BY BRIAN LIBBY
From concert halls and arenas to stadiums and amphitheaters, I've always had an outsize interest in and affection for the spaces where we come together. Be it for a basketball game, a symphony or a graduation ceremony, I've always marveled at the unifying power of such architecture. The fact that I can attend a Ducks game at Autzen Stadium or a concert at Keller Auditorium with thousands of people I might otherwise disagree with yet feel part of one collective audience, all swept up by the action onstage or on the field of play, is extraordinary. It makes you feel part of something larger than yourself, larger than the touchdown scored or the song that's sung.
At the same time, these usually large projects don't come around very often. In Portland's central city, for example, I have to struggle to think of what the last such arena or large theater project would be.
There was the Portland Armory renovation in 2007 that brought the Gerding Theater, but that's only a 590-seat space. I'm thinking more along the lines of spaces with seating in the thousands. The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall opened in 1984, with a 2,776-seat capacity in the former Paramount Theater dating to 1927. The Moda Center, originally known as the Rose Garden, opened in 1995.
Because these multi-thousand-seat gathering spaces are rare to arrive, I greeted the completion of Viking Pavilion at Portland State with keen interest.
In some ways the project is merely a renovation of the existing Peter Stott Center, the longtime home of the PSU Vikings basketball team as well as a multi-purpose sports complex dating to 1966. But such a transformation has happened that the new arena feels like an entirely new building.
The site couldn't be better. Viking Pavilion is nestled along the South Park Blocks in the heart of PSU's campus. But in the old Stott Center, you'd never know from inside that the building looked out at parkland. Fronting the Park Blocks was a completely windowless wall of brick punctuated only by a Brutalist-looking concrete stairway. If Veterans Memorial Coliseum is our city's (or even our nation's) most wonderfully transparent and light-filled arena, the Stott Center was perhaps its ultimate evil twin: one channeling Mies van der Rohe and the other channeling Kafka or Stalin.
Which is to say nothing of the fact that the Vikings basketball team—playing in Division I of the NCAA—claimed as their home a mere 1,200-seat space. I mean, there are high school gymnasiums with larger capacities.
Before even entering the Viking Pavilion, the glass and transparency is immediately apparent. Its northeast corner is a more than two-story wall of glass that's reminiscent of the massive glass curtain wall at Memorial Coliseum. I wish there had been a little more room for the stairway to fan out from the arena itself, rather than creating two smaller stairways and a retaining wall of brick. The sloping site also necessitates a kind of asymmetry as one views the arena from the Park Blocks, so that the unfettered wall of glass at the northeast corner is not replicated on the other corner. Even so, there is a ton of glass, enough to read the building's signature interior form—a wall of wood that divides the lobby from the seating bowl—unmistakably from outside.
In a recent Portland Tribune column reviewing Viking Pavilion, I titled the piece "Ship in a Bottle" for that reason. After passing through the glass entry façade into the lobby, the interior wall of this 3,000-seat multi-purpose arena reveals itself, "clad in unpainted glulam Douglas fir beams, like the hull of some massive vessel navigating the North Sea," I wrote. "But if a Viking ship of ancient lore was designed to be impenetrable, the opposite is true here. In arguably the project's most compelling design move, the architects from Portland's Woofter Architecture and Denver's Sink Combs Dethlefs (now part of multi-city firm Perkins + Will) lifted up the entire inner wood façade like a curtain, so that the action going on in the arena can be seen from the lobby."
As a longtime fan of Memorial Coliseum and part of the group that has worked to save the arena from demolition, I've spent many years talking about the experience of sitting inside its seating bowl when the curtain is open and looking out at the city. From the top of that seating bowl one can see the entire downtown Portland skyline and the Willamette River. It's one of the most special architectural experiences I've ever had. But Viking Pavilion does the opposite even as it achieves a comparable effect. Here the openness is not up top over the edge of the bowl and through the facade but further down. Because the arena is built into the ground, one enters through the lobby halfway up the seating bowl. Yet it's still a matter of letting in light at the level of the lobby. As a result, the arena's scoreboard can actually be seen from the Park Blocks outside the building. That wood ship's hull, despite its bulk, appears to be lifting like a curtain giving attendees a view out and people in the lobby a kind of extended seat. Even at Memorial Coliseum you can't stand in the lobby and view the action inside the arena. Here you can.
