BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last month, as part of a presentation to the City of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission, the Portland Art Museum unveiled a revised design for its Rothko Pavilion, the glass-enclosed space that will connect the museum's original 1932 Belluschi Building with the circa-1925 Mark Building to the south.
The design seems to solve what had been a conundrum and a controversy. When the Rothko Pavilion renderings were first unveiled in 2016, members of the public had expressed opposition to how it would take the place of a public right-of-way. The museum sits on a super-block, and last year a City Council vote granted the right to enclose the public right of way.
Yet in this revised design, created by Chicago firm Vinci Hamp in partnership with Portland firm Hennebery Eddy Architects (the latter of which joined the project earlier this year), there is a passageway for cyclists that dips underneath the Rothko Pavilion, while a half-stairway inside allows museum-goers to still pass from one building to the other without venturing back outside or underground.
The new design also eliminates what was my least favorite part of Vinci Hamp’s first version: a glass-enclosed stair tower that seemed to obstruct the original structure. It helps make the Rothko Pavilion more of a deferential architecture: a connector between the buildings more than a building design itself that competes with the other two.
That was very much intended, and I think it speaks to Hennebery Eddy’s joining the project. Vinci Hamp’s talent as it relates to this project lies largely with museum/gallery interiors and historic renovations. Hennebery Eddy, on the other hand, has, in addition to a lot of design awards, at least two principals (Tim Eddy and David Wark) who served long terms as members of the City of Portland’s Design Commission and can help guide the design through both that body and the Landmarks Commission in order to gain approval and get built.
Looking at these latest renderings from Hennebery Eddy compared to images of the 2016 design, it's a little tricky comparing them apples to apples because the earlier renderings themselves were a bit more extensive graphically (see below). But the pavilion does seem to get cleaner in its appearance, simpler, even though it may actually gain in square footage.
Back then, it was a surprise that the commission wasn't going to Allied Works or even a firm that does many stand-alone buildings. But the Vinci Hamp partnership with Hennebery Eddy, judging by these renderings, could be promising, because there seems to be a greater clarity of idea here: that the Rothko Pavilion needs to be a connector between two buildings—an architecture that is deferential—and thus should all the more present itself as something aesthetically simple.
If you think of Vinci Hamp as an expert designer of spatial connections working here rather than designer of a building between the Belluschi and the Mark Buildings, it makes more sense, especially with their local partner's complimentary skills and insights about how architecture meets its urban context.
I'm still hesitant to pass judgment one way or the other based on a couple simple renderings, but for me this design seems to be worth getting behind. Now that the design has created an outdoor passageway, we can focus on the Rothko Pavilion for how it will improve the museum-going experience, which is quite a lot. And while this glass connector needs to disappear, in a certain sense, as it relates to the Belluschi and Mark buildings, it also has the opportunity to be a very special and uncommon type of space in our city that I wish we had more of: a glass-ensconced winter garden, where the sun is shining through on all sides and there's enough natural light to make the indoors feel like the outdoors—minus the rain.
Portland Architecture: Tim, you’re obviously experienced as both a longtime firm leader and as a Design Commission member. Can you talk about being brought onto the project to help negotiate the process of getting past the Landmarks Commission and to refine how the Rothko Pavilion design responds to its context?
Tim Eddy: It’s very, very involved. The challenge with that process [the Historic Landmarks Commission] is a range of commissioners having been on the commission for years; it’s easy to see how they bring thoughts into that process and lots of thoughts, lots of ideas, lots of critique. Quite honestly the design guidelines are very broad: incorporate Portland themes, things like that. They can be used either as an acknowledgement that someone thinks you’re headed the right way, or they can be used as a bludgeon. They’re so flexible in terms of how they’re written that they can be used either way. It’s not an empirical process by any stretch. The most important thing is the design team really leads the charge and has the courage of their convictions in terms of the solution. You come away from that and you get forty gallons worth of information, of which you have to sort out the three or four quarts of it that are actually important to moving forward. That said, I think the DAR [Design Advice Review] process is indispensible. It enables a project, while it’s being developed, to be socialized with the Commission, so that they begin to understand that complexity.
