Last month esteemed architecture critic and Dwell magazine founder Karrie Jacobs swung through Portland (along with Seattle and Vancouver, BC) to promote her new book and make a couple appearances. Now that visit is described in her Metropolis magazine column.
Jacobs credits the three Pacific Northwest cities for being places where "the progressive power of urban planning is taken very seriously, and concepts like livability and sustainability dominate the local civic culture to such an extent that to visit all three in rapid succession...is to drop in on another country. It's not the United States or Canada, but more highly evolved combination of the two." Dude, thanks eh!
In describing Portland, Jacobs first touches briefly on the South Waterfront neighborhood and the "spectacular aerial tramway" as an ideal example of a major urban development "that promised to refresh the urban landscape in conspicuous ways." But interestingly, a greater portion of Jacobs' attention is devoted to the Living Smart program for narrow-lot homes.
Living Smart, for those who don't remember, began with a design competition a couple of years ago to address the problem of hideous housing on lots less than 36 feet wide. The city was almost prepared to ban them, because builders were tearing down existing homes to build two in their spots. But the creation of homes through Living Smart is aiding density by allowing the homes (along with a corresponding ban on developments for five years on lots where a single-family home has been torn down) but encouraging better design through a streamlined permit process associated with winning designs.
The only problem, Jacobs contends (as I and others also have) is that the first two permit-ready houses "are traditional even though the catalog of winners contains a range of styles." Project manager Anne Hill told Jacobs, as she's previously said, that the first two plans were chosen for "mass appeal", and that one of the next two will be contemporary.
Jacobs also offers her critique of the first two Living Smart permit-ready homes. "One, a steeply gabled 1,779-square-foot existing house by local architect Bryan Higgins, is essentially a shotgun house that grew two extra stories. The other, designed by Berkeley, California architect Roxana Vargas-Greenan with a side-facing gable and fussy detailing would put it squarely in the tradition of Seaside [the Disney-sponsored new urbanist development with lots of neo-historic flourishes]." In Higgins' case, though, I think he deserves some credit for being a pioneer and making his house happen before Living Smart even started.
Jacobs closes by revisiting the age-old question of whether restrictions inhibit good design as much as they encourage it. "I take it as a reminder," she says, "that while careful vetting may keep out the bad, it can also suppress the good." That's certainly true, but it's a dilemma that could go on forever, and I don't blame the city of Portland for taking a stand and using the power of law to encourage good design. Will that prevent some good ideas? Of course. But like the old Hollywood production code, those restrictions can also foster an all the more subtle brand of creativity in the right hands.