Last night, as part of design week, Carrie Strickland and Bill Neburka of Project Cityscope and Works Partnership put together a panel of some of the city’s most influential architects to discuss the so-called ‘Myth of Portland.’ Portland’s most renowned architectural critic Randy Gragg co-moderated the event, and was flanked by Thomas Hacker of Hacker and Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works on one side with Bill and Carrie from Works on the other. The objective of the night was to create a somewhat casual dialogue of the state of architectural design in Portland, but quickly became focused on what makes Portland architecture so unique. The materially-rich atmosphere of the recently completed Framework building, where the event took place, created the perfect backdrop for the convivial conversation, and at one point became the epitomized topic at hand.
Without delving into everything that was discussed, the grand takeaway was that Portland is indeed unique, but not in the traditional, built environment sense that makes most places special. Portland lacks ‘individual icons,’ as Cloepfil noted, that, based on the whims of single patrons or institutions, usually create a city’s image. Instead, Portland is more of an ‘ensemble’ that does not exclude anybody, and as Hacker added is a city that is ‘deeply urban,’ vibrant and supportive of the everyday. Both argued that, while a good deal of Portland’s architecture has been deemed as being terrible by critics, the base level of design in the city is far better than the equivalent elsewhere in other cities. The reason being that the people who make up this city care. The ‘collective tapestry urban model’ of Portland, Brad continued, sets the bar higher, for both the quality of material and design. The main argument was that Portland, unlike other places, knows what it doesn’t want. After the detrimental effects of the 1960’s experiments in urban renewal, the city came together and created the community design guidelines and a design review process to enforce them.
The night’s big question, so to speak, was how to maintain the ‘ensemble’ while the city goes through this period of rapid growth and changes to its built environment. While many of the complexities of the city’s current predicament were mentioned, it was of particular interest to the panel how Portland became what it has become in the first place. The five agreed that Portland is what it is by being poor. As a second-tier city with no economy in the mid to late parts of the last century, Portland did not become ‘rich and destroyed themselves,’ as other cities had Hacker noted. Cloepfil riffed on the idea proclaiming that Portland’s biggest asset was being a poor city with very few fortune 500 companies. The old proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” played out perfectly for the city, and the urban fabric and culture that we see today is a direct result of it. Hacker made sure to point out that Portland was already a ‘powerful’ place, the ‘right place’ that needed ‘just the right stimulation’ that ultimately came from young people over the past four decades. Portland feels more like a European city, mostly because of its small blocks that increase the amount of publicly-owned space, the region’s focus on alternative transportation, and the push for a vibrant streetscape. Bill chimed in that Portland has also always been a ‘two levels of separation’ city, meaning that anyone could directly communicate with anyone else barrier free; notably even the mayor, something that does not happen in other parts of the country.
Randy made note of the fact that Portland’s economy had four times the growth of San Francisco and that it is expecting to absorb another 200,000 people in the next decade and a half. This type of growth has not occurred since the decade following the Lewis and Clark Exposition back in 1905. Most of the panel, while understanding the constraints and complex critical issues related to growth, appeared to be rather unconcerned by it, noting how this growth has been a long time coming, has been planned for, and that the city has adapted at its best when it grows ‘organically’ rather than with individual or institutional interference. Brad did mention that the best new massive developments are created by government bodies with the support of the local population and not the free market, noting the perimeter developments of Berlin and Amsterdam as opposed to that of the American suburbs, but that those kind of additions are politically impossible here at this time. There were a few comments that cautioned the influence of outsiders on Portland’s lowly market, namely Wall Street money flowing into real estate and national developers looking to commodify the city’s success.
While the attendance of this event was limited, the messages retained from it should be reiterated. First, Portland is actually primed for this time of growth and should embrace it. Second, it is the people who make the city and not the built environment per se, as the architectural fabric is a direct echo of the community and not a cause of it. Third, while many critics lament the lack of any significant monuments in the city’s skyline, the city is probably better off by not having them. The real icons of Portland are the lesser celebrated ones, locally designed ones, like Pietro Belluschi’s Commonwealth Building and John Yeon’s Watzek House, buildings that are based on an ‘integrity of thought,’ as Neburka put it, and highlight the ‘unbelievably complex regionalism’ that exists according to Hacker. Lastly, it will take local, creative individuals to guide the redevelopment of East Portland and make it part of the city. East of 82nd was developed in an automobile age and annexed into the city only after it was haphazardly built up. The city is refocusing its attention to this long-neglected part of Portland, and wants to utilize the anticipated population and economic growth to radically reimagine its potential.
While only briefly mentioned at the event, the increasing cost of residential real estate in Portland has begun changing the tunes of many of its hard-lined preservationists. While many have wanted to retain the old streetcar-era, low-density suburbs as they are, reality has now hit that without adding new units, Portland’s inner residential areas will soon, if they haven’t already, become unaffordable to those who live there now. Last week, the City Club of Portland reversed their position, and now recommend making garden apartments and duplexes legal again. This echoes a similar position held by many of the candidates for the city’s mayoral position, including perceived front-runner Ted Wheeler. Late last year, Robert Liberty wrote an excellent piece on what should be the right density for Portland, appropriately titled My Illegal Neighborhood. [Update: BikePortland had an excellent article on the ‘missing middle’ after this story’s publication, and the Portland City Council has proposed amendments to the 2035 Comprehensive Plan that include the potential re-legalization of duplexes and courtyard apartments (pdf) in single-family zones after a Bureau of Planning & Sustainability survey (pdf) found that residents would prefer single-family home demolitions leading to the creation of more units rather than single “boxy” McMansions or high-end “faux-historic” replicas. As a side note, the survey also found that people, in general, were less concerned with contemporary architectural designs for infill housing, as they were more concerned with the character of suburban-style kitsch not fitting in with the existing fabric…]
Portland’s forecasted growth will forever change the city, but this change should not be seen as negative. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity, an opportunity to further the region’s goals of creating community infrastructure and retaining its open, innovative, supportive, and adaptable shared streetscape.