BY BRIAN LIBBY
As Portland's food cart scene has exploded in recent years, the challenge of making them viable year-round has seen operators embracing a proliferation of cheap, DIY options. Food cart pods around the city, as well as brick-and-mortar restaurants with extended outdoor seating, have turned to a series of off-the-shelf awnings and tents to create sheltered exterior spaces for eating and drinking. In every case, the solutions show practical ingenuity but a lack of aesthetic grace. Can we ever have our fried pies and pork-belly sandwiches out of the rain without feeling like we're at a camping expo?
Designer-artist James Harrison, whose light-filled public art sculptures grace places like the Eastbank Esplanade as well as locations from Seattle to London, and who also led the effort more than a decade ago to save the Lovejoy Columns, has made one of the first serious stabs at creating a more permanent outdoor-dining shelter. Dubbed the Land Yacht and situated at The Ocean, a cluster of micro restaurants at NE 24th and Glisan, Harrison's creation looks like a cross between a Conestoga wagon and a greenhouse.
"We are how many years into the food cart experiment now? It’s maturing. What we’re seeing is some of them are really turning into little villages, both good and bad, where there’s a lot of makeshift stuff because there aren’t good solutions out there. People are going to Home Depot to make tarps," Harrison says.
Harrison and The Ocean's developer, Kevin Cavenaugh, "went back and forth on the design quite a bit," he explains. "There’s about 50 versions of the design. It really got pushed and prodded into shape. So the Conesta wagon look of it is actually a result in form from a whole lot of forces. We didn’t start there at all. But it’s very much tailored to the site. The design had to hit all of its marks that you would expect in terms of outdoor seating for people of a certain size and scale."
Harrison started by looking at greenhouse technology for inspiration, "because farmers have to cover a lot of space for cheap," he says. "So if you look at it it’s very vernacular. There’s a lot of greenhouse components." Some greenhouse designs also resemble pioneers' covered wagons, with a thin material covering a series of structural wire hoops. Hence the Land Yacht name.
The form of the 14x30-foot Land Yacht is made from semi-transparent vinyl welding screen. "My idea was to put color against a gray sky," Harrison adds. "For me it’s much more about the looking out, because that’s where you get the color effect. But it was made to be an icon on the street, too, to attract people. I’ve been hunting for years for materials I could use as an artist to bathe the body in color. In my work, I’ve typically put color in the sky with glass. But glass is astronomically expensive. It’s doable but you need a big budget to do it. I’ve had these greenhouse designs for years and no client to build them. I always see the welding vinyl. I thought, this stuff is so fantastic looking: what if I put it into a new context? When I met with Kevin he was game for it. We know we’re taking a chance. But with the material specs on this stuff, I think we’ve got every reason to believe it will behave pretty well and we’ll get at least a few years out of it. So I worked with a sail maker in town and made tons of models, both in the computer and physical models. But ultimately they came up and patterned it. They have a giant CNC machine that cut all the vinyl shapes. We did the first test fitting, tailored it, made a few trims, and put it back on."
Two weeks ago the Land Yacht was christened on a rainy Sunday, but nevertheless attracted a crowd of well-wishers and curious diners. At the end of the event, Harrison recalls a man passing by on the sidewalk stopped to criticize the project for its ugliness. "I was dying with laughter. Lest I get too full of myself, there are people who are going to have issues with it, whatever they are," he says. "But it’s very much trying to answer that question about outdoor dining in Portland and how oppressed we all feel by the gray this time of year. Being bathed in orange light makes you feel warm. I was pleasantly surprpised by the effects of it."