a simple yet methodical way: the business school will be consolidated into the lower five floors, the Office of International Affairs will take over the sixth, and four retail spaces will face the transit mall and Broadway on their respective ground levels. The new component, a somewhat precarious stack of offset floor plates, is to be skinned with a major wood element and ample glazing in four east-west facing ‘tubes,’ whereas the existing building will be reclad with a playful array of seemingly-random punched openings above a ground floor podium. The revised building will be completely passively cooled, with plentiful daylighting, and is aiming for LEED Gold certification. At one point the addition was proposed to be constructed with cross laminated timber, but the construction schedule proved to be incongruent with the time frame needed for the new CLT production facility in Riddle, Oregon to begin formal operations. As with any public building, 1% of the building’s budget will go toward new public artwork, which is currently undergoing a selection process.
The design process for the addition was greatly influenced by the SBA’s requirements, primarily the restrictions that the expansion consume only half of the existing open space and that it must create an ‘open and welcoming face’ for the school. The proposed design takes on those characteristics by opening the building’s internal circulation outward, creating an entirely new internal north-south connection while maintaining the existing northwest and northeast exterior entry point plazas. The need for less and less circulation as the building moves upward lead to a sloped atrium form that joins the new and old buildings together at the confluence of the two ground floor corridors. In order to delineate the northeast plaza as the primary building entrance, the rebuilt hardscape will taper outward toward the Urban Plaza and the existing Thomas Morandi sculpture, Yankee Champion, will be moved to a more prominent position facing SW 6th Avenue. This combined use of triangular forms, the horizontal plaza and the vertical atrium, reinforce the welcoming notion the school wants to portray, an open embrace that will give students and visitors visual clues as to how the building operates within.
Already the proposal is monumentally better than the existing conditions, where a defensive bunker of heavy, solid masses and dark portals will be replaced by a light and open composite of stacked forms and playful openings. The shift from minimizing circulation, in the most efficient manner possible, to maximizing circulation, to its utmost potential, will be a refreshing change from the claustrophobic collection of labyrinthine connections that currently comprise PSU. The only real downfall is that the project scope does not include pedestrianizing Montgomery Street, nor does it include the renovation or removal of the underused and imposing sky bridges above it. The network of bridges have their utilitarian purposes, namely as utility conduits and as access points for pre-ADA buildings, but their current condition is less than ideal. The project team is keeping the potential for future alterations to the public realm in mind as they design the new business school, but it would have been such a great opportunity to be able to expand this portion of the campus’ east-west axis as a single congruent thought.