After shooting down a proposed Apple store in Portland and successfully getting the impressive Kurisu mixed-use project in the North Mississippi neighborhood dumbed down, the curmudgeonly power of Portland Historic Landmarks Commission has risen once again.
As Fred Leeson reported in last Thursday's Oregonian, a design by TVA Architects and Walker Macy Landscape Architecture for the new covered Saturday Market space along Waterfront Park and the Burnside Bridge, which "earned favorable comments from a a citizen advisory committee" and received approval from the Parks & Recreation bureau after months of study and public comment.
The project also has ramifications far beyond Saturday Market (for those of us not needing hemp necklaces). It's a very prominent site along the Willamette and provides a much-needed covered space for enjoying the park during the rainy months. I'd love to see more of these winter garden-like, indoor-outdoor public spaces in our city.
But because Waterfront Park lies in the Skidmore-Old Town Historic District, the Historic Landmarks Commission also weighed in. And they didn't like the design.
There's no doubt the light steel frame and boxy, diagonal form is pretty modern. TVA more than most firms seems unapologetically modern in that way. The design consists of two adjacent sloping pieces that mimic the slope of the adjacent bridge. I don't want to say I'm in love with this design, but I feel far more reticent about being lumped in with the opposing viewpoint.
According to commission member Carrie Richter, "It looks like it belongs at the airport." Instead, Leeson reports, the commission wants the design to "reflect historical references by acknowledging street patterns, warehouse shapes or maritime themes."
It seems like this is a debate that keeps happening as it extends from project to project. A modern structure is planned for a historic neighborhood and seeks to establish a contemporary identity of its own. But we have reason to feel protective of historic architecture, districts and neighborhoods. It's hard to argue either of those basic principles. So what's the answer?
I personally feel that if the design is good, modern and historic structures can stand next to each other and actually both benefit from their disparate looks. One usually doesn't want any one structure to stand out incongruously if it harms the surrounding historic architectural fabric, but who benefits when a modern building's design is changed to fit in at the expense of the integrity of the design?
Regardless of whether TVA and Walker Macy's design here survives or is changed, I think the design community and city government need to take a look at how the design review, historic resources and other city agencies can benefit the design community and the urban fabric without taking away from it. Because a sizable portion of interested parties (myself included) worry the latter may be happening too often.