BY TAZ LOOMANS AND BRIAN LIBBY
First came a public talk at Ziba on December 10, which included Ron Paul, the market’s executive director, as well as travel Portland CEO Jeff Miller, Melvin Mark Development president Dan Petrusich (his firm is developing the larger office tower the market is a part of), and Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers.
The last time Portland had a true public market was in 1942, Paul told the audience, between the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges on the western seawall. James Beard, who was born and raised in Portland, shopped here and at another more informal market on Yamhill Street downtown, and was heavily influenced by his experiences there.
The new market will go on a site not too far away from that of the original seawall location, at the Morrison bridgehead under the on and off ramps. Certainly a challenging site, it also holds tremendous opportunity to revitalize the eastern edge of downtown. "We are looking to depave a parking lot and put up a paradise," quipped Paul.
Norway-based firm Snøhetta (which also now has offices in New York and San Francisco), named after a mountain in that country, has been charged to take on this challenging site and transform it into the best, most well-considered market in the world, yet one based on Portland's DNA. Dykers warned the audience it was too soon to expect renderings and a design concept. The design forum, Dykers explained, is the initial process of gathering information and feedback from stakeholders.
Instead, Dykers showed a variety of images showing previous projects Snøhetta has done around the world to give an idea of the type of firm that is leading the design process. Dykers said that when people think of important architecture, they think of iconic buildings. But the thing is, human beings often get cut out of that equation. Snøhetta, he said, is out to reintegrate the human experience back into architecture. “When we create architecture, we create a zoo for ourselves," he said, explaining that the built environment is a way to domesticate human beings; Dykers quoted Marshall McLuhan: "The environment humans create becomes their medium for defining their role in it."
Snøhetta has been around since 1989, starting with the iconic Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt. This led to other signature projects including the Oslo Opera House, the Museum Pavilion at the Word Trade Center site at Ground Zero, an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Times Square Reconstruction. Dykers proudly stated that his firm has headed 600 projects, big and small, around the world thus far.
Audience questions brought out some more concrete answers from Dykers as to the design of the market. In answer to whether the market would connect to the river, he said it would be irresponsible not to connect to it and said that they would even look into the possibility to activating the actual river, not only as a place to look at but as a place to inhabit. And asked whether the market would include an event space, he said that it was a real possibility and that they are considering the space as more than just a market, and is open to integrating other programmatic elements that make sense. And in answer to the question of whether the market would incorporate the Morrison Bridge somehow, Dykers said he is open to all possibilities and joked that they are willing to go as far as the Portland Bureau of Transportation will let them.
Two days later, Dykers and a contingent from Snøhetta stopped by the University of Oregon for a roundtable discussion with professor Sebastian Guivernau and his class, who are using the market as the subject of a term-long seminar. As architects munched on a catered lunch, students (apparently not included in the order) taped to the walls a series of words and images denoting the topics students have already begun exploring, with headlines like MARKET TENT, MARKET BUSINESS, SENSING, URBAN AGRICULTURE: VERTICAL FRAMING, RAMPS & HIGHWAYS, BOTANICAL, MULTICULTURAL, and SHARED SHELTER. At Guivernau’s request, two students presented their findings, one on the possibility of including medicinal plants at the market and another exploring how the market could engage the city’s homeless population.
Rather than considering the topics, Dykers first cautioned the students about their approach. They were there to hear get feedback from students, but also to teach.
“If you’re just using an image you downloaded, you haven’t really done the research,” he said. “You have to produce it to get to know the image better. You have to really interact with things. I wouldn’t just find an image and have it inspire you and think about it. Even when you start to draw things, be careful about how you draw. Arrows don’t really exist in real life. I rarely walk somewhere where the arrow tells me where to go.”