And could you talk a little bit about that complexity—about the design challenge?
Eddy: It is a hugely complex project. It’s a Portland super-block from an urban design standpoint. It’s a museum project, but it’s a public space project. One can’t be successful if the other’s not. The public space is the outward face of the project and the outward face of the museum, if you will. That public space has to be successful and it’s quite challenging. Working the passageway through the project, there’s a challenging amount of grade on the site making that work and making entries work, making them appropriately grand. Respecting two historic landmarks held in high regard across the city for people who are architects and people who aren’t. And it’s got all the mechanics of running two buildings and delivering art to two buildings that don’t have back doors, and trying to improve the pedestrian environment, the urban condition around the buildings, when they are largely opaque.
So a lot of what you’re looking at and really having to get right is the public face and how the inside relates to the outside, right?
Eddy: They’re urban museums, and urban museums kind of tend to be bunkers. The pavilion has a lot of work to do in becoming this transparent front door to both of these facilities. Vinci Hamp knows the museum end of this thing very well. They have a deep understanding of the circulation within the museum and have developed a very strong concept to connect everything together.
Right. It seems like that’s been more or less figured out, and now the challenge is how the design meets the outside world. To that end, it seems like the revised design gives the community a gift with the pass-through space that’s been created. The museum won through City Council vote the right to enclose the public right of way, but then the design team created a version with open passage after all. I wonder if this is not just a gift to the community but an opportunity for the museum: to embrace the fact that people want to cross thresholds.
Eddy: You’d think it would be perceived this way, and I think in some ways it was. But I think Brian could talk about the limitations of having that enclosed ground floor space be where bikes and dogs are passing though.
Ferriso: At the first DAR hearing, someone made a thoughtful comment: “Let’s look at this as a way to reach out further into the fabric of the neighborhood. How can those spaces have tentacles and affect the larger landscape?” That resonated with me. We designed sort of a fortress and a cage [with the sculpture court that was part of the last renovation]. I think that was done because of the sense of security and safety in our downtown. That comment about the fabric of the neighborhood combined with this desire to create this welcoming invitation versus a gate is what is important. We started with the idea that the pavilion being glass helps it to be the invitation. The next phase is to shape not only the pavilion but also the spaces around the pavilion. I’m excited about the Green Loop conversation that needs to take place. [The Green Loop runs along the Park Blocks that face the museum.] Commissioner Nick Fish is talking about how the parks can be embraced by the museum’s campus. Those are all special opportunities. I think the future of an art museum is not only the collection but the programmatic element. We’ve diversified our programmatic elements, but in many ways the facility has been left in the dust. I think we’re trying to bring the envelope up to the level of programming happening. The commons is really part of that.
It seems like the Rothko Pavilion has a chance to be a true winter garden: a type of architectural space I wish Portland had more of given our gray climate.
Eddy: If you did a survey of downtown Portland, you’d find very few spaces of the character of the community commons where people can gather in any building. There are auditoriums, there are halls, but very few spaces that are specifically for people to gather in. It’s a little unusual because in major cities usually you find spaces like that.
And the fact that people can walk through the Rothko Pavilion without a ticket, in addition to cyclists using the passageway underneath, seems like a special opportunity.
Eddy: It’s I think an enormous opportunity: to expose community to the museum on a daily basis—to see art, to see pieces of the rotating collection in the Mark Building, to actually move through the sculpture court. There’s always a potential liability where you create an enclosed covered space that’s open to the public in Portland, and the art and architecture really have to solve that problem along with good day-to-day management practices. The transparency and visibility will make it work.
Ferriso: The pulse of the city is pedestrians and cyclists and that flow through the building and within and around the building.
One proposed solution for the right-of-way question was to build only a bridge between the upper floors of the two existing buildings, but you resisted that, right?
