BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last night on TNT, after the Portland Trail Blazers lost Game 2 of their playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, popular yet controversial commentator and former Hall of Fame player Charles Barkley had something to say not only about the Blazers' chances against the Mavericks going forward in this seven-game series, but also about the two buildings the Portland team has called home.
Barkley, who has been critical of the Blazers in the past, was unequivocally praising of Portland's fans and the home-court advantage they create. Despite Portland's being down 2-0 in the series, Barkley said he expects the series to go six or seven games. "I've always said, they have the best home court in the NBA ... they still have the best fans, in my opinion, in the NBA," Barkley said.
However, Barkley didn't stop with his basketball analysis. He also got in a few words about the architecture. Barkley talked about how much he liked playing in Memorial Coliseum. "That building, that was the best place to play in the NBA," he said.
The Rose Garden, on the other hand, Barkley called "that big ol' mausoleum."
In reporting Barkley's comments in The Oregonian, sportswriter Mike Tokito offered some commentary of his own, but it turned out to be arguably less astute in this case (I like Tokito's reporting otherwise) than the man formerly known as the "Round Mound of Rebound", Barkley.
"It was great -- when it was packed," Tokito writes. "You go in there for one of the Blazers' throwback preseason games, when the building is half full and the basketball spotty, and it hits you just how outdated the old Glass Palace it [sic]."
How fitting that there was a typo in Tokito's sentence about the Glass Palace being outdated. Because it's about as outdated as a vintage 1960 Corvette. When I wrote the Corvette comparison on Twitter earlier today, another Oregonian sports reporter, Ken Goe, suggested it was more like a 1960 Rambler.
Goe has certainly been to the Coliseum hundreds of times, and I've enjoyed his writing for years. But I wonder how often he's been in the building with the curtain open. It was literally stuck in the closed position for decades, keeping the building from showing its wonders. Or do sportswriters just not care about an architectural wonder - the only interior arena in the world with a 360 degree view like this? Are they always focused solely on the action inside? Somehow there's got to be a way to articulate that the Coliseum is Bill Russell and the Rose Garden is Darko Milicic.
As Barkley clearly understands, Memorial Coliseum actually fells less outdated than the Rose Garden, even though the Rose Garden was built more than three decades later. The Coliseum, as its knickname indicates, is all about transparency and simple elegance. The Rose Garden, a gargantuan concrete monolith, seems as if it was designed by Fred Flintstone. It's more fortress than people's arena. Even somebody who matriculated at Auburn like Mr. Barkley can tell that.
Obviously Charles Barkley is no architecture afficionado or expert, yet that's precisely why his coments are worthy of noting.
During the battle to save Memorial Coliseum in 2009 and 2010, opponents of the building's preservation often tried to marginalize its supporters as elitists. They used phrases like "a small band of architects" to describe the preservation campaigners. City Council member Randy Leonard described the Coliseum as an "ugly Costco" in a ham-fisted attempt at cynical populism. Talking heads on local radio like Dwight Jaynes suggested Coliseum preservationists were naive, as if they didn't understand that progress meant wrecking balls.
But the misinformation tactics and the folksy patronizing didn't work. The building is poised to be restored as a complimentary arena to the Rose Garden that helps revitalize the entire Rose Quarter district. And the Coliseum restoration isn't happening in a vacuum. Portland has long sought to establish itself as a 21st century capitol of sustainability and progressive transit and pedestrian-oriented planning. As a new streetcar rolls along NE Broadway in the years ahead, the Rose Quarter can orient itself there by transforming its above-ground parking garages, with the restored Coliseum gleaming again as a people's arena that is open to the world, not a cemented mausoleum.
Barkley's comments help pop a bubble of reverse-elitism that doggedly has accompanied the Coliseum debate. You don't need a fancy architecture degree to see that a gleaming Glass Palace trumps a concrete mausoleum. And the best cities, like Portland, protect their great buildings more than their eyesore garages. The best cities, where people want to move and visit and spend their money, are collections of the best contributions of each generation, and Memorial Coliseum, whether one favors mid-20th Century modernism, is a marvel of its time: as simple as a concrete bowl in a glass box, with a bounty of natural light transforming arena design in a way that prefigures today's retractible-roof stadiums by decades. What's more, the building stands as a tribute to the veterans of Oregon, especially those who gave their lives in World War II and Korea, the conflicts predating Memorial Coliseum's construction. The Glass Palace wasn't highfalutin design for intellectuals, but the simplest of light filled structures: a symbol of the transformation after the war from darkness to light.
In other words - slam dunk, Sir Charles.