The proposed demolition of the modern architecture landmark Memorial Coliseum has been steadily been gaining attention beyond Portland and Oregon's borders.
In 1965, along with 20,000 others, Allen Ginsberg saw the Beatles play Skidmore Owings and Merrill’s Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon, and then he wrote a poem about it: “the million children / … / become one animal / in the New World Auditorium”.
In 2009 the Coliseum finds itself at that difficult age. Threatened with the prospect of demolition in recent weeks, it appears not quite old enough to be widely perceived as venerable heritage. Yet it’s not so young or unimpressive that it hasn’t found a nostalgic place in the hearts of locals, and an aesthetic one amongst architects and design buffs.
The place was only five years old when the Beatles invaded, and Ginsberg clearly saw its openness and modernity – the windowed curtain walls sitting around a concrete arena - as part of the same spirit of optimism and youthfulness embodied in the band’s triumph.
Yet their apparent absence as factors in the decision-making process – until dissenters raised their voice in objection - highlights the bemusing public sector thought processes that often accompany this type of redevelopment.
And the new policy of a renovated, repurposed Coliseum and new stadium elsewhere comes with a familiar caveat: it will cost millions more from the public purse than the original plan. This places the guilty burden of increased spending for taxpayers on the victorious objectors, and somehow implies that they may be as much a nuisance as a legitimate voice of dissent.
The same tensions between preservation, progress, and public taste get played out all over the world, all the time. Still, the parallels point up the truth that the State often falls down on preserving crucial smaller examples of enlightened public building. Their survival so often depends on the vigilance of an interested community, even where this boils down to simple bafflement at why huge change is needed. But it’s easy for inertia and other priorities to win out over that. And therefore it’s encouraging when structures that are still barely on the radar of public architectural taste can be the focus of a fight.
A thought occurred to me many months ago that if we cannot review demolitions in Portland because of their potential historic value, perhaps its time we review demolitions for their impacts on environmental, social, and cultural sustainability. This is especially important in light of the fact that Portland’s Historic Resource Inventory is more than 25 years old, with no current funding on the table to have it updated. The first inventory remains incomplete and outdated as numerous neighborhoods were never surveyed or have since been annexed into the city limits. This means that Portlanders are potentially losing historic resources - we don’t even know we have - on a weekly basis. And all of this can occur without review or notification.
Still, I try to remain hopeful. The current controversy over the proposed demolition of our “glass palace,” the Memorial Coliseum, has brought to light the inherent connections between preservation and sustainability. Letters from architects, university professors, the US Green Building Council, the National Trust, and my own organization - the Bosco-Milligan Foundation - have emphasized both the architectural significance of the building and the un-sustainable solution of demolishing, once again, a perfectly usable building. I hope that the yet-to-be-determined outcome of this controversy begins a new chapter in Portland, one that truly makes the connection between preservation and sustainability by recognizing the negative impacts of needless building demolition.