BY BRIAN LIBBY
Although the James Beard Public Market has been simmering as an idea and a dream for over a decade, and its intended location at the west end of the Morrison Bridge has been known since 2011, the recent announcement that acclaimed Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta will be its designer (first reported by Randy Gragg in Portland Monthly) has given the project an injection of excitement and possibility.
With its bounty of food options, the market already seemed poised to become a major destination and public draw in downtown Portland. Think of what the Pike Place Market in Seattle does for that city: it almost feels like the epicenter of the urban core there. But the Beard Public Market will occupy a difficult, bifurcated site occupying the donut holes of two circular Morrison Bridge on and off-ramps.
For that reason and more, the fact that Snøhetta is designing the project is exciting.
Internationally renowned firms don't seem to come to Portland very often. This isn't a city that collects buildings by starchitects, especially in comparison to neighboring metropolises like Seattle and San Francisco. But Snøhetta, with its collaborative and multidisciplinary approach as well as its inclusive and research-oriented process (the firm will lead a design forum on December 10 to gather ideas, for example) is probably a better fit for the city.
Snøhetta first came together as a collective of Norwegian and American architects and landscape designers in 1989 to enter a design competition for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) in Egypt. The untested firm won the job and, after a lengthy gestation, saw the library completed of in 2001. It featured a bold circular form and tilting roof that became instantly recognizable, a seeming fusion of ancient and modern influences.
The firm may be even better known for its Norwegian National Opera in Oslo. Also won via competition in 2000 before being completed in 2008, the design features a distinctive roof that slopes dramatically downward, not unlike the Bibliotheca Alexandria, only this time to form an adjacent waterside pedestrian walkway. It's striking, but in a way rooted in function, creating "a link within the city rather than a divisive sculptural expression," as the firm's website explains.
This year saw the opening of perhaps the firm's biggest-profile project yet, the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City. The only building on the memorial plaza formed by the original World Trade Center twin-tower footprints, the largely underground museum features an angular, almost crystalline glass pavilion stretching upward and outward to offer a soaring volume of multi-story architectural space holding a pair of structural steel columns from the original World Trade Center. Since then, the firm has developed a stronger presence in the United States with offices in New York and San Francisco and a host of domestic projects, the most prominent probably being an expansion of the Matio Botta-designed SFMOMA.
Rather than simply being creators of bold architectural forms (although they certainly do that well), however, Snøhetta seem to act as problem-solvers, turning the constraints of site into opportunities for drama. That could come in handy given the challenging constraits of the three-block Beard Public Market site, formerly surplus land occupied and shaped by the bridge, which Multnomah County sold to developer Melvin Mark in 2011. Melvin Mark plans to build a 17-story office tower on the more open triangular-shaped western portion the land, with the other two blocks (comprised of the bridge's circular on and off-ramps to and from Naito Parkway) providing the two halves of the market.
If Snøhetta can solve the constrained nature of the market's two-halved site, as they’ve solved similar problems at other complex parcels on which they build, perhaps the project can also be a benefit to the waterfront itself.
A generation ago Portland removed Harbor Drive in order to build Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which was a transformational moment for the city (along with the rejection of the Mt. Hood Freeway and the construction of Pioneer Courthouse Square, MAX and the bus mall) as it journeyed to become the pedestrian, mass transit and bike-friendly place we know today. Yet the four-lane road that remained alongside Waterfront Park, Naito Parkway (which also acts as US Highway 99W), seems to have difficulty attracting retail or other types of development. Surface parking lots remain year after a year.
It's not to say that the market itself will stretch across Naito Parkway and solve that sense of the park being hemmed in, but perhaps its construction can act as a catalyst for further waterfront development, which has already seen recent projects a few blocks north such as the University of Oregon's White Stag Block and the Mercy Corps headquarters bookending the western edge of the Burnside Bridge, or the relocated Saturday Market with its glass canopy in Waterfront Park, also near the Burnside. And the Morrison bridgehead has heretofore had very little relationship with the surrounding Yamhill Historic District as well as Waterfront Park. If the new market can change that, one wonders how the whole area might benefit. Could the surface parking lots along Naito finally begin to disappear? Could Naito start to feel a little less dominated by automobiles?
And while the market will be more horizontal than vertical, stretching across the two halves of the Morrison ramps before giving way to the office tower, one wonders how it might alter the skyline, acting as a new front door for downtown Portland. It also makes one wonder about the design of the office tower Melvin Mark is building. It will be a challenge to maintain the same level of architectural quality in the office as Snøhetta brings to the tower.
Even so, perhaps what excites me the most—that is, after the experience of visiting the market itself when it’s completed in 2018—is how the project makes use of some of the dead space created by the massive bridge ramps. In some of the greatest cities I’ve been to, particularly those in Japan, the space around and underneath infrastructure such as bridges and elevated train tracks is often utilized creatively. We’re never going to completely get rid of the mid-20th century infrastructure here, but we can make it better stitched into the fabric of the city. In a region known for its bounty of agriculture, seafood and wine, what better way to do that than with a public market?