The Columbia River Crossing, Portland and Vancouver’s planned new bridge over the Columbia, could be the great symbol of this generation: an affirmation of how the Portland metro area has risen to become one of the world’s foremost creative capitols.
Instead, this bridge project has become a disaster in the making.
There are too many people involved and yet no real leader. There is no world-class architect or engineer leading the design process, and the powers that be seem to also dispute the need to even have a lead designer at all. Costs for the project have continually escalated, yet people are unhappier than ever with the emerging result. The decision to maintain quaint Pearson airfield at Fort Vancouver all but assures the bridge will be pancake-flat. The two cities that the bridge would connect are also approaching the endeavor with vastly different values about what constitutes a successful Columbia crossing. On top of all this, the bridge wouldn’t even address the worst bottleneck areas along I-5 in Portland, which come at the Rose Quarter and Delta Park.
The design community, it has been argued, is all but absent when it comes to advocating for a great bridge. That has allowed the debate to become hijacked by people apparently ignorant of what design really means - or at least willing to marginalize its importance.
For example, Governor Kulongoski, as far back as a year ago, was belittling the idea of prioritizing what he called “aesthetics.” How can we worry about making beautiful this transportation project, the thinking has gone, when we’ve got all these commuters and freight to move? How can we worry about something as superficial as the form when we have such a big functional task? Or as an Oregonian headline unfortunately put it, “Can we afford pretty?”
But as you know, informed readers, design isn’t just what something looks like. Design is how it works.
Rather than seeking out a great designer for the CRC, design of the project has been left to transportation engineers. It's not to say these people at the Washington and Oregon transportation departments are bad at doing their jobs, but traffic engineering is much more about moving cars than about creating the kind of landmark this location calls for. There are people from the local design communities involved, like Jeff Stuhr of Portland's Holst Architecture and Carrie Schilling of Works Partnership, both of whom served on a volunteer basis as members the urban design advisory group (UDAG), but that's nothing comparable to having a lead architect.
Had there been a talented designer involved early-on in the process, such as Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava, even Sarah Graham or Miguel Rosales, some of the fundamental aspects of the bridge could have been better defined and solved. You don't become the top architects and engineers on Earth by merely acquiescing to state government traffic engineers and just prettying up the exterior packaging. But instead of seeking out the best, we are working toward laying down a lowest-common-denominator strip of concrete along the river Lewis and Clark once followed to the Pacific, a site and project that would make the Fosters and Calatravas of the profession salivate at the opportunity.
This is not to say design should cost more. The CRC is already too expensive. Superlative design talent is defined in part by an ability to work creatively within any necessary budget constraint. I also don't want to neglect the importance of things issues like sustainability, overall bridge size, and provisions for bicyclists and pedestrian. All that is part of the right design. Instead, the fixing the CRC is about process
I mean, what if you were cooking a gigantic cake and you hired dishwashers, waiters, people to wash the windows, accountants, consultants on what constitutes a good cake, and had committees big enough to weigh down the Good Year blimp, but no chef? What if you outright argued against its being delicious because feeding people is all that matters?
Meanwhile, efforts are being made to put wrestle back control of this careening car. To help people understand the CRC process and coalesce public support for strong design, the Architecture Foundation of Oregon and the PDXplore design collective have partnered to present “Crossing the Columbia: What Does It Mean?”, a multi-faceted forum at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
First there is the exhibit “PDXplore: Expanding Design Awareness” from March 22 – 26 in PNCA's Swigert Commons, featuring questions and design approaches to the Columbia River Crossing and its regional impact. That exhibit’s opening reception will be Monday, March 22 from 5:30-7pm in PNCA's Swigert Commons. On Tuesday (March 23) from 6-8pm there will also be a discussion called “Columbia River Crossing: An evening with members of the CRC Project Team”, also in PNCA's Swigert Commons. And on Thursday (the 25th) from 6-8pm, a panel discussion called “Design Perspectives” will be moderated by Portland State University’s Ethan Seltzer with panelists including Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell; artist Ed Carpenter; outgoing National Endowment for the Arts director of design Maurice Cox; Toronto architect and urban design consultant Ken Greenberg; and Richard White, author “The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River”.
While Kulongoski has disappointed clamored for a utilitarian solution, Mayor Adams has tried to advocate for good design. But he’s often been ignored or shouted down by the consortium of state transportation departments and state governors looking to push the CRC through.
In an interview Wednesday with Catherine Ciarlo of Adams’ office, she urged the design community to articulate why design matters and why the CRC is not up to snuff in that regard. “It’s hard for a politician to make a case for why it’s important,” she said. “It would mean more coming from designers. They can articulate how the bridge is a statement of our generation and how a landmark project like this it shapes our feelings about ourselves. But the more things Sam pushes on the more they say, ‘You’re out of touch, and you don’t understand the constraints.’”
“I think of the bridges on the Oregon Coast, for example, as a hallmark of a time and a place and how we interacted with the world. But Sam can’t say that alone. Getting other people join in would be incredibly helpful. The bridge’s cost is very high and the public is having a negative reaction to that. When Sam was actively engaged [in pushing for better design] last fall, our office got a lot of pushback and negative feedback from people saying, “Why are you worried about dolling up a bridge?’”
Even after following the CRC process in the news for years now, and even as a journalist focused on design and architecture, I’ve found it a Kafka-esque experience trying to understand merely who is running this. But it seems I’m not the only one. “All of us involved have sort of puzzled over it,” Ciarlo says.
Interstate Bridge, photo by Brian Libby
But basically the CRC team is made up of representatives from the Washington and Oregon transportation departments and numerous consultants. There is a Project Sponsor’s Council of locally elected officials and representatives from the DOTs who make some key decisions about the direction of the project. But even so, the true center of power seems unclear. Word is that local officials ultimately have a lot less voice the process than the DOTs.
“It’s a big negotiation, between the inner representatives of the two states, the enterprise that is the CRC, the local jurisdictions and the constituents surrounding it,” Ciarlo adds. “It’s weird to have a project that isn’t run by one entity. It’s a challenge to do a bi-state project that spans two cities with dramatically different values. And two states that have different decision making hierarchies and are contributing different amounts of money and honestly have different desired outcomes: to move commuters better or to move freight better and protect the downstream flow on I-5.”
It is all but certain that the Pearson airfield will remain, meaning the bridge has to be low-to-the-water, at least on the Washington side. Adams advocated for a vertical element on the Oregon side of the bridge. That would add visual impact to the bridge if it was done by a talented designer, and rescue the bridge from being a repeat of the pancake-like Glenn Jackson Bridge nearby, carrying I-205 motorists over the river. But when the CRC committee did its most recent cost refinements, Ciarlo says, the provision was dropped.
This isn’t just a bad sign for the look of the bridge, but a symptom of a larger problem.
“Because of the nature and how much of a multi-jurisdictional project it is, Sam can’t be the only voice in favor of design if this is going to be successful. I believe it would take a governor who also believed it was important, at least on the Oregon side. I also think there’s plenty of people in the public who can understand why a beautiful bridge is important. But that point hasn’t been framed and echoed very well. The people driving this need to know that the constituency cares.”
Meanwhile, Portland faces a make or break point in the history of its built environment. It's not too late to influence the design and configuration of the CRC, but time is running out fast. "I do feel that good progress has been made when local stakeholders, from both Oregon and Washington, have banded together to fight for things that matter vitally to the future livability of the region," Jeff Stuhr told me by email. Is flat concrete really the statement we want to make to the world, and what we want to be looking at for the next half century as we cross one of the most majestic rivers on the planet?
Or, to put it another way: can we afford ugly?