BY RICH RANO
The Central Eastside resides as one of Portland’s industrial sanctuaries with an established goal to evolve its uses while maintaining the close-in manufacturing core for the many makers, producers, and creators who make up much of the city’s identity. But while the zoning hasn't changed, the Central Eastside always has continued to do so. Now, with a new streetcar line at the district's eastern edge on Grand Avenue and MLK Boulevard, the Central Eastside is changing again. And in a public art project constructed as part of the new streetcar line, that slow transformation can be palpably felt.
"Inversion: Plus Minus" by Seattle's Lead Pencil Studio, located at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge ramp (with an companion installation set to be constructed a few blocks north at the Morrison bridgehead) has been called a "ghost building" for how it evokes a long-gone warehouse on the site. But just as compelling as this large-scale artwork is the process Lead Pencil Studio used to design and construct it, which combined state-of-the-art digital means with traditional fabrication techniques. "Inversion: Plus Minus" is a conversation piece between industrial authenticity and the vision of a growing urban core through a contemporary lens.
Recently Lead Pencil Studio's Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo answered a series of questions about how they put it together, and what they think the impact of the artwork has been thus far.
Portland Architecture: The piece's welded Cor-Ten steel members are of a traditional analog process, yet "Inversion" yields a quite digital-age aesthetic. Were there any special tools or technologies in the design or assembly of the piece?
Lead Pencil Studio: We looked at several techniques for developing a fabrication method including one version that involved digitally tracking every stick of steel with Revit and using bolted connections that would have required an absurd level of accuracy. In the end however, we opted for a manually performed assembly methods. The only use of the digital methods were for ordinary drafting, rendering tests and material estimation.
It seems that no matter the method of drawing or modeling during conceptualization, there is always an uncertainty on whether or not the project will successfully scale-up during the interpretive process of fabrication. On this point, this project was a larger challenge than most because we were not able to see the final assembly until it was craned onto the site. The digital renderings that we worked on were never really able to accurately predict the appearance and density of material and inevitably there is a good amount of finesse performed on site.
In all that finesse, were there strict rules to the placement of each member to maintain your desired aesthetic?
We definitely had a system of techniques that we've developed over the years to keep things from getting away from us. More than half of the individual members had a structural role to play which dictated their connection points, welds and precise placement. The remainder of the material had an aesthetic role and therefore had to be generally located to maintain consistent density and gradation across the overall piece. There were daily checks with all involved to discuss consistency in the layout. The most vexing problem was to avoid the development of recognizable geometric patterns that tend to naturally occur anytime you have highly repetitive work.
Ghosted images of the former buildings aside, how do you think the assembly methods and design choices relate to and spawn a dialogue with the industrial and manufacturing roots of the site?
From a material point of view, Cor-Ten steel has a leathery brown appearance that is nearly indistinguishable from the cast iron that was produced on the site. The utilitarian nature of industrial methods and materials figured large in our choices as we were looking to lend the project a good fit to the history of the neighborhood. Above everything though, we were challenged to create to a visually compelling piece that could compete on equal terms with the scale, velocity and deafening volume of cars and semi-trucks along Grand Avenue. When we look at it now, the work seems to be at peace within the violence of the context, rising above the crush of traffic and resilient in the face of change. In the end the work is a direct response to the 1950's planning decisions that shaped the site during the intervening 60 years since the demolition of the nascent urban fabric in favor of vehicle throughput.
On the theme of planning and zoned use revision, how have you witnessed the visual impact of Inversion informing the evolution of the area’s experience?
Most of Portland Oregon passes through this neighborhood on route to somewhere else. While many work there during the day, the evening is largely a ghost town - but the seeds of change are clearly in the works. As real estate pressures continues to rise, there will undoubtedly be increasing economic and political leverage applied to loosen the zoning protection of the Industrial Sanctuary. As those demolitions occur, the history of the activities that took place evaporate as well. Do this enough and a neighborhood and the people are forgotten. Our project is a response to this deleterious effect.
For those who are just passing through, we hope that they are able to discern our dialogue with the neighborhood forms, textures and materials and read our project as sketches of buildings that once existed or perhaps ones that might rise again.
So your project aims to maintain the industrial identity of the area?
Our artwork operates less definitively, but on a personal level we do appreciate authenticity of place and are generally skeptical of developments that alter the built/natural environment one opportunistic project at a time. In the case of the Industrial Sanctuary, we're under no illusion that the area should be reborn with gritty belching shipyard smokestacks. We also feel that it is vital for a city that prides itself on making, such as Portland, that there be affordable, near-in places to get everything you need - hardware, materials, process expertise, basic industrial methods and equipment. Few cities have been able to maintain this and it would be a shame to see it quietly displaced by a completely different identity.