In addition to the arena, the building also houses a new Vikings Athletics Hall of Fame as well as student lounges, administrative offices for the athletic department, a renovated weight room, and facilities for the new OHSU Sports Medicine Center, the latter reflecting the university's increasing collaboration with the local medical school. And while the Vikings basketball team may be the signature tenant of the eponymous arena, it's actually a multipurpose space with a lot of flexibilty. On the day I visited the space was full of teenagers competing in a science fair. A few days earlier, its first-ever event was TechFestNW, connecting hundreds of programmers and startup entrepreneurs.
In this way, Viking Pavilion can help further PSU's broader mission as it journeys from middling commuter school to a hotbed of cultural energy and diversity and a school that engages its community and the broader world, and in so doing creating a real university community where talented people want to be. My own alma mater, New York University, once underwent a similar metamorphosis. In the 1970s, it was known as where the bridge-and-tunnel crowd lacking the GPA to go to Columbia wound up matriculating, communing by subway. If one takes a broader campus view beyond Viking Pavilion to include the transformation of Neuberger Hall by Hacker Architects (which will include the university's first on-campus art museum, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art) and the new seven-story building at SW Fourth and Montgomery that is being built in partnership with Portland Community College, OHSU and the City of Portland, it really starts to paint a picture of PSU as a hub for everything from science to medicine to arts and culture.
It's also worth noting again that this is a pretty big project for a heretofore pretty small firm, Woofter Architecture, to take on. Looking at the firm's portfolio online, most of their recent work is residential in scale, such as a house at Black Butte Ranch and an ADU in Concordia, or modestly sized commercial space such as offices for AAA in Beaverton. But Woofter had done work for PSU before, and principals Miles Woofter and Jonathan Bolch both came from Yost Grube Hall Architecture, where they had engaged in larger scale design work, including a recreation center at the University of Hawaii that's not dissimilar to Viking Pavilion. There was apparently some feeling that the Viking Pavilion job was ZGF's to lose, and I'm sure their design would have had its own merits. But I like that a small firm was given a chance to show what they could do, and certainly Viking Pavilion meant more to Woofter and got more of their attention than would have been the case with ZGF, Portland's largest firm and one working all over the world.
There was a time when PSU's basketball team used to play at least some of its games at Memorial Coliseum. When I first saw the renderings of a then-unbuilt Viking Pavilion, I was a little bit miffed. It seemed derivative of the Coliseum, a bowl inside a glass box. And at the time, the Coliseum's own future was more in doubt, as then-Commissioner Steve Novick was leading an effort to demolish the circa-1960 arena where the Trail Blazers won an NBA championship and the Beatles once played. I thought to myself, "Instead of building their own little Coliseum, why can't they just play in the real one?" It would have given the Coliseum another anchor sports tenant in tandem with hockey's Portland Winterhawks.
But really the Coliseum and Viking Pavilion are two very different sizes. Though Viking Pavilion more than doubles the Stott Center's capacity, it's still only a quarter of the Coliseum's capacity for basketball games. It would have left a lot of empty seats, and that's never a good look. And of course while they're both in the city center and only about a ten-minute MAX ride or five-minute car ride away from each other, the Coliseum is across the river from PSU and there's a different kind of advantage having an arena such as this smack in the heart of campus. And because of its glass and transparency, Viking Pavilion and its occupants can take advantage of that site on the Park Blocks in a way Stott Center never did.
Standing outside Viking Pavilion after a recent tour, I got thinking about how the architecture is and isn't monumental. There are enough hints of this building viewed from the Park Blocks as glowing glass-ensconced jewel that it can start to feel like a sculptural object. And yet there remains something humble and practical, an avoidance of the grandest gestures, that stops short of that monumentality. In that way, Viking Pavilion seems to be a good fit for its site and for PSU's needs. It doesn't overwhelm the Park Blocks or the surrounding buildings, and in fact its scale is not even bigger than the adjacent library.
Yet particularly when standing outside that northeast coner, looking at Viking Pavilion's biggest expanse of glass, it feels like a space where people want to be: not just for a basketball game or a conference, but simply as a place to study or to hang out with friends. Arenas of all sorts have tried to do that in recent years: to attract people even when there aren't events. In many cases that's a stretch, and at the very least there needs to be a good cafe inside that can attract them. At Viking Paviliion, though, I really can imagine people simply hanging out in its lobby, maybe before or after class in this or a nearby building. That's as valuable in its own way as the monumental gesture, and I think Woofter has in its design found a happy medium between those forces and approaches.