For many years, the Portland area has boasted a strong design community that leads the nation in thinking about planning, sustainable design and historic preservation. But often we've had mayors and elected officials who don't see the whole picture of how design impacts our environments. Too many dismiss design as nothing but "aesthetics," when in reality, as Apple's Steve Jobs has put it, design is how something works.
Portland mayor Sam Adams and Vancouver mayor Tim Leavitt recently took a strong stand on behalf of the Columbia Crossing, but the disastrous approach being applied to the bridge -- one of state transportation departments seeking to simply lay down asphalt over one of America's most scenic rivers without regard for how it looks -- will not be reversed unless we get behind them.
Last week at the Project Sponsors Council meeting, representatives scaled back an initial 12-lane bridge proposal and instead opted for 10 lanes and a new Hayden Island interchange. But the meeting grew contentious when Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt raised the topic of the Interstate 5 bridge's architectural design.
The mayors said they want a bridge that is "iconic" as well as functional, and ook issue with a recent independent report that says an off-the-shelf design would be smarter, easier to build and less expensive.
Referring to the gargantuan concrete I-5 crossing in downtown Portland, Adams said he didn't want "another Marquam Bridge."
"Its ugliness has a negative economic impact beyond its functionality," Adams said in an Oregonian interview after the vote. "You don't see very many people advertising their views of the Marquam Bridge."
But Tom Warne, chairman of the CRC independent review panel created by the Oregon and Washington governors, warned against getting tangled in a debate over aesthetic design, especially when the window for federal funding is open for only a limited time.
Warne could not be more wrong. He tried to belittle the issue of design with the word "aesthetics", as if the way the bridge is built is totally separate from how it looks and functions. Thankfully Adams and Leavitt now understand that we can do better. This is not a matter of slapping concrete down over the Columbia for as cheaply as possible. It's astonishing how closed minded state transportation bureaucrats and even engineers are about how to design and build things. By their rationale, a Ford Pinto looks no different from a Ferrari, and drives no differently.
Thinking that "aesthetics" is superficial is the kind of thinking that brought about the Ford Edsel, one of the biggest flops in American business history. It had every feature people wanted but buyers found it too ugly to actually buy.
Do you see the value in a beautiful bridge and how great design impacts economies? If so, write a letter to the editor of your local paper advocating for a good CRC design that represents the best of a city trying to stake its claim as a world design capitol. Write to governors of Oregon and Washington and tell them to stop stuffing concrete down our throats. Do something to help our more enlightened leaders lead and to fight for design.