BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last year the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects inaugurated its "Stitch" competition, which looked at how swaths of Interstate 405, which cuts through the central city like a canyon, could be covered to restore the missing blocks for public space, buildings or otherwise.
Now the competition has returned, but this time the subject isn't how we cover I-405. Instead, the brief asked entrants to imagine how space under, over and around the freeway (particularly one block bounded by NW 13th and 14th Avenues and NW Kearney and Lovejoy Streets) could be seized and made useful.
"Density in the urban environment drives a need for the community to consider often-overlooked spaces created by infrastructure as infill potential," the competition abstract reads. "Modern vehicle conveyance structures create a natural shelter from the elements and a typically 'undesirable' area. We pass through or feel threatened by their cold and brutal existence."
I-405 in this area doesn't just bisect the central city, but it also acts as the border between the Pearl District and neighborhoods to the west, which can have a very different character. In this way, the name "Stitch" is particularly relevant.
The first-prize winner, comprised of a team from Portland's Opsis Architecture (Joe Baldwin, Jenny Cambier, Heather DeGrella, Bryan Hollar, Jim Kalvelage, Chet Morgan and Nate Wood), whose offices are just a block or two from the proposed site, is called Unclouded Vision. It looks to provide transitional housing, temporary shelter and basic amenities to the homeless as well as connections to mentorship and job training and even a retail and community kitchen. In the application, its designers write of blending "infrastructure, light harvesting systems, sound mitigating systems, pedestrian movement, commerce, food and public services."
In terms of architecture, Unclouded Vision seems to begin as a building across the street from the freeway and then stretch across to the site with pedestrian walkways and a series of attendant spaces beneath the freeway overpass. But the basic idea seems to be making the space under the freeway a low-slung architectural extension of what's next door in a way that makes one side of the overpass feel connected to the other. A series of photos in the application also boil down the intent to a few words: ascend, bifurcate, blend, converge, descend, weave. And that's what the design seems to do.
A team from Vancouver, British Columbia firm GBL Architects (Andrew Emmerson, Joey Stevens, Roberto Podda, Kelsy Whitten and Jason Smith) won second prize with "Entwine," which takes the form of an inverted arch with buildings rising above the freeway overpass on each side and a preserved crossing at ground level.
"Trolls should live under bridges," they write in the application, "[but] people should not. By raising the building up along the peripheral edges of the site, we can provide an efficiently stacked arrangement of temporary housing units that are both dignified and humane."
Like the first prize winner, it also imagines a variety of social-service programming, from single-resident-occupancy transitional housing to community workshop spaces, counseling rooms, and a soup kitchen.
The third prize went to a more modest entry, but maybe a more viable one. John Creighton, a project manager for custom fabricator Big Branch Woodworking (who is trained as an architect) created the "Lovejoy Showers," which imagines 10 pay-per-minute public showers that are connected by a series of ramps and bridges over a natural, park-like ground of rocks and greenery. Though modeled after the Portland Loo, each shower is also affixed with a distinctive leaf-like canopy.
Two projects were given Honorable Mention. One, called "The Tube" and designed by a quartet of local urban designers (Marc Asnis, Courtney Ferris, Lora Lillard and Mark Raggett), encloses most of this stretch of I-405 in a namesake tube-like form to reduce noise; the tube is also affixed with solar panels to power the site below. Underneath the freeway is a maker space with a commercial kitchen, repair shops, tool library, and educational programs. There is also a separate gathering space with a cafe and marketplace, and at another corner is a climbing wall and other outdoor space for pedestrians and cyclists.
"Over The Top," by a quartet from Propel Studio Architecture (Nick Moroz, Sam Sudy, Lucas Gray and Nick Mira), is like the 2nd prize Entwine design in that it grows buildings on either side of the freeway and is geared towards housing for the homeless. But it goes a step further and actually imagines architecture over the freeway rather than just beside it. On the ground floor would be retail and office space on one side, and social services on the other with a farmer's market in the outdoor space in between, and then housing above. Interestingly, along with single-resident-occupancy rooms to live in, there are also outdoor spaces on this upper portion in which the homeless can actually pitch their tents. It's a powerful idea: taking the model of homeless camps like Dignity Village and elevating them onto a pedestal above the freeway, one of the higher vantage points in the central city.
When I think of utilizing the space under freeway overpasses, I think of the two trips I made a decade ago to Tokyo. There I saw not necessarily any bold buildings rising up and over overpasses, but there was a succession of elevated train tracks that inevitably had architecture underneath. It was structurally separate from the overpasses, and it was modest, but it allowed hundreds of restaurants, shops and bars to be located underneath. In a way, it's no different from how we approach vacant lots: wasted space that in a dense urban setting are too valuable not to use. Portland hasn't quite reached that tipping point yet where the projects could pencil out or zoning allows for them, but I think that time is approaching.
Meanwhile, congratulations to all the winners and entrants on furthering the discussion.