BY BRIAN LIBBY
When we look back on 2016, it may not be the architecture we think of first. Even as I write this, the cold of winter is seeping through my apartment's single-pane windows and the bare trees are swaying in the wind. Yet the symbolic chill of our national crisis, set to unfold on January 20, is far more frigid.
But if that's the case, the inspiring architecture we build and the optimistic plans we make for the future may be all the more important. If Donald Trump is the equivalent of a cheap neo-historic casino and brothel with a false front, let us in Portland embrace our inner Louis Kahn and create contemporary designs with honest soulfulness, an inherent sense of inclusiveness, and underpinned with leading-edge sustainability.
The calendar says we're four days into 2017, but I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the projects and plans that defined the year. And perhaps it's noteworthy that I cite plans as much as completed projects, because many of this year's most exciting developments are yet to be constructed.
Unbuilt projects and plans
Although Portland has traditionally lacked many buildings and projects by world-class architects from out of town, in 2016 two of the most acclaimed and talked-about firms on the planet came here to show their work and envision the future.
Snøhetta, the Norwegian-American firm known for landmarks like the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, the Oslo Opera House, and SFMoMA in San Francisco, got involved with two local projects: the James Beard Public Market in downtown Portland and the Willamette Falls Riverwalk in Oregon City. The firm also held an exhibit of its past projects at the AIA Portland Center For Architecture called "People, Places and Projects."
Late last year it was announced that the Beard market would abandon its plans to build at the west edge of the Morrison Bridge, with traffic and access issues cited. Unfortunately that meant Snøhetta's design was relegated to the dustbin and its relationship with the market was officially ended. But within a few weeks the Beard leadership announced its new sight would be across the river on land owned by OMSI, which is being master-planned by Snøhetta, leading one to surmise or at least hope that Snøhetta could be designing the market after all. Hopefully that project will come to fruition, but the Willamette Falls Riverwalk is tentatively set to begin construction in 2018, so one way or another we ought to be getting something by this ultra-talented firm completed in the 503 area code. [I discussed the Willamette Falls Riverwalk with Snøhetta's Michelle Delk in an April blog post and talked with firm leader Craig Dykers for Architect Magazine in June.]
Another of the world's top architects, Japan's Kengo Kuma, also came to town for a Center For Architecture exhibit as well as to usher in construction of an expanded Portland Japanese Garden. The design will create what's called a Cultural Crossing, with courtyard space for events and educational activities, as well as multi-purpose classrooms, galleries, a library, tea cafe, and more. While the AIA exhibit this was going on, Kuma's profile on the world architecture scene took a leap forward when he was announced as the architect of Japan's new national stadium in anticipation of the 2020 Olympic Games, replacing architect Zaha Hadid. [Kuma talked with Randy Gragg about the Japanese Garden and his career at the Portland Art Museum in February, which I recounted in a blog post, and I also interviewed him for Architect Magazine in January.]
The year was also defined by a variety of ambitious new plans for parts of the central city.
The Zidell Marine Company announced in the summer that the barge it's currently building at its South Waterfront facility will be its last. In December, the Zidell family released a master plan for the Zidell Yards development that includes the barge-building plant and all the waterfront land between the Portland Aerial Tram and Tilikum Crossing.
And the Green Loop design competition, which Randy Gragg discussed in a January blog interview, is giving us the chance to humanize the east side's infrastructure, particularly the Grand Avenue-MLK Boulevard highway couplet with a series of small green spaces. To me the Green Loop is still somewhat hard to envision, because it's not like one can focus on any particular property parcel and say, 'It will be there.' The effect may be more ephemeral, be it a series of bioswales or green streets and maybe some small park-like spaces. Yet we've got to start somewhere, and any civic or green space the east side can get is much needed.
Portland's downtown will also be getting two prominent new civic landmarks: the new Multnomah County Courthouse at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge, and an expanded new Portland Art Museum.
In the case of the courthouse [which I wrote about in a March blog post and Portland Tribune column], the most eye-catching part of the project seemed to be who was not selected as architect. One of the world's three or four most acclaimed architects of the last 25 years, Rem Koolhaas, applied for the commission in partnership with local firm Architecture Building Culture. So too did one of America's most accomplished firms of the past 75 years, Skidmore Owings and Merrill. But neither firm was even short-listed for the project.
It's nothing against the firm that ultimately won the job, Portland's SRG Partnership. SRG is an excellent firm with first-rate sustainable credentials and a lot of experience with institutional buildings across the Pacific Northwest. The design they've produced for the new Multnomah County Courthouse is handsome, well done, and should make a nice addition to the skyline. My gripe has nothing to do with this likable award-winning firm. But failing to even shortlist Koolhaas or SOM tells me unequivocally that Multnomah County's selection process was flawed, if not outright embarrassing.
The Portland Art Museum expansion announcement also brought a major surprise with respect to the architect selected. Deciding to build a new Rothko Pavilion between the museum's original Belluschi Building and its Mark Building (the former Masonic Temple) next door was a no-brainer. As PAM director Brian Ferriso explained to me in an October interview for this blog, the new Rothko Pavillion will create better (and much needed) connections, enabling one to access contemporary art in the Mark Building's Jubitz Center much more easily and without such a circuitous path. It had been all but assumed in the architecture community that any such project would be designed by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works. The museum even devoted an exhibit to Allied Works in June, during which time Ferriso [as in this blog post] spoke of Cloepfil in glowing terms. But instead, PAM chose Chicago firm Vinci Hamp for the commission, with Ferriso citing the firm's experience and capability with not only visual-art-related gallery and museum projects but also historic renovations.
Ferriso knows his architecture; he was at the Milwaukee Art Museum when it commissioned a Santiago Calatrava-designed expansion and has always shown a keen interest in the practice. So I'm giving him and PAM the benefit of the doubt. The renderings look nice but not spectacular, yet if the connections are better, as I'm sure they will be, the design will make the museum-going experience vastly better, and that's what matters most. Besides, the museum still has a whole block (a vacant lot immediately north of the Mark Building) to play with in the years ahead.
When I think of how Portland's built environment transformed in 2016, the first place I think of is the east end of the Burnside Bridge, commonly referred to as the Burnside Bridgehead. There is Yard by Skylab Architecture, perhaps the most debated building in my 16 years as an architecture writer in Portland. Driving west on the Burnside Bridge from downtown, one almost gets tricked into thinking the drawbridge has been raised for a passing ship, but instead of the bridge tilted up perpendicularly you think you see, it's the massive facade of this building. Standing there alone for the time being, Yard indeed feels monolithic, especially with its black metal cladding—a contrarian choice in our gray climate to say the least. But soon Yard will be joined by a cluster of tall buildings around it, decreasing the jolt of its height at the waterfront. Yard is an aspirational building with its own look, one that's not for everyone (it seems to resemble the Empire's possessions in Star Wars, which I think is actually pretty cool), and its reputation wasn't done any favors by the controversy over its relative lack of windows (at least compared to what was approved by the Design Commission). I'm not in love with the building, yet I'm skeptical of the hostility.
Next door to Yard is Slate, another mixed-use apartment building, which won Works Progress Architecture (formerly Works Partnership) the top-level Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects this year. Whereas Yard seems nearly all-black, Slate has a distinctive black-white contrast and a continuation of WPA's recent penchant for sculpted apertures around major windows. It's a beautiful building for sure.
Across the river from Yard and Slate is another major addition to the Portland skyline, the Cosmopolitan Tower in the Pearl District by Bora Architects. The Cosmopolitan, which overlooks Tanner Springs Park and The Fields Park, is now the tallest residential building in Portland, and I think of it as a kind of skyline sibling of the US Bancorp Tower (better known as Big Pink): simple and elegant.
My favorite built project of 2016 was one that, like Slate, won the Honor Award from the AIA this year: the Swift headquarters by Beebe Skidmore. [I recently wrote about this project for The Wall Street Journal.] The project possesses a kind of yin-yang that I find appealing, in that it's pristine and nicely detailed and full of light like you'd expect from two principals (Heidi Beebe and Doug Skidmore) who came from Allied Works, but the design has a sort of unpredictable, asymmetrical quality at times, with new architecture growing out of the old warehouses that were there. It's a clean-lined design but has an organic quality as well.
When I look back at built projects of 2016, another favorite was among the most modest: the series of tiny dwellings created by a variety of local architects and architecture students as part of the PSU Center for Public Interest Design's PODs initiative [which I wrote about in a Portland Tribune column]. 14 different teams created dwellings and each had something to offer, but my three favorites were by Holst Architecture (for its simple beauty, based on A-frame cabins), SERA Architects (for its unfolding covered porch), and Communitecture (for making what already was a small dwelling into a duplex that still feels livable). The initiative also re-affirmed for me the growing importance of the CPID, which educates students by helping them help the community, whether that community is in the developing world or right here in Portland.
No city's built environment ever stays the same, and in Portland last year there were not only hundreds of old homes torn down in a continuing demolition epidemic but also one central-city landmark partially eradicated and another seemingly receiving no last-minute call from the governor before the pending execution takes place.
At Centennial Mills the signature water-tower building remains, but some of the adjacent architecture has been demolished. The city still seems to intend to redevelop this historic site, which is good news, but with this saga continuing for over a decade it has been challenging and with numerous failed attempts already.
Then there's the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple, which, along with the lovely mixed-use brick Albion Hotel building (long home to the Lotus Cafe) on the same block is set to be torn down for a mix of hotel and office space. It would take a really special work of architecture and place-making to justify these wounds to the city's history and architectural character. Is Ankrom Moisan, one of the firms involved, up to that task? I guess we'll see.
Yet not all the preservation stories were unhappy ones. Most exciting to me, for instance, was Veterans Memorial Coliseum being named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Full disclosure: I'm co-chair of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum.) It doesn't give the building any added legal protection, but it's a prestigious distinction that has only been given out to about 70 buildings in the United States. Along with the city's 2015 study showing the Coliseum to be profitable and fulfilling an important size niche among local venues, the National Treasure listing should reinforce the already-existing consensus that the building should be restored. There is also a desire (amongst the Friends and the National Trust) to make the Coliseum not just a place for concerts and sporting events but a venue that, like Pioneer Courthouse Square, another city-owned gathering place, really serves the community in a variety of ways.
Thankfully the new makeup of Portland's City Council seems to be more Coliseum-friendly. Gone is Commissioner Steve Novick, who introduced in late 2015 a motion to tear down the building. In his place is Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who during her campaign expressed a desire to see this arena and veterans memorial responsibly restored. Mayor Charlie Hales cast (in tandem with Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz) a deciding vote against Novick to keep the Coliseum, but his administration tried and failed to woo Nike as a private partner and then put a more modest Coliseum restoration plan on the back burner. When I interviewed Mayor Wheeler during his campaign last year, he didn't speak specifically about the Coliseum on record, but he clearly understands the value of historic preservation as well as the need to get social, cultural and economic value out of the city's resources. The city has a chance to spend maybe $20 million and, through a public-private partnership with the Portland Winterhawks and other players, get a restoration worth multiple times more. And that's saying nothing of the study's estimated $2 billion in economic impact from a Coliseum restoration over the next 20 years. Considering the $200 million we are plunking down for a Portland building restoration, that seems like a bargain.
I mentioned the Portland Building, and while that $200 million restoration figure is eye-popping, I'm glad this world-renowned work of postmodernism will not be torn down. It might have been possible to renovate the building for a lot less. The city could conceivably have sold it to a developer on the condition of not altering the facade, which is really the only truly relevant part of Michael Graves's design. (The inside is a largely windowless mess that literally makes occupants sick, and Graves had little if nothing to do with it. And the very essence of postmodernism was that you could put colorful packaging over anything.) I could have imagined the Portland Building living a new life as a hotel, for example. As it is, the renovation will be an interesting test case for how we properly preserve this somewhat anomalous era of architecture.
Two completed or nearly-completed works of historic preservation stood out for me in 2016: Pine Street Market and the Oregonian Building.
Courtesy of Siteworks, the Pine Street Market preserved the circa-1886 Carriage & Baggage Building and created one of the hottest food destinations in our cuisine-crazed city.
And the Oregonian building, which transforms the longtime newspaper headquarters into creative offices, is an irresistible union of original architect Pietro Belluschi and renovation architect Allied Works: the most acclaimed Portland architect of the 20th century handing off to the most acclaimed local firm of the 21st. And yet it didn't take a great architect to make the most important move in with that diamond in the rough: removing all the drop ceilings added halfway through the building's life and uncovering the grand multi-story spaces Belluschi envisioned.
What will 2017 hold? More than ever, it's impossible to know.
On a strictly local level, the economy continues to boom, which in many ways is good, especially for the building industry. But what goes up must come down, and one can't help but wonder when the bubble will burst, or at least when some kind of recession will come. If it does, hopefully it won't be nearly as severe as what we experienced in 2008 and beyond as a result of de-regulation and over-speculation, but perhaps it can ease the stunning rise in rental rates that have made so many people homeless or living paycheck to paycheck. Even so, there is a massive backlog of affordable housing that Portland needs to build regardless of where the economy is going or coming from.
But as someone who writes about architecture and cities, it's exciting to see burgeoning new neighborhoods and districts continue to come together, or old ones given new life. The Lloyd District isn't going to be just a mall and some movie theaters anymore. It'll be a place where people actually live. The South Waterfront won't be so much of an isolated place but part of a continuous strip of cityscape and greenspace along the water stretching north to downtown and connected via Tilikum Crossing to the east side and points beyond. Old Town may still have an over-supply of homeless individuals and late-night revelers, but it's also now full of students and tourists and a sense that the old buildings there have value. North and Northeast Portland may face gentrification and displacement more than anywhere else in town, but they are gaining exciting new architecture and becoming places not just to live or eat dinner but to work, with a new generation of commercial projects. Near where I live in Southeast, lower Hawthorne Boulevard is finally coming alive, perhaps inspired by the transformation of Division Street into a high-density restaurant mecca.
Last year I enjoyed some memorable travels, particularly in Europe, visiting Berlin and Prague. It made for an interesting dichotomy. One city, Berlin, lost much of its architectural history during World War II as a result of fascism run rampant. The other, Prague is practically one big museum of historic architecture. That said, Berlin has a youthful, artful energy while Prague, at least in its historic core, can feel like a gilded tourist trap (albeit one I'd happily be trapped in anytime). What can Portland learn? Anything I try to some up in a sentence or two risks being a trite oversimplification, but in 2017 I'd like to see our city be defiant in its progressive, forward-thinking attitudes and leading-edge solutions even as we protect and preserve our enduring values and places.