Over the last week I've found myself at a couple different Portland Art Museum locations. First I was in the main Pietro Belluschi building to review a couple exhibits there for The Oregonian. Then, yesterday, I made my first trip to the new but still under-construction Northwest Film Center headquarters at SW 10th and Salmon getting ready for my film show on June 7. The visits got me thinking.
While in the regular art museum space, I made the trip underground from the Belluschi building to the new Jubitz Center next door in the former Masonic Temple, now the Mark Building. I've always hated this dark passageway, but with the courtyard above (between the two buildings) required to be maintained as a through street for pedestrians, it's understandable why they had to make do with this connection.
Still, while spending time there this weekend, it hit me: what PAM needs for the underground connecting space is a light well. In particular I thought of another project I wrote about a couple years ago, the renovation of St. Martin In the Fields church in London. They had a similar situation, with dark and depressing underground space between two adjacent buildings where the courtyard needed to be maintained. Eric Parry Architects designed a wonderful light well that stands several feet high above ground and bathes the underground space in natural illumination while connecting it to the outside world. This underground space at PAM could be really transformed with such a connection. There's even another, much better known precedent for such a move: I.M. Pei's famous pyramid entry at The Louvre in Paris. I think light wells are both cool to look at and born of funciton. Who wants to spend any significant time in a space without natural light? I know Ann Beha of the Boston area was the design architect, but local firm SERA was the architect of record. Can anyone from SERA speak to whether introducing natural light was considered?
Also, with the NW Film Center now occupying the north end of the block adjacent to the Art Museum, one starts to see a real campus developing in one line with the Belluschi building, the Mark building, and what will eventually be a new building on the vacant lot in between. Yet because the buildings are confined to the regular street grid, it doesn't feel monolithic.
The fact that I've written about PAM numerous times is mostly just indicative of the fact that I love art and art museums and their architecture. But I think it is indeed true that such art museums have become our most important public places, like secular churches.
When I visited PAM on Saturday, I'd have been appalled at how few people were there--the place was all but empty--if not for the fact that is so often that way. PAM has just got to do something to invigorate itself, not just getting more great works in the permanent collection on display (a contemporary art wing without Warhol? Rothko's former hometown and there's one minor work on the wall? No Basquiat, Haring?) but in making this a place people want to come to on a regular basis.