As reported by the Portland Mercury's Matt Davis earlier this morning, architect Stuart Emmons addressed City Council today about how saving Memorial Coliseum was the way for Portland to "walk the talk" on being a sustainable design leader.
"We are teed up to become a leading sustainability capital and design capital, but it will take more than just talk," Emmons told the Council. "We will be judged by our actions. Everything we do and are involved in should back up our words physically. We are not doing this in a coordinated, thorough way right now."
"Let's preserve Memorial Coliseum. Not only say 'preserve' it, but really preserve it. Preserve its design integrity respectfully and make it into a sustainable best practice," he said. "Good sustainable practices call for building reuse. We will be nationally chastised for tearing down Memorial Coliseum, or marring its design integrity, no matter how we spin it. We will be a poster child for what not to do. It's the wrong message to send."
Emmons offered the Council a handout filled with pictures of the building as well as New York's Penn Station, the symbolic lesson in preservation from the past. It was enough to garner praise from Commissioner Nick Fish after Emmons' testimony. His brochure also included a picture of a 1960 Corvette, with text saying it "needs new tiers, a new carburetor, and a new paint job. Should we junk it? Or should we restore it?"
He also made three arguments about finances for the Coliseum.
Emmons also had a wonderfully written opinion piece in the Sunday Oregonian, providing a much-needed counter balance to the editorial board's advocacy for the landmark Coliseum's destruction. Here is the text of the architect's essay:
I walked around Memorial Coliseum at sunrise today. Its setting on North Interstate Avenue is amazing, I never noticed this view before: a huge glass wall hanging over a landscaped berm. The plaza we all know was serene at that hour. As I talked to a security guard about the building he was patrolling, a smile came to his face. Memorial Coliseum is so special to Portland and should be saved and restored.
Designed by the Portland office of the firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill in 1960, the coliseum is an excellent example of International Style Modern architecture. Along with Pietro Belluschi's Equitable Building (on Southwest Sixth and Stark) and the Standard Insurance Building (on Southwest Fifth and Taylor), Memorial Coliseum is one of Portland's three premier Modern buildings.
No other Modern buildings in our city rise to this level of high art. The three are different in their approach and use but share one of the main tenets of Modernism: a deceivingly simple, powerful expression of a concept through the use of form, proportion, structure and composition.
In the case of Memorial Coliseum and the Standard, their sites also become a key part of the composition: the Standard set in a passive plaza, with gardens and fountains; Memorial Coliseum now set on a plaza on one side and the landscape berm on the other, setting the stage for a masterwork.
Great examples of this high level of achievement in other cities would include works by Le Corbusier (such as Pavillon Suisse in Paris), Skidmore Owings and Merrill (such as the Lever House in New York), Mies van der Rohe (such as the Seagram Building in New York) and, on a large scale, Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia in Brazil. If the coliseum were a painting, a work of fine art, it would occupy a special place in our art museum and be cherished.
The beauty and sculptural power of Memorial Coliseum derive from its simplicity. Complex problems of function and structure have been culled down to the most basic, minimal expression through an amazing level of rigor, engineering and passion: a huge, magnificently simple, beautifully proportioned, exquisitely detailed glass box encasing a gracefully curved form. It is this contrast between the geometric and the organic forms that gives "the saucer in the box" its true power and brilliance.
Outside, the compositional ideas continue, with a curved canopy set in front of the box, the second organic form, and below, two sunken plazas, one holding a fountain that quiets the space in front of a memorial wall carrying the names of people from Oregon who gave their lives in war.
Back to the box. The box is enormous, and yet it has only four columns. Huge trusses span the whole interior, keeping the interior free for the graceful seating bowl. And the best and unique part of this building are the curtains around the bowl. When open, sunlight pours into the arena, negating the need for most artificial light. This is an extraordinary space, a curved bowl hovering in a glass box for shelter.
Walk out of the arena, and one glass box is in a towering space of glass and form overlooking the river and city beyond. No other public building in our city takes advantage of its site so well and offers such breathtaking views of the skyline. Watching the sun set over Portland from Memorial Coliseum gives me a great feeling about my city.
And so, we have not cared for this treasure as it deserves. No worries. It is still here and ready when we are, when we dare to take the leap. Many Modern buildings are in the same state. But, many have been restored to reach their original intent and grandeur.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim and Saarinen's TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport just went through major renovations that have brought these buildings back to their original magnificence. Skidmore Owings and Merrill's 1952 Lever House went through a major restoration and now it is back to its best condition. These are just a few examples.
Look no farther than to Portland's City Hall and see a wonderful building that was given new life with a comprehensive historic restoration and seismic upgrade, completed in 1998. We love coming into our city building and are jealous of those who are fortunate to work in it.
Imagine a reconditioned Memorial Coliseum glistening against the evening sky, its beautiful curved form inside. People all about. Imagine the pride we all would have in our city, the city that preserves and cherishes its history, its past successes, and looks to its future. This is our Portland.
Great buildings in great cities need to be cherished and taken care of, for they are the riches of the city and tell the story of our place. Memorial Coliseum is part of our history, and one of our treasures.