BY BRIAN LIBBY
This week architects from Snøhetta, the renowned Norwegian firm with offices now in New York and San Francisco that has been hired to design the James Beard Public Market, unveiled its plans in a series of meetings and community events, such as a packed talk I attended at the University of Oregon's White Stag building Wednesday night.
At least going by anecdotal responses talking with attendees at the unveiling, and on social media since renderings were published Tuesday, the response seems to be hugely positive. And while I usually like to let a design sink in a little bit, or even to wait sometimes until the building is built and I've walked its grounds, I can't help but feel excited too.
The hiring of Snøhetta seemed like a coup for Portland as soon as it was announced. It seemed like a good fit. While the city has a very good roster of local firms, it still is healthy to have outside architects come here and contribute to our built environment. They see the city with fresh eyes, and contribute new ideas.
At the same time, Portland is not really suited for big-ego designers or so-called starchitects. Some billowing titanium Frank Gehry structure might easily seem out of place here. But Snøhetta, with its blend of world-class talent, a collaborative design culture (both in-house as a team and in its embrace of outreach and research in local settings where it designs), and a fusion of architecture and landscape design, all seemed to be a particularly good fit for the Rose City.
What I liked about the James Beard Public Market that I saw in the released renderings was that it seemed instantly recognizable as part of Snøhetta's vocabulary and portfolio (which includes the masterful Norwegian National Opera in Oslo as well as the Biblioteca Alexandrina, the new National September 11 Memorial Museum and an addition to SFMOMA), angular and integrated with the land, yet it also felt like a modern Portland building: full of light and clad in wood.
I also was impressed by how much the design seems to transcend the difficult and confining nature of its site, between and bifurcated by the Morrison Bridge and two of its circular onramps. In his talk at UO, Dykers (as he had a few months earlier in another talk at the university) showed pictures of Trajan's Market in Rome, which is similarly constrained and circular-shaped. The eye is drawn not to the perimeter by the ramps or even to the bridgehead itself, but to the tall wall of uninterrupted glass on either side. And while it looks handsome from the street with its soaring, angular forms, the best views seem to come from inside, where three floors of activity enable views of each other, up and down, where numerous outdoor spaces offer scenic vantage points, and where a winding pathway through the vendor stalls brings a continuous sense of discovery.
Following are some comments from Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers (who cited project manager Norman McRae and partnering firms like SERA Architects) on the market design and the thinking behind it.
"We all appreciate food in some sense or another, but really it’s much more meaningful, this type of understanding of what food is," the architect said of the intent behind the market to begin his talk. "It’s not just a place not where it can be bought and sold, but where they can connect and learn from each other, and food is the catalyst."
Even so, it was "a bit of a shock for us when we came to Portland when we came here and it did not have a food market," Dykers added. "It’s really vibrant food culture and it’s known all over the world. It is odd that there wasn’t one. So it felt natural to revive this. This will be a home for what so many people see as a big part of the culture here.
On Snøhetta's roots and the past of this site, Dykers added: "Our office is both architects and landscape architects. We’re both American and Norwegian. We’re named after a mountain—not as dramatic as Mt. Hood, but a rather beautiful mountain. I think we have that connection with Portland. We’re also here to commemorate James Beard. He more than anyone else, I think, understood the value of the culture of food and how it connects people across classes, ethnicity, and demographics. It’s what makes us human. And we’re here to honor the landscape of Portland, along the waterfront and the buildings and the bridges. It’s a working place, not just a place for leisure. And of course it had in this place at one time a beautiful market building. It was there for many years and torn down I believe in the 1950s. It had a magnificent interior, a kind of big space where you could buy food and participate in the cultural traditions this region had to offer. But it lost its ground. So there is already this kind of missing quality that needs to be reconstructed."
Adjacent to the site today, of course is the Morrison Bridge. "What an unusual place to choose to put a building," Dykers said. "You might say to yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ We wondered at first ourselves. But we loved the site. It was this unusual geometry, and not a usual city block. It was an interstitial space chopped up by a highway system. But it created this unusual geometry. And it’s a gateway to the city and a place that connects the east and west sides, and north and south. It’s not just a center. It’s also a bridge between parts of the city which are strangely rather divided still. Anything we can do to knit the city together will be a great thing."
