Recently I was talking with an architect friend about the troubled Columbia River Crossing project: the lack of an acceptable design, the lack of leadership, the millions and millions spent on the process without anything approaching a consensus. But this friend challenged my desire for a great bridge in an interesting way that has affected the way I see the process.
In an engineering sense, this friend argued, all that is needed is a flat bridge over the Columbia. A new Golden Gate-esque suspension bridge? Not needed for this site. A tall statement-making bridge? That's just form without function, he argued.
In other words, then, are the transportation departments of Oregon and Washington correct in saying that the uninspiring, pancake-flat Glen Jackson Bridge over Interstate 205 should be the template, the inspiration, the goal?
Well, yes and no.
In my previous post about the CRC, I included pictures of striking bridges around the world by great architects, such as Sir Norman Foster's Milau Viaduct in France and Santiago Calatrava's Alamillo Bridge in Spain. But these bridges, just like famous spans such as the Golden Gate Bridge, were tall in part because they needed to be. The Golden Gate, for example, had to span San Francisco Bay between two hillsides.
Or then there are dramatically tall bridges in Portland like the Fremont and the St. Johns. The former rises in the air in part because of the higher ground from which it emanates. The latter responds with its taller structural form to the mountains and hillside on the west side. In other words, these designs responded to the challenges of their sites. They may be postcard-worthy beautiful, but they also were formal responses to functional challenges.
But the conditions for the CRC are different. Because of the quaint Pearson airfield in Vancouver, this bridge cannot be tall. But the riverbanks on each side are relatively flat ground, so that also means the topography may not call for a taller bridge.
What if, instead of clamoring for height and postcard quality, the design community instead accepted the need for a flat bridge but still insisted that this be more than a flat highway over the water? What if we embrace the potential of the flat bridge?
In so doing, the design community would gain credibility with those accusing them of unrealistic expectations for a postcard. After all, it doesn't take a "designista" (as developer Dennis Wilde coined hardcore Portland design proponents) to see that "postcard" and "gateway" are terms that don't carry any real weight. They are expressions of what a design-lover thinks should happen: the end result. But design isn't about affixing beautiful sculptures to the landscape. The thing has to work well, and within its set of conditions.
If the design community abandons the perceived need for height and scale for the bridge, the social capital could then be applied to what is still desperately needed: a great designer.
But even to say "great designer" may be slightly misleading. This architect friend with whom I spoke argued that if Portland and Vancouver hire a famous architect with a relatively fixed style, even if it's someone who has a very impressive sense of visual artistry, it may not be the right fit. What the CRC really needs, perhaps, is a designer as leader and editor.
The CRC process has so far been guided by giant groups stocked with representatives of different government and private-sector concerns. That's a necessary step in order to cull the concerns, needs and expertise of the many stakeholders in a new bridge. But until there is some kind of singular voice that does something with those opinions, all the ideas remain equal and no quality consensus is reached. It’s not that democracy is a mob, but the ideas are equal to each other until someone brings it all together together. This is where the designer as leader comes in: the person who takes all the opinions and brings them together in one design -- not a Homer Simpson car that is far less than the sum of its parts, but a greater unified whole. A complex design whose beauty is rooted in making the complex seem simple.
It's not to say this designer couldn't be a "starchitect" like Foster, Calatrava or Zaha Hadid. But given the complexities of the process and the many, many people involved, the CRC needs not just a designer-sculptor but one who accepts that there is no model yet for this bridge. "Right now designers have a preconceived conclusion as much as the engineers," my friend (who chose to remain anonymous) argued. "That’s not how design works in my book."
In other words, we need to find a way to unite those concerned with a great design, those concerned with moving traffic, and those concerned with environmental issues. We need a designer leading this ship who listens to the broad set of conditions and formulates that into a design - one that embodies the needs of the site (such as physical flatness for the bridge) but also refuses to build something banal and ugly like the Glenn Jackson. As great architects like Renzo Piano have demonstrated, a flat bridge can still be gorgeous.
At this point, there won't be a design competition for the CRC. There won't be a new Golden Gate that rises over the Columbia. Even so, by installing a designer as the manager of this process, we can still build a bridge that represents the best of us in its design, a bridge that is as beautiful as it is functional. And it's not to say a bridge keeping a low profile isn't a good design. The one great thing about traveling over the Glenn Jackson Bridge on I-205 is the visceral, experiential sense one gets of the river. There are few obstructions to one's view crossing the Jackson, leaving the Columbia itself, and the snow-capped mountains in the distance, as the postcard.
As it happens, when architect Sarah Graham and her firm, AGPS Architecture, were being considered for the Portland Aerial Tram commission, she said the same thing: "You don't need a postcard. Mt. Hood is your postcard." But Graham also fought tooth and nail to preserve the integrity of her tram design, to not let it just be utilitarian, banal and ugly. The tram doesn't try to be a beautiful design, per se. But it is a beautiful design. The key? Whether it was Reed Kroloff leading the design competition, or Graham herself, we had the right people in place to do the job - a job that called for design greatness, but also design leadership.