BY BRIAN LIBBY
Yesterday after visiting the "Allure of the Automobile" exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, my first reaction - other than drooling all over the exquisitely gorgeous 1961 Aston Martin - was that most all of the cars in the exhibit seemed to come from two decades: the 1930s and the 1950s. In turn, it got me wondering if these were particularly strong eras for design beyond just automobiles. And if so, what evidence for or against could we find in Portland?
"Allure of the Automobile" is organized into four main categories, European and American cars before World War II, and those afterward. Yet there is only one car from the 1940s in the exhibit, a 1948 Tucker. And there are only two cars from the 1960s, and both are from 1961, making them (like the Tucker) all but part of the '50s: the aforementioned Aston, which the James Bond movie Goldfinger made especially popular, and a 1961 Ferrari 250 (seen in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off). To an extent, these are just curatorial choices. Maybe the person choosing simply liked cars from the '30s and '50s. Yet I think there's something more at work.
The 1930s may be remembered most for The Great Depression, but this was also a time of Art Deco, with its stylish blending of modern, neo-classical, cubism and other influences. This period gave birth to architectural icons like the Chrysler Building in New York, and it can be seen in some of the great cars in "Allure of the Automobile", like the 1937 Hispano-Suiza H-6C “Xenia” Coupe, the 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow, and the 1937 Talbot-Lago coupe.
Portland doesn't have a whole lot of Art Deco architecture. But it can be seen here and there in buildings like the Coca Cola Syrup Factory near Southeast 28th & Couch. Or the Williams & Company building from 1936, along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
If one were to chart which decades birthed the most architecture in Portland, it would be not the 1930s or the 1950s. Perusing Bart King's Architectural Guidebook to Portland, for example, or Wiliam Hawkins' Classic Houses of Portland: 1850-1950, it's decades like the 1890s, 1910s and surrounding decades in which so many buildings still standing in the central city today were created: the Hotel Vintage Plaza (Frederick Manson White) in 1894, the Meier & Frank building (AE Doyle) in 1909, Central Library (Doyle) in 1913, the Galleria (Doyle) in 1910, the Benson Hotel (Doyle) in 1912, the Morgan Building (Doyle) and University Club (Whitehouse & Fouilhoux) in 1913
Yet Portland certainly isn't without important buidings from the 1930s. Interestingly, the year that has more automobiles than any other in the Portland Art Museum Exhibit, 1937, was also the year Portland's most acclaimed work of residential architecture was completed, the Watzek House by John Yeon, which was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and only the second building after Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places before meeting the traditional 50-year threshold.
In addition to 1937's Watzek, two landmark designs by Portland's most aclaimed architect, Pietro Belluschi, also came within a year: the Sutor House (which, like the Watzek, was recently included in Portland Monthly's list of the 10 greatest Portland houses) and the Portland Art Museum, both from 1938.
The 1930s also brought one of Portland's most handsome public buildings, one that has unfortunately been under-utilized over the past 13 years: the Gus Solomon US Courthouse (designed by Whitehouse & Associates). Ever since the Hatfield US Courthouse was built in 1997, the Solomon has seen only a trickle of workers move in and out of its doors. We need to do a better job of finding new life for this gorgeous old landmark.
Solomon US Courthouse (photos by Brian Libby)
Beyond architecture, Portland's greatest bridge also came from the early 1930s: The St. Johns Bridge from 1931, with its gorgeous gothic cathedral-like towers and elegant cable-suspension span, once the largest bridge of its type in the world. Somehow for me, the St. Johns Bridge, like the Watzek House, represents the essence of 1930s design, be it Art Deco or otherwise: a meeting point between some of the classic architectural styles of the past and the modernism that was to come.
St. Johns Bridge (photo by Brian Libby)
Then there is the 1950s, which is the automobile era I gravitated to most in the exhibit; these cars may not have been as boldly sculptural as the cars from the 1930s, but having grown up in the 1970s (not to mention being the child of Baby Boomers), I have such vivid memories of these cars being some of the first designs to capture my imagination. It's worth noting as well that, although here in Portland we tend to withhold romantic love for automobiles because the focus is on the pedestrian and on mass transit, those like myself who grew up in small towns (McMinnville for me) cars were often the first designed objects we were introduced to other than buildings.
In "Allure of the Automobile", the 1950s and early '60s are well represented with not only the aforementioned Aston Martin and Ferrari, but a 1957 Jaguar XK-SS Roadster, formerly owned by Steve McQueen; a 1955 Mercedes-Benz roadster; a 1953 Porsche 550, and a 1959 Corvette Stingray.
So what did this great time of automobiles, the 1950s and early '60s, produce for architecture in Portland? It really comes down to two firms, one of which gave way to the other: Pietro Belluschi and Skidmore, Owings, Merrill. Belluschi's most significant project from a more than 50-year career came in 1947, but I still equate it with this 1950s period because it was the first office building in the world with a glass-and-aluminum curtain wall. It is a forerunner of all the hundreds if not thousands of glass office towers that came afterward.
Equitable (now Commonwealth) Buiding (photo by Brian Libby)
But in 1951, Belluschi became dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture school, and sold his Portland firm to the Chicago/New York-based mega firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which more than any firm in the United States led the way in glass-box style skyscrapers of the mid-20th century, from Lever House in New York to the John Hancock and Sears Towers in Chicago.
SOM's best office building in Portland came at the end of this '50s to early '60s period covered in "Allure of the Automobile": the Standard Insurance Building from 1963. It's glassy and angular lik the Equitable, but distinguishes itself with a faint curve to its horizontal window bands, and a faintly golden tint to its windows.
But of course the firm's other major building from this period is not an office building but an arena: Memorial Coliseum.
While I was involved with the Friends of Memorial Coliseum over the past two years advocating for the arena to be saved from demolition and restored, we would often talk of the special era of design from which it came. In fact, some presentations, such as one architect Stuart Emmons and I made to Mayor Adams' Rose Quarter Stakeholder Advisory Committe, included a photo of a 1960 Corvette, just one year different from the '59 model included in "Allure of the Automobile".
Memorial Coliseum (photo by Brian Libby)
The connecting thread, at least for me, is an optimistic embrace of the future in these designs. The Corvette in the Portland Art Museum show looks a lot like the flying saucers populating science fition movies and comics of the time, not as kitsch but as part of a sense that the world, after seven years of war, could and should reinvent itself. The post World-War II era, particularly the 1950s, also saw the introduction of new materials and technologies, from lightweight metals to jet engines, that influenced other design disciplines. In its symmetrical composition of glass and steel, Memorial Coliseum has the DNA of an era that created not only the Corvette but the NASA rocket.
It's not to say that the 1930s or 1950s represent the best of Portland buildings, or the most prolific. But whether it's how the '30s act as a bridge between old and modern design languages, or how the '50s and early '60s look to the future, "The Allure of The Automobile" does precisely what such broadly-appealing traveling museum exhibits should do: awaken one not only to the times and places from whence that on view came, but also to how these currents touch pieces of our everyday environments.