BY BRIAN LIBBY
Although Willamette Falls in Oregon City is the second largest waterfall in the United States, public access to this natural wonder has been blocked for over a century, with the site devoted to industrial purposes. But after the latest riverside occupant, Blue Heron Paper Mill, shuttered in 2011, momentum began to build for transforming the site, which sits at the end of Main Street in Oregon City, into a public asset and an extension of the downtown.
Late last year it was announced that a team including Snøhetta, the internationally acclaimed New York and Oslo-based firm (now with several offices around the world), as well as Portland's Mayer Reed and Vancouver-based architecture and engineering firm Dialog, would oversee the design.
The Willamette Falls project, along with many other highlights from Snøhetta's impressive portfolio such as their expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oslo Opera House, and the National September 11 Museum Pavilon in New York, will be exhibited in an upcoming show called People, Process, Projects at Portland's Center For Architecture beginning April 17. Shown previously in Copenhagen, it will be the first United States retrospective of the firm's work. Snøhetta's Craig Dykers will also be speaking at Design Week Portland on Saturday, April 16 at 9AM.
Recently I spoke by phone with Michelle Delk, a New York-based partner at Snøhetta who directs landscape design for the firm, about the design process and how it has unfolded so far.
Portland Architecture: How did the firm wind up getting involved in the Willamette Falls Riverwalk project?
Michelle Delk: We were working on the James Beard Public Market effort. We had learned about the RFQ for the Riverwalk and started talking with Mayer Reed, one of our local partners on the James Beard project, about a potential partnership. They asked us if we were interested in pursuing the Willamette project and we said, ‘Yes!’
Even though this is a unique site and opportunity, doesn’t Willamette Falls also tell the broader story of American cities reclaiming their heretofore-industrial working waterfronts for public use?
For sure. It’s part of a change that we’re seeing in the larger landscape across the country. What’s interesting to me is that it’s a place with this incredible resource, the waterfall, and that the waterfront has, for over 100 years, not been accessible to the public. It’s very meaningful, not only in reconnecting the community and region to the waterfront and the waterfall, but also asking, ‘What is the Riverwalk?’ and imagining what that reconnection can be.
We're developing a framework for the River Walk based on the four core values that were established during the visioning process: public access, economic redevelopment, healthy habitats, and historic and cultural interpretation.
Economic redevelopment is not only about public space along the waterfront, but also that idea that the larger site itself can bring jobs and activities back to the community. When the mill closed, a lot of jobs were lost. On the forefront of people’s minds is access to the waterfront, restoring habitat and remembering culture, but I never want to forget about the economic side: the chance to contribute to the economy as the mill once did.
Are there precedents from other cities you’ve looked at? Or is the site too unique for any direct comparison?
I think the answer is both. I hate having to answer it this way, but I don’t think any of us on the team have been able to identify a place that’s directly relevant. It’s really a unique site, and our approach tries to understand that uniqueness.
But the lack of a direct precedent doesn’t mean there are not projects that inspire us. We’re doing some of that research now. We’ve had interesting conversations about waterfalls themselves, about why people are drawn to waterfalls, and what makes each waterfall unique. Many of the waterfalls we discuss are incredibly serene and within a wilderness environment. It’s difficult to find waterfalls in a truly urban context. Oregon City is a small community, but a very urban, industrial area. It’s a working waterfall, in that sense. But we’ve talked about learning from Niagara Falls, since this waterfall is often spoken about as second only to Niagara in size. And we've talked about other waterfalls in Oregon like Multnomah Falls that are a little bit more about a sequence, a journey, and the experience of getting to the falls themselves.
We’ve also started to look at places that may not have a waterfall but do have industrial redevelopment. In Minneapolis, for example, there is the Mill District site. In Vancouver, there is Granville Island, one of the most visited public spaces in Canada now. It’s an industrial redevelopment site with a public market, restaurants, and light industrial uses.
One of Snøhetta’s trademarks seems to be its process, with lots of research and outreach. Could you talk about your approach here, or what there has been of it so far?
Our team has been working on the Riverwalk for only a few months. It’s a very complex project. The client group is four public agencies and one private landowner. We spent several months working with that group to decide how to make decisions and engage the public. We didn’t want to rush that process because we wanted to set the stage for the project really well.
We did an early community project with a public kickoff meeting at the Portland Art Museum last year. That was an information-sharing event and a chance to meet the design team.
Last week was the first public meeting where we were able to do more of an engagement process. We had people from our design team located at various stations in a large event space, and the community could interact with different activities at each station. For example, one station was about inspiration and interactivity, using images to talk about what inspires people and what interests them. We had an ask-the-experts station, a group of people with Metro and advising the team on everything from hydrology to cultural historical interpretations. We had a station that encourage people to talk about the kinds of activities they would like to see at the Riverwalk. It was a way for us to understand not only the kinds of things people might do here, but also the quality of the experience that they are interested in. The fourth station had a videographer talking with people as they shared their stories about the site. This place has a deep, deep history, and it has played a role in an environmental and cultural history that still exists today.
Has the design been affected by that feedback?
