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Get Real Portland

First of all Portland needs all the modern buildings it can get. Second, historic districts are great and have their function, but to force contemporary design into an antiquated vocabulary simply because it is within a historical district is juvenile and insulting to the profession of architecture. As an architect you can, and must respond to context when designing, but to copy or imitate the surroundings is insulting both to the history of the place and the integrity of the designer. TVA's design is both functional and elegant. While I may have minor issues with its design I don't believe for a second that some second rate historical imitation would add a single bit to the quality of Portland’s waterfront. Portland landmarks one and only goal should to be the preservation of existing historical buildings with some significance or quality. Other than that they should get the hell out of the way of progress and good design.


There is nothing that degrades the quality of an historic district more than creating new buildings that look like old buildings. The way we know and understand things old is by contrast with the various historic layers of a site. Scale and massing is the way to bridge different eras and hold it all together, which the TVA scheme seems to do. I'm anxious to see if Walker Macy can pull off the plaza without complicating it with a lot of extraneous detailing and tired forms.


That Apple Store was a huge loss to Portland, not only in terms of contemporary design - but also the loss in construction jobs, retail jobs and revenue to the city.

Thank goodness this commission wasn't around when Portland Art Museum and The Equitable building were built, we'd have neither.

But Pietro Belluschi - the architect of both those modern landmarks - was good at managing these kind of political waters; Portland's architectural community needs to circle the wagons here soon and figure out how we can get past the anti-creative and architecturally regressive forces that are killing the inspiration our children could be getting from a city that is focused on its future, not trying to Disney-fy the past.


If I learned anything from my travels to Europe, it's that new modern designs HIGHLIGHT historic architecture. I agree that faux-historic designs cheapen the feal of their truly historic neighbors.


Brick. Apparently we're being told we need to design everything in Portland out of brick. Because, you know, it's obviously the only 'native' material of choice here in the PACNW.


Glass reflects the beautiful colors and cloud shapes of the Northwest skies, I would much prefer it to brick. The Landmarks Commission suffers from a severe failure of the imagination.How can this Preservation Commission be thought of as such a tyrant in a city where everything purports to be under the people's control. Or is this the problem? A collective failure of the imagination?


The Equitable building is a great example of why the public has lost faith in architects. That building is under crap. It’s a sterile box. The last thing architects should do is circle the wagons; many have been doing just that for years and have complete lost touch with the public. You want modern design; well sell the public on its value. Why does one assume that just because the public doesn't like modern architecture it wants faux history? Maybe it’s just a matter of not like the architecture in vogue today. A bunch of identically black clad "creative" architects trying to argue that sterile, cold and cheap modern architectural form is the only option insults the public’s intellect. We don't want reproductions of history we want GOOD modern architecture, not sterile cheap minimalism.


No one lost any money insulting "the public's intellect". As for the public's taste in design, all you have to do is look at how the public dresses in public around here to get an idea for what we are in for if your idea prevails Jim (the architectural equivalent of flip flops and screaming shades of green and yellow for dinner)


They dress like humans. When did being comfortable and relaxed become a bad thing in the PNW. Its the real world out there not some Sim city computer game. It rains, it's hot, its cold...the public obviously values Function over Form, detailing over sterile. Maybe that goes to the heart of the disconnect between the "professional" community and the public. The professionals are too busy dressing up they forget that people actually have to utilize these things.


Brian, I've followed your postings for a while now without writing – hopefully the first time is also the longest...

As Senior Designer and Historian at Rejuvenation, I can easily be pigeon-holed as "old school" - and with my 1980s architectural degree from the NC State School of Design (and a year in Copenhagen) my roots are thoroughly "new school"... With a foot firmly planted in both worlds, