On August 22, 1965, Allen Ginsberg saw The Beatles play a concert at Memorial Coliseum in Portland. Ginsberg was inspired enough by the experience to write a poem, “Portland Coliseum”:
A brown piano in diamond
iron run wired
hanging organs, vox
A single whistling sound of ten thousand children's
pierce the ears
and following up the belly
bliss the moment arrived
The million children
the thousand words
bounce in their seats, bash
each other's sides, press
legs together nervous
Scream again & claphand
become one Animal
in the New World Auditorium
while a line of police with
folded arms stands
Sentry to contain the red
that rises upward to the
As it happens, my mom was at that concert, too. She wrote away for tickets through the mail, as was then the custom. Her family dropped her off at the five-year-old Coliseum for a few hours during the afternoon—the Beatles played Portland on a Saturday afternoon—and picked her up afterward. “I don’t know how we ever found her again,” my grandma always says when the story is re-told. They’d thought it a little silly how worked up my mom was over the band, but after the family saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show together, at least they had some idea of the phenomenon.
Twelve years after that concert at Memorial Coliseum, on June 5, 1977, came the biggest moment of my lifetime as a sports fan, albeit one that as a five-year-old I was too young to appreciate: the Portland Trailblazers’ winning of the NBA championship. I can hear radio announcer Bill Schonely’s call in my mind, how just after the game ended 109-107, he called the time of day as he announced, “The Portland Trail Blazers are world champions. They’re number one,” but it’s because I’ve seen the video clip replayed, or heard the call on my “Blazermania” record album (produced by now-defunct local radio station KYTE).
Later in life as a teen, though, I got to see several Blazer games at Memorial Coliseum during the heyday of the Clyde Drexler-led teams that won two Western Conference Championships in 1990 and 1992 as well as the league’s best regular-season record in 1991. I remember vividly how lightning-quick the Blazer fast break was in those days, with Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter racing down court. And needless to say, the atmosphere was special given how the Coliseum sold out literally hundreds of Blazer games in a row.
Besides The Beatles, virtually every big entertainer of the 60s, 70s and 80s played there, from Elvis to Led Zeppelin to Luciano Pavarotti. The Dalai Lama spoke at Memorial Coliseum, as did Barack Obama during his campaign last year.
Regardless of what event one would attend at Memorial Coliseum over the years (it opened in 1960), part of those memories was the building itself, particularly the dramatic sense of place that existed outside the seating bowl in the perimeter lobby.
There are times in the distant past I remember going to the Coliseum but the event or act itself is gone from my memory. Only the view through the glass remains intact.
In a design or sculptural sense, the Coliseum’s concrete seating bowl is unique and elegant in how it stands completely detached from the surrounding glass walls. Architects describe the effect of the seating bowl in relationship to the transparent perimeter of the building it as a teacup inside a glass box. It’s the kind of detail that elevates Memorial Coliseum, or any building that achieves such elegant simplicity, into being a work of pure and transcendent architecture.
The nostalgia I or others here may have for the building would not be enough of an argument in and of itself to preserve it for the future. But as the Coliseum has come under the threat of demolition this spring, and practically taken over my life in the process as the preservation effort has risen to the building’s defense, it’s become more and more clear that the building deserves whatever effort my architect friends and I can muster.
Luckily, one Portland radio station’s poll found those in favor of the Coliseum’s preservation outnumbering those supporting its demolition by more than an eight to one margin. And aside from the editorial board of The Oregonian and billionaire Merritt Paulson, whose plan to build a minor league baseball stadium in the Rose Quarter (the development that includes the Rose Garden arena and Memorial Coliseum) is what’s threatening the Coliseum with demolition, I’ve hardly found anyone in the whole city who likes this idea.
Most all American cities, when they build a bigger, newer arena for their NBA basketball team, eventually demolish the older arena. Chicago Stadium in Chicago is gone, as is The Spectrum in Philadelphia, and the Boston Garden in Boston. But Portland and Oregon have always either had or sought an identity for different values. In the last decade sustainable architecture has revolutionized design of buildings here, and Portland has become a national leader in this field. But a fundamental principle of green building is the re-use of existing buildings. The US Green Building Council, which administers the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating system for sustainable buildings, is one of the numerous organizations that have written Portland mayor Sam Adams and City Council to call for Memorial Coliseum’s preservation. (The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Institute of Architects are two others.)
More than the value of recycling Memorial Coliseum into a viable new purpose to meet green/sustainable values, the building is worth preserving because of its enduring value as a great work of architecture.
Even people who have spent their whole lives living in Oregon don’t completely realize what an architectural treasure Memorial Coliseum actually is. Besides the sculptural quality of the teacup-in-a-glass-box concept, and the cinematic, panoramic quality of the skyline view visible through the transparent exterior, the Coliseum is one of the only indoor arenas in the world that has the capacity to be lit almost completely with natural daylight.
There is a curtain extended around the 12,000-seat seating bowl that hasn’t been opened for years. But it’s supposed to be able to be opened. When you see photographs of the Coliseum from inside with the curtain open during daytime, it’s breathtaking. A few weeks ago I interviewed by phone a retired architect, Bill Rouzie, who had been part of the design team that created the Memorial Coliseum plan. (You can read the whole interview here.) Also part of that team early on was Gordon Bunshaft, who is easily one of the five or seven most accomplished American architects of the 20th century, responsible for masterpieces of design like Lever House in New York City.
The whole concept behind Memorial Coliseum's design, Rouzie told me, was to give the arena a sense of transparency and connection to the outside - something anathema to most large performance spaces.
"We were thinking, we’ve got this oval bowl that is going to sit in a glass box," he recalled in our phone talk. "When you’re in the bowl looking at something happening, you can either have light or not with the control of the curtain. To get out of there, or at halftime, you walk out into a space and instead of being in some blind corridor, you come out and you’ve got glass and you can see the city. You know where you are, and whether it’s day or night."
"That was the whole point of the design. You never feel lost there. I can even get lost in some of the buildings I've designed, especially the hospitals. But not the Coliseum."
If Portlanders could stand inside the Coliseum in the daytime with the curtain open, this 49-year-old, supposedly obsolete old basketball arena without a basketball team would stand out for what it is: a mid-20th century version of the Acropolis, Chartres Cathedral, Wrigley Field or the Rose Bowl: a public gathering place with the simple beauty and unique sense of place to endure for generations.
Part of the problem is what developers call “deliberate benign neglect”. Billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen’s Oregon Arena Corporation has a contract with the city of Portland, which owns Memorial Coliseum, to manage the building. As shown in research by Portland State University professor William Macht, associate director of the school’s Center For Real Estate, Oregon Arena Corporation has a financial incentive to take the Coliseum to break-even point, but a financial disincentive in terms of turning a profit. After break-even point on the Coliseum, OAC receives a bigger percentage of those profits (and the City of Portland less) on events at the Rose Garden next door. And it’s at the profit-making point that much needed repairs and upkeep on the Coliseum would be triggered.
Another problem is the generational lag time that has long plagued the public when it comes to appreciating historic architecture. As my architect friend Rick Potestio said to a group of city planners during one meeting our Coliseum preservation group attended recently, if Portland had saved more of its cast-iron buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century, we’d have the equivalent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. If we’d preserved more of the Victorian houses that used to exist in this city, we’d have a priceless, identity-defining collection today like San Francisco does. But societies have a long pattern of working to protect hundred-year-old buildings while dismissing forty or fifty-year-old architecture as ugly, obsolete, and worthy of demolition.
Take the statement made by Portland city council member Randy Leonard last week to The Oregonian. He called Memorial Coliseum “ugly” and said it’s a building “only a mother could love.” As it happens, Leonard graduated from Grant High School at a ceremony in the Coliseum in 1970.
But Leonard is wrong. I say that not simply he disagrees with me, although that’s a story in itself. The commissioner and I had a public war of words one week ago over email that was published online by the Portland Mercury and Willamette Week.
There has been broad consensus from the art and architecture community, as well as the broader public at large, from the time it was built. Even in early construction photos the Coliseum is impressive. Although its structure spans the equivalent of four city blocks, the building sits on just four pillars.
Fourteen years before the Coliseum was completed, in 1946 the Equitable Building in downtown Portland, designed by the great architect Pietro Belluschi, became the first structure in the world with a glass curtain wall. In this system, the building is held up not by its exterior walls but interior columns, allowing the outside “skin”, as architects call it, to be made of materials like aluminum and glass. It sounds like a no-brainer today, but this modest office building in downtown Portland was the first anywhere to be built like this. The Portland office of New York and Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill emerged from Pietro Belluschi’s office after he became dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s school of architecture in the late 1950s. And being so much larger in scale, Memorial Coliseum is a kind of sister building to the Equitable building just across the Willamette River: a glass palace born from the same office that invented the now ubiquitous glass tower.
Much of a wonder as Oregon is in terms of its natural surroundings—Cascade peaks like Mt. Hood, Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Jefferson, rugged Pacific coastline, high desert in the east and fertile valley the west—we lack a long architectural history compared to the American east coast or Europe or much of the rest of the world. But Memorial Coliseum is just the kind of building that needs to be preserved for Portland, something to become in the future that very history that we lack today. Obviously not every old or moderately old building should be preserved, but the Coliseum is a giant in this city, vastly too important to tear down.
As I told Mayor Sam Adams during an open house about the Rose Quarter development—an incredibly surreal moment in which he interviewed me with a microphone before an audience of hundreds, TV cameras inches away—in an ideal world there will be a day in the future when the Rose Garden is torn down and Memorial Coliseum is still standing. Even after a decade and a half the Rose Garden has acquired plenty of memories of its own inside the building. But it looks like it was designed by Fred Flintstone, and the building (like most all arenas) feels closed off from the outside. There’s scarcely a window anywhere.
The moment with Mayor Adams before the TV cameras was just one of the numerous moments during the Coliseum preservation battle in which I’ve acted far beyond my normal role as an architecture and visual arts critic, becoming something much more like an activist. It’s not something I sought, and in fact I now find myself yearning for a time when the Coliseum fight is over and I’m keeping a lower, slower profile. In the past few weeks I’ve been interviewed by three or four different TV stations, been a guest on a local conservative radio talk show, and interviewed countless times by newspapers like the Portland Mercury. I've also addressed city council, joining former Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh at the table to speak to council. It’s a temporary case of flipping sides: the interviewer becoming, however modestly and locally-focused, the interviewed. I’ve also had the experience of meeting with numerous city council members and staffers one on one. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about James Carville and George Stephanopolous in the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, “The War Room.” That movie has also provided some good lessons about strategy, and the importance of directly engaging those opposing you with speed and relentlessness.
So, we know the Coliseum is a tarnished architectural gem of the past that should not be demolished. We know the building hasn’t been given a fair chance to succeed economically—that in fact the opposite is true: that it can turn a profit, but merely hasn’t been allowed to do so. Will it be allowed to continue for future generations? It’s still hard to say. Right now our side has apparently won the first of a two-stage battle. As of now the arena, says the mayor, will not be torn down for a baseball stadium. The stadium is now being planned for Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood. But nothing is completely guaranteed at this point. Lents is starting to look less ideal a fit than it did a week ago, and the ebbs and flows of the Coliseum’s fate have already cycled up and down countless times. Even if it’s not outright demolished, the building could still be ruined by its own renovation, be it a crass corporate entertainment mall like the Blazers have planned, or the amateur recreation complex another developer has proposed.
I keep hoping that people would look to change the architecture not in the Coliseum’s main arena but at the surrounding underground exhibition hall. It is over 50,000 square feet of space, big enough to host the Portland Auto Show for years before the Oregon Convention Center was built. The exhibition hall also wraps around the veterans’ war memorial there, with a small garden-like space cut into the ground. Think of how much this huge neglected space could be enlivened if you did something like what architect I.M. Pei created for the Louvre museum in Paris in the 1980s: a glass entry area that dramatically guides visitors into the underground space and introducing a bounty of natural light—all while preserving the original building above ground.
A few days ago I won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to study visual art as part of a small group of arts journalists, curators and artists for an intensive two-week period in June including trips to several major museums up and down the east coast and private lectures from gallerists, critics and other experts. But I reluctantly turned down the fellowship this week because it would have conflicted with the ongoing Coliseum battle. That should give some indication of how important this battle is to me.
Crossing over from writing and criticism to outright activism has given me pause many times during this struggle. As I said, the relative peace of being just a journalist again certainly conjures an attractive feel in my imagination. Like my literary hero, Ferdinand the bull of the popular children’s book Ferdinand, I yearn to leave the bullfighting arena and relax under the olive tree again.
Even so, I was encouraged last Sunday about reading a New York Times Book Review piece by Ruth Conniff about a children’s book biography of Jane Jacobs, “Genius of Common Sense.” Conniff writes:
“Jacobs…became a well-known magazine journalist and architecture critic, and author of the groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But she also put her words into action.
With carefully researched articles and community protests alike, she made a name for herself defending so-called slums, like Manhattan’s West Village, against the proponents of urban renewal, who wanted to replace historic areas with high-rise apartment buildings and freeway interchanges.
When it came to the Village, Jacobs had personal reasons for taking up the cause. She was born in Scranton, PA, but moved to New York at 18 and fell in love with the city…renovating an old house on Hudson Street…So when Robert Moses, the ‘master builder’ of New York City, decided Washington Square Park needed a four-lane highway running through it, Jacobs energetically joined a movement to stop it.
At a public meeting about the highway project, Moses stood up and bellowed, ‘There is nobody against this – nobody, nobody, nobody, but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers! Then he stomped out.’
His plan failed.”
Certainly I’m no Jane Jacobs, but there is clearly precedent for writers taking a stand against dreadful urban renewal ideas. Considering I attended New York University, its campus centered on Washington Square Park, I have Jacobs to thank for not letting a freeway go there. And through this process, I’ve often yearned for a similar kind of future, when I can go to, through, or past Memorial Coliseum and see it standing there gleaming. Even better, though, is some as-yet unborn architecture writer of the future having that same chance.