It’s a little too early to say. We had about 800 people attend. Now it’s going live on the website. We’ve started to sort through and summarize the feedback. I can’t say we’ve wrapped our heads around it all yet, but we heard a lot of really good questions. People are interested in the history of the site, and have a lot of thoughtful ideas that connect to those core values: being able to access the waterfront in many different ways.
I think there’s a strong interest in how we could tell the stories and history of the place in a creative way. The people are very interested in that interpretive history. We also received a lot of feedback about some of the remnants of the industrial buildings on the site. Those remnants are part of that history as well, and add to the immersive experience of the site. So we think about habitats, not only of plants and animals but also of humans. Altogether it means thinking holistically about the site. The amount of feedback that we received tells us that we still have a lot to learn.
Part of the opportunity here seems to be to create hybrids: of old and new, and of architecture and landscape.
We’ve given a lot of thought to that. It’s still early enough that we don’t know what it all means yet. There are five buildings on the proposed site that have the potential to be re-used. That’s open-ended. It’s not full historic preservation where we can’t touch them, but those buildings should be carefully considered.
Learning from previous analysis, our team is conducting further studies to look at other structures on the site. Our thinking is to preserve as much of the existing structure as possible while still meeting the other project objectives. This could mean anything from re-using an entire building to just saving the foundation or columns. It means re-thinking what those buildings might be in the future. Could they be a programmed? Open space? Could the Riverwalk actually pass through one or some of these structures? Maybe you don’t open a door and go outside, but maybe it becomes some sort of pavilion-like structure. We’re not distinguishing what’s architecture and landscape. In our minds we’re allowing for things mesh, for the Riverwalk to be something that engages with old and new.
And the firm has always been about that fusion, going back at least to the Oslo Opera.
The way I think about it, we’re really exploring the relationship between architecture and landscape. Some people have commented to me that there’s a kind of effort to blur that distinction. Maybe sometimes that’s an outcome, but that’s not the goal. It’s to create new opportunities. With the Oslo Opera, it’s hard to tell where the landscape ends and the architecture begins. That’s really compelling to people: that it’s not just one or the other. You might be going to the opera, or you might want to access the civic plaza. Sometimes hybrid activities happen, like live simulcasting outside of what’s going on inside. All of those things are very interesting, and I think in all of our work we’re exploring what those relationships can be. The Willamette site is incredible for that reason. It has a foundation of both architecture and landscape to work with.
Rendering of future Willamette Falls Riverwalk (Snøhetta)
Could you talk about some of the complexity of the Willamette Falls site as it relates to geology and landscape as well as ecology, culture and industry?
What we’ve found interesting about this site in particular is what we refer to as the Master Section. It’s not a place you can understand from just a plan view. There’s so much embedded in the layers, not just the buildings but the ground plain and the water. Some of the buildings sit on basalt. Some are on piers. Many of them are connected, even though they were built as individual buildings. Then as you keep going up through the site, you arrive at the level of Main Street, the downtown and the bluff. It’s a very three-dimensional place. And I think sometimes people unintentionally see landscape as a flat plain. They don’t see the layers that are embedded. This site just doesn’t allow you to see it that way: you have to see it as a three dimensional place, and we’ve been really drawn to that.
I’ve never quite seen a waterfall in the middle of the river like this. How much has it changed over time?
Where the fall is today is not where it has always been. There have been major geologic changes, and of course it has not gone untouched by man. The engagement of hydroelectric power and the dam have shaped what we see as the waterfall today. And there’s incredible seasonality that causes water levels to change dramatically, which in turn effects how the electric company manages the dam and the water as a resource.
The "People, Process, Projects" exhibit (Snøhetta)
Have you heard any discussion of the dam itself going away someday?
No I haven’t. I’ve heard several people ask the question: is that feasible? Would that ever happen? That question, whether to retain or remove certain parts, has influenced how we talk about the whole 22-acre site. We say, “carefully subtract” as one of the ways of thinking. We don’t necessarily want to take away the things that are there, but to be more responsive to them. We’re not interested in erasing or hiding that path. We think there’s a richness to that path. And the more you demolish or move, you have to balance that with what you build back. I don’t think we’re trying to restore it to some moment of time. We’re trying to respect the many moments it has had historically and to create new moments moving forward.
What happens next, and in the year ahead?
We are basically in early conceptual design. Over the next few months we’ll be doing both community outreach, which we’ve started, and establishing frameworks on design thinking for the whole site. We’re starting with the Riverwalk but we want to understand the whole 22 acres. We want to form a way of thinking, to identify what we need to learn about further. We didn’t want to come in and say, ‘This is so complex, we need to do all this technical analysis.’ We wanted to make it iterative. As things begin to emerge, like components that are really interesting or resonating, it proposes how much further we need to investigate to determine what’s feasible. It’s about bite-size pieces. We’ll be doing that through the summer, after which the goal will be to have a comprehensive design. From there the hope is to move forward and start developing a detailed design. The anticipation is that during conceptual design we’ll begin to understand how to phase the project.
We’re also thinking about what kind of redevelopment is appropriate and where it might be most suitable for the site. We have to be really thoughtful about the flood plain and flood conditions, which can shape where you might locate development or open space. We’re looking at all of those things, as well as the site’s geology. Where is it most feasible to build public space? There is a lot of technical knowledge and information being layered in, so we’re basing our design ideas on that understanding.