Recalling outreach done earlier this year, he added: "We had a number of community meetings. We also met with a number of vendors, which for me was one of the great experiences of this project. I felt like I was the boring person in the room. These people have a tremendous culture. When we met with people in the city, they were very vocal and very positive. We didn’t just do it for fun. We took all of the responses from all the people we met." He showed a word cloud corresponding with the volume of different words repeated by community members, "light" and "color" being the biggest.
"We also wanted to create an efficient design," he added. "Cost is a factor. It can’t break the bank. It needs to be easy to build, even if it’s inspirational. And the people here need good working conditions." Speaking about the design, he described "a simple back of house corridor" that confined all the market's loading to happen out of view, and without interrupting the front facade. At the same time, Dykers said the firm looked at how vegetation could soften things: "We can filter the air, and provide more comfortable character. And the trees and beg can help control the acoustics. You should feel you’re part of the city, not the overpass."
One of the surprises that came in the unveiling was the suggested addition of several more stories of either residential or commercial office space towards the back of the site. Most of the market would still be just a story or two, with rooftop decks and plazas, but the buildings could grow set back from the street. And they would potentially help bankroll the market, which still must undergo a massive funding campaign to be built.
And speaking of the roof, Dykers emphasized its role in the design, not just as a public gathering space but a place to grow food or even, he suggested, have beehives. "When you’re on the roof you have a view of the city," he said. "Not only waterfront and the east side, but on a good day Mt. Hood and the landscape beyond. It’ll be a very popular place, we imagine."
After the Snøhetta team traveled to markets around the world for ideas, Dykers explained that they settled on the idea of eschewing a long linear succession of market stalls for a more zigzagging pattern that encouraged discovery and paired with a sprinkling of social spaces. "We created a more organic system," he explained. "The entire place would be built up to provide a sense of belonging no matter where you were."
Of course with this site, it's not just a building but two halves of one, with the bridge and its underneath space to contend with and incorporate. Dykers said that while Snøhetta's plan was in many ways like what was done in the master plan to mark out these twin halves inside the ramps on either side of the bridge, "our plan links the sites more directly so you can move freely between them."
Though the front of the market will have 600 feet of uninterrupted glass along Naito Parkway, the façade is not straight. From the southeast and northeast corners it bends in to make the sidewalk a little wider, which in turn is covered by the roof above. The design also takes advantage of the space under the bridge and a triangular strip where the roadway splits into east and west directions, allowing direct sunlight to penetrate the very middle of the site.
"There will be a strong sense of continuity in the design so you’ll be able to see through to a big open garden that gets a lot of sun, and you’ll be able to walk through a number of stalls underneath the bridge," the architect explained.
Within that in-between bridge space, the design proposes "an unusual garden," as Dykers described it, with a series poles strung like maypoles with growing hops. "They’re taller than the road, so when you come into the city, you’ll see these rods of hops. It says 'Welcome to the city' in a different way. It takes your manner of thinking about the city towards the outskirts of the city. There’s lots of places for people to sit there, and at night it could be lit in a very pretty way. It would be more of a piazza then the rest of the areas around."
The design team also took inspiration from the bridges outside its future door to help provide the structure for wide-open spaces inside the multi-story open interior space. "We knew we needed some steel trusses in this building to support the length of the market column free," he explained, "so we‘ve taken the main truss from the Morrison Bridge and duplicated it. Looking towards the center [of the market], you’ll be able to see that truss, a duplication of the bridge truss. Above you in this column free space is a ceiling of wood, likely reclaimed, perhaps cedar. You can see there’s a number of places to sit and eat as you move through the stalls. There’s skylights bringing light into the building, and that allows us to bring natural ventilation into the space. And there are full height glass walls that lead the eye out back to the park."
He also emphasized the visibility possible between different elevations within and outside the space. "You’ll have magnificent views and access to an outdoor terrace. In the learning kitchen, you can look down into the market and up to the roof, and see both at once. If you’re in the market, you can look up and see the learning kitchen. When you’re in the restaurant, you can look to the garden roofs and to the kitchen. There’s a lot of visual connectivity."