Memorial Coliseum (photo by Matthew Ginn)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Today the Portland Development Commission announced the city's selection of architects for the renovation of Memorial Coliseum. A team led by Portland firm Opsis Architecture and Mineappolis-based Ellerbe Becket won the job over the sole other team, Portland's BOORA and Kansas City's Populous (formerly known as HOK).
Many believed that BOORA and Populous had the inside track because BOORA performed feasibility-study work for PDC on the Coliseum in the past, assessing what work needed to be done, which in turn fed the Request For Proposals the agency issued for the job. Populous has also designed or co-designed an incredible array of stadiums and arenas around the world, such as the new Yankee Stadium, the new Wembley Stadium in London (with Norman Foster), Stadium Australia in Sydney (home of the 2000 Olympics), Wimbledon Centre Court, Minneapolis's Target Field, San Francisco's AT&T Park, Chicago's United Center arena, Cleveland Browns Stadium, Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, Houston's Reliant Stadium, and Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in London.
However, the one firm in America with arguably as much experience as Populous with stadiums and arenas is Ellerbe Becket. And unlike Populous, Ellerbe has numerous previous projects in Oregon. They were the architect of PGE Park's transformation into Jeld-Wen Field, the co-designer of Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, which opened earlier this year, as well as the architect for Autzen Stadium's expansion in 2002. And while Opsis didn't have BOORA's incumbency as the competing local firm, or even BOORA's experience with large-scale public buildings, the Opsis-Ellerbe team also included Portland architect Peter Meijer, who wrote the National Register listing for the Coliseum, bringing matchless historical knowledge. Another factor may have been passion of co-founding principal James Meyer.
"I have a John Storrs house on the coast, in Neakhanie, built in 1960, The kind of character and quality, what these guys were doing in 1960 with the Colisem is pretty breathtaking," Meyer said in a phone interview this morning. "I’ll always take incumbency. It’s a bit of a gift. But it’s kind of what you do with it. As I said in the RFP interview, I’m naïve. I’m not going to believe they won’t choose what’s right for the city and the community. With that in mind, I set the bar really high. Ellerbe, holey moley. That was the first phone call I made. It’s the Coliseum, for criminy sake. I think we were able to think fast. You want to come at this thing with a really clean but yet compelling plan."
Fast is an operative word. The deadline for firms to respond to PDC's proposal came only about two weeks after it was issued. For many PDC projects, this time frame is actually the norm. But for a project with the scale, budget and legacy of Memorial Coliseum, the fact that only two teams submitted proposals may be an indication that the window of opportunity was too small. One local architect, for example, sought to form a team with legendary London architect Norman Foster, but Foster's office declined because they didn't feel there was enough time to prepare a design proposal.
Why the short time frame? "The project is very well scoped already and moving directly into schematic design," explained Kevin Brake of the Development Commission. Even more importantly, he added, the start of the Portland Winter Hawks' season in October of next year "is driving a very tight timeline, and if we miss the full closure construction window (June-October), we lose a year and the cost will go up." Construction is expected to begin in Spring of 2012 and complete in late summer.
The Opsis-Ellerbe-Meijer design started with the bowl. "We had three big opportunities. There’s little stuff all over the place. The quick hits we had were really the conceptualization of this bowl being porous. The top of the seating area is open, but we also wanted more concourse interface. That’s part of the magic of it: where you’re porous and how you enter. As you enter the bowl, it’s your visibility connection." Look for entries to the seating bowl, Meyer explained, to possibly be wider. The design also proposes eliminating the second glass wall as one enters the buiding.
The city-issued RFP treated the Coliseum project within its four walls to comprise the job, with the renovation of the outdoor sunken memorials area treated as a separate project. But the winning design proposal also addressed this area. "The scope of work doesn’t get you past the window wall, but we want to have a long-term plan," Meyer adds. His team proposes removing the barrier between the two sides of the memorial plaza. Meyer also hopes the Opsis-Ellerbe team will be ultimatley able to address the broader ground-level plaza between the Coliseum and the Rose Garden. "You think about the history of Portland and open space: there’s recent stuff like Jamison square, there's also Pioneer Courthouse Square and the Halprin Fountains. The Coliseum plaza is small but it’s right sized to do something special like that."
"It was super comfortable and super complimentary," Meyer says of the fastracked design process. "We felt there we had the expertise but also the culture: the listening ability. And when you look at the Coliseum, it's an opportunity-rich environment in terms of the physical space. This place is gorgeous. There’s a ton of nuance in there. But you also have to understand that with a legacy building like this, a lot of those emotive aspecs are as important as anything."