“Both of you began how most people would, by saying ‘I,’ as in, ‘I’m interested in this,’” Dykers added. "It’s not about you. It’s about everybody else. We’re in a service industry. We have to discuss things outside our professional development. It’s important that you change your mindset to be beyond thinking about this as a personal adventure. And that helps you in many, many ways. When you present to people and escape the word ‘I’ it changes from you personally to a larger issue. People have a harder time being mean to larger issues. Removing yourself from the subject matter can be a powerful tool.”
Dykers also reminded Guivernau’s students that producing a good design requires discipline.
“It’s not a normal job,” he said of being an architect. “It’s almost more a life choice. As a result, there’s a lot on our minds we feel we need to solve. We pull out the book of inspiration and feel we need to solve the problems of the world and manage the issues of society. All those things are important. But we need to remember what our foremost task is: to provide something that really works on a fundamental level. If it doesn’t work, it’s a car without an engine, or a bicycle without tires. Everything you do has to tie back to the function of the market. Once you get down, once the bicycle has tires, then you can start about what it’s going to do to society, what color it should be, what kind of framing. That’s an important challenge. In general, architecture schools can lose sight of the fact that this is a capacity we have to provide.”
“About the homeless and trying to provide some degree of social care for people: it’s a really tough subject,” Dykers continued, addressing one student’s query. “In Norway, which is really socially progressive, there are many people homeless because there’s no way they’ll go into a home even if you gave it to them. I would question or be very careful about how you don’t see yourself as an angel. You really have to question your motives.”
One student challenged the team regarding the location, openly wondering if wedging the market inside two curving bridge ramps was ideal. Paul provided the response.
“In thinking about locations, we contemplated urban crossroads versus cul de sacs," he said. "Where would the market be a pioneer, or a catalyst? Those are important variables, among others: size, space, and not having to acquire quarter blocks over a decade. The selection criteria coalesced around this site. Yes, it was made available by the county. But those criteria we spent years developing, particularly its relationship to Portland’s historic markets. We’re a block away from those old markets. Once there, then the question of how we make that as we talked about the best market for Portland. As a group, we’re a nonprofit with a board and a lot of community outreach. We’re resolute that this was the right site to proceed with. The authenticity quotient is probably the most important factor for us, that it’s not manufactured, appliquéd, or invented out of someone else’s DNA. It emerges from ours.”
“The context, the connectivity and the qualities of place that are larger than the site itself has really shaped things,” added Michelle Delk, Snøhetta's lead landscape architect for the project. “Not a lot of people are talking about the rounded site. They’re talking about how you get to the site, how are people crossing the streets, what’s the relationship to the river. We’re thinking about how this notion fits into the larger city, both as a culturally important place in the city and what is the context of the buildings around it. I’m a landscape architect. Important to me is that we think about landscape as a larger place. Often times plants mistaken for landscape. They’re incredibly important, but plants don’t equal landscape. That larger urban environment and those qualities have been an important topic of conversation. Maybe we don’t have any idea what the physical market is yet, but we’re starting to see what’s shaping it.”
Dykers did take on the ramp question more specifically, referencing a historical precedent at both nights' events. “We’ve looked at Trajan’s market for inspiration. It was a market and literally the center of Rome. And it had a ramp going through the market,” he said. “It was fascinating to see that connection. There are other places in the world where bridges are used creatively. But don’t look at it in an idealistic way. We learned a lot from the [Morrison] bridge people. It’s not seismically upgraded. There are a number of challenges structurally to maintain the bridge if you remove things. Once you start to cut things off it starts to affect their stresses. But it’s probably one of the bigger subject matters we have.”
Asked to describe the firm’s design process, Snøhetta’s Nic Rader said the first principle was that “we do not start alone. None of us ever go back and start sketching in a corner. We sit around a table and talk. Through that talking, we’re always careful when we do start drawing, it’s not by ourselves. We’re grabbing the same sheet of paper. It’s a democratic creation of ideas and designs.”
While Snøhetta has a long way to go, and the site constraints are challenging, perhaps this egalitarian way of working, as well as the public and imput involvement the firm embraces with events such as these, are the best evidence yet that they are a good match for Portland.