Ferriso: that’s the Minneapolis solution. I really dislike that. It takes people out of the streets.
I noticed the stair tower in front seems to be gone, and that seems like an improvement to the design because the stair tower was a little too obtrusive in how it related to the original Belluschi building.
Eddy: It’s gone. There was a feeling that it blocked the view of features of the Belluschi wing of the museum, and that it was out of scale with the pavilion and the existing buildings. We were able to reconfigure that stair. We still have a grand stair in that corner, but it shifts over as it goes over to the fourth floor to access the gallery there.
It reminds me of what Yoshio Taniguchi, as the story goes, told MoMa about his renovation design. “If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture. But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear,”
Tim: that’s a really good comment, and relevant here.
The design has to deal with a series of incongruent grades between floors and between the street and the museums. How do you make that all align, and how do you make things accessible as possible?
Ferriso: We’re working with the disabled community and embracing universal design ideas. It’s something I hadn’t necessarily thought about. If this museum can achieve that level of accessibly...that can be a special experiment.
Eddy: Universal access goes beyond barrier-free design from the perspective that we’re looking at elements of the design and mobility in terms of how they’re perceived. A barrier-free building can still have funny lifts and things. We’re endeavoring to integrate access for everyone into every part of the museum. It’s a big challenge. It’s a 54-inch challenge on the east side of the building. We’re 54 inches form the sidewalk on Park Avenue to the main level of the concourse. It’s particularly challenging with historic buildings. For what I’m sure are good reasons at the time, the floor levels in the old art school portion don’t align with the floor levels in the Belluschi wing. And those don’t align with anything in the Mark building. They were trying to get that lower floor in. All the light wells on the north side of the building, they were trying to squeeze extra programming in. At the time, there was no requirement for access. The idea that it’s a few stairs away is fine. In today’s terms, that few stairs translates into a whole lot of infrastructure. It’s a challenge, but one really worth taking on. There’s a lot of personal dignity tied up in access. There’s emotion to it, and frustration.
This building will be clad pretty much entirely in glass. Can you talk about the type of glass we’re seeing and what the intent or design needs were?
Eddy: We called it bypass glazing. It’s very clean, very slick on the outside, as transparent as possible, very minimal. The curtain wall stands outside the structure of the building.
Ferriso: And you can put the shades between the layers of glass. The Jacqua Center [at the University of Oregon, in Eugene] was always an inspiration for this project.
What about the fact that the Rothko Pavilion will also serve as a new front door for the museum, taking that role from the Belluschi Building? How do you make the Rothko Pavilion distinctive as a new front door, but also get right the relationship between this and the other two buildings? Can you be distinctive and deferential at the same time?
Ferriso: One of the commissioners wanted to see an expressive, iconic building. Tim said, ‘The last thing we want is a three row-house type experience, where there are separate architectural elements.’ I think that’s true.
Eddy: We’re designing an entry to two historic buildings. We don’t see it as designing a third expressive building. We’re designing something that will moderate.
Ferriso: It’s referential, refined elegance. I mentioned the Byler foundation. You feel the architecture melting away, and through scale and proportion and light the art really shines. Having lived in the building 12 years, I’ve come to really admire and appreciate Belluschi. In many ways this is a way to honor that and not distract from it. When we have art installation experiences, those Belluschi galleries really shine. The Diebekorn show, the ceiling treatment, the scale, and these 1930s cars are perfectly nestled in those spaces. In many ways this is a continuation of that aesthetic and that elegance.
Can you talk about the fundraising challenge that lies ahead?
Ferriso: It will be interesting how this unfolds. Certainly costs are different: significant escalation. It will be a very interesting challenge for our community. This is a very special treatment for a cultural gem and a cultural anchor for our city and our state. Will the investors and benefactors come? I don’t see value-engineering this. It’s a very strong, thoughtful, smart and beautiful response and proposal, and that’s what our city needs.