BY BRADLEY MAULE
Highway construction projects are never popular, never on budget, and never on time. Even in the utopian City That Works, this evidently holds true. The new Martin Luther King Jr Viaduct, which opened in October, is — at least from a cursory glance at the news stories about it — an unpopular boondoggle that opened a year and a half later than planned. And as a bonus, the road itself is bumpy, with slightly bowed segments that produce the badump . . . badump . . . badump sensation of, well, slightly bowed highways.
Be that as it may, the MLK Viaduct is, I think, pretty great — and necessary. The viaduct it was built to replace opened in 1936, when automobiles had circa-1936 horsepower and the land it crossed was still getting accustomed to the heavy load. Originally wetlands, the area the viaduct traverses was filled in with waste from the sawmills that lined the banks of the Willamette a few blocks to the west. Johan Poulsen, the proprietor of one of the largest of these, built a Queen Anne house in 1891 on the bluff overlooking where the south end of the viaduct and Ross Island Bridge would overlap but not directly intersect.
The Union Avenue Viaduct — as it was known until Union Avenue was renamed for Martin Luther King in the 1980s — made aesthetics an integral part of this WPA project from the onset. Designed by Conde McCullough, the master Oregon bridgeman for whom the Coos Bay bridge is named, it featured gothic railings and artful pedestrian approaches and street lamps. (Check out the Library of Congress’ collection of historic photos of it HERE.) This attention to detail was not lost on the engineers charged with building the replacement.
Landscape architect Lloyd Lindley led a team that included Kittelson & Associates, David Evans & Associates, and ODOT (not to mention the many meetings between neighbors and local businesses) to craft the new viaduct that recalls the period its predecessor represented, but without feeling faux or trite. Along with modern common-sense amenities that include wide sidewalks and bike lanes (despite its highway designation, it’s still an important thoroughfare for locals), it has hexagonal support columns, sharp balustrades and street lamps, and most prominently, enormous pyramidal pylon towers.
“With this project, we had a chance to express the rhythm and texture of [McCullough's] classic architecture in a modern setting,” Lindley explains. A veteran of ZGF Architects, Lindley is familiar with modern (and modernist) projects. “We had concepts with Italianate, Mesoamerican, and Northwest styles, but ultimately we went with a minimalist approach that would meet the modern standards.”
Modern standards, of course, pay close mind to sustainability, so most of the materials used were local, all of them American. There are two stormwater treatment facilities, one next to the Ross Island Bridge (merging with the east side tunnel project), and the other next to the streetcar bridge across the railroad tracks. After the Streetcar crosses the Willamette on the new Portland-Milwaukie Bridge, it will continue to the Eastside Loop at SE Harrison, where it will join its north-south course on Grand Ave and MLK Blvd.
The viaduct’s columns, haunched box-girders, railings, tubular guardrails, and skylights all employ this aimed simplicity too, but where the project thrives is in its lights and towers. “It sounds trite,” Lindley concedes, “but I wanted to somehow convey the Rose City.” Using the rose bush outside his office as an inspiration, Lindley studied the overlapping triangles of young rosebuds, “scanned them and played around with them,” and that eventually led to the lampposts he describes as “unfolding sheets of concrete.”
It is the four pylon towers, though, which are the main attraction: simple and modern, as drawn up. They’re also perhaps the most obvious homage to Conde McCullough, whose Yaquina Bay and Siuslaw River Bridges along the Oregon Coast feature similar ornamental pylons. The 75′ concrete towers are topped with sleek, stainless steel pyramids that glow in the sunlight.
Serving as the gateway between the central city and points south, the MLK Viaduct’s towers stand as vertical points of reference in the otherwise low-rise industrial district. With pedestrian-bike ramps at SE Division Place, they mark a point of entry-exit for the viaduct’s bike lanes to connect to Division and the Springwater Corridor. The towers just to the north at SE Caruthers, though they don’t have similar ramps, create a landmark to the future eastern head of the Portland-Milwaukie Bridge, around which several attractions like OMSI, Portland Opera and Gamblin Arts already call home.
In addition to reference, the towers are also points of refuge: they’re at the approximate halfway point of the half-mile long viaduct, and if you’re going to stop here to catch your breath and take in the view, you might as well learn something. Placards explaining the history of the neighborhood, industry (lumber, railroad), Highway 99E, and the viaduct itself are installed under each of the four towers.
While it’s easy to say that the MLK Viaduct project ran over budget and took longer than it should have, it’s just as easy to demonstrate how the cost of materials became extremely inflated as the bubble burst and that unexpected delays from soil contamination (again, the land is a wetland filled in with century-old mill waste) added months to the buildout. In the end, though, Portland got a complex bridge spanning several streets and a very active railroad line, while never closing its predecessor. That is, though it was mitigated by cones and flags, traffic kept moving during construction. And, well, it looks great.
Coming north on Highway 99E, passing from Milwaukie into Portland by way of McLoughlin Blvd, the pylon towers clearly symbolize the transition into the urban center, and specifically Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Following MLK north, one passes King’s statue at the Oregon Convention Center, through one of Portland’s only predominantly African-American parts of town, and on to the northern terminus of MLK Blvd at Interstate Bridge. It’s a fitting multicultural, multipurpose dissection of a city often dismissed for a perceived homogeny.
Back on the southern end of the boulevard, where over 60,000 cars pass each day, with still more passing under it alongside bicycles and people and trains, the MLK Viaduct is proof that, even in today’s roads, function and form can coexist.