photos by Brian Libby
2010 began for me not in Portland, but in sunny Pasadena, California to see my beloved Oregon Ducks compete in the nation’s most storied college football game: the Rose Bowl.
Needless to say, the game’s outcome was a disappointment. Oregon hasn’t won the Rose Bowl since 1917, and I really thought going into the game that the Ducks had the better team. But Ohio State played smart, disciplined football with a star-making performance from quarterback Terrelle Pryor, and the Ducks shot themselves in the foot with mistakes.
Even so, I was absolutely blown away by the experience of seeing a football game in the Rose Bowl stadium. And it wasn’t just because I was seeing my Ducks play in the “Granddaddy of Them All”. Watching a game from the Rose Bowl is a spectacular architectural experience.
Sports stadiums for football come in two basic types: the simple bowl and the stacked deck. Bowl-shaped stadiums were once common in the early 20th century as football first became popular, but they have since been vastly outnumbered by stadiums with upper decks hovering over the field-level seats. Besides the Rose Bowl, a handful of bowl stadiums remain, such as Michigan Stadium and Notre Dame Stadium.
When attending a game in one of these football stadiums, some fans actually prefer sitting in upper-deck seats instead of at the top of a bowl, because they’re closer to the field (although higher up in the air). However, if you’re a design enthusiast, there’s no contest as to which stadium makes a purer, more beautiful building and experience: a simple and elegant bowl.
In this way, the Rose Bowl, despite being a work of 1920s modern or art deco architecture, also recalls the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t mean that it has Doric columns or the standard base-middle-top configurations. Rather, the Rose Bowl recalls the symmetry of classical architecture: the notion that there is a spiritual quality evident in the simplicity and symmetry of form.
In ancient Rome, for example, the center of all cities was a large open square called a forum. A descendant of the Greek agora, or assembly place, the forum developed into the Roman amphitheater. Instead of terracing the seats into a hillside, the Romans tiered them within freestanding, oval buildings. If you go to Rome today and look at the ancient Colosseum, which was begun by Emperor Vespasian in AD 70 and completed a decade later by Emperor Titus, it looks very much like the stadium in Pasadena I visited on New Year’s Day.
The awe I experienced being in the Rose Bowl at its blend of massive scale and ultra refined symmetrical forms reminded me of what I love about Memorial Coliseum in Portland. It too is the absolute simplest of forms: an oval seating bowl inside a glass box. It recalls the efforts of the ancient Greeks to strive for perfection in the appearance of their buildings, finding dimensions in harmony with nature and the human body. “Symmetry and the unity of parts to the whole were important to Greek architecture,” writes Debora Dietsch in Architecture for Dummies, “as these elements reflected the democratic city-state pioneered by the Greek civilization.”
In other words, the simple sculptural beauty of Memorial Coliseum – the organically shaped oval seating bowl inside the geometrically perfect glass exterior box – is also a symbol of all that we strive for to make Portland a civic success. What’s more, like the Rose Bowl stadium, Memorial Coliseum can be celebrated as an architectural icon that is at once the most populist of places – an arena for sports and arts and rallies – as well as the most refined expression of art and design.
Over email today I conversed with another member of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, designer Randy Higgins, about this connection - between simple modern 20th century arenas and stadiums and classical Greco-Roman architecture. He had this to say:
It's important to remember that back then architecture was rocket science. It was the most significant thing a society could produce. Only societies that had established a high degree of social and economic stability could coordinate the communal and extended effort to make a building.
What happened then is the same thing happening in China and Dubai today, or in the USA in the early part of the 20th century. A society proves it has come of age by going through the effort of making something great - something previously thought impossible. In this manner the building is meant to be known not as architecture but as themata: a 'wonder.'
Memorial Coliseum was created as an example of Portland's civic identity coming into being. It was conceived as a wonder with its incredible size supported on four columns, and the design follows suite to best express that singular act so that every visitor can bear witness to the wonder of its creation.
I know some of this talk (mine or Randy's) can seem highfalutin, with all the classical references and talk of themata. But this is an essential component, in my mind, of our large public buildings and gathering places: the ability to transcend the experiences we have there.
Obviously, this isn’t meant a post about more real-life topics like the Rose Quarter planning effort or the Stakeholder Advisory Committee vetting proposals for Memorial Coliseum from amusement parks to hydroponic gardens. Instead, it’s an effort to communicate how truly special stadiums like the Rose Bowl and arenas like Memorial Coliseum are, both as community/national landmarks and as – more than 2,000 years after Western civilization first flourished in ancient Greece and Rome – a quintessential example of how the biggest places can also be the simplest and most beautiful.
As it happens, the Rose Bowl stadium will be renovated in the years ahead. But the plan is to return the structure closer to its original configuration. The first ten rows of seats on the end zone sides (where I was lucky enough to sit) will be removed so the rose bushes flanking each goal, as they did in the 1920s, will be returned. Meanwhile, we seem to float every possible idea for Memorial Coliseum except the only one that makes any sense: preserving it as a multi-purpose arena.
We can’t let the Coliseum and Rose Quarter debate be rooted entirely in issues of money, and we needn't go searching for new ideas for Memorial Coliseum. The fact is that Portland has been blessed with a very special building, a work of architecture that unites the best in contemporary and classical design. What's more, its original program as a multipurpose arena - a gathering place - is part of Memorial Coliseum's essential DNA. I already knew that, and so did many of you reading this. But after spending New Year’s Day in another gathering place with that same genius of design, it is a reminder to remain vigilant in supporting the preservation of Portland’s so-called Glass Palace — not as a fitness center, aquarium, botanical garden, amusement park or museum, but as the simple yet spectacular multipurpose arena it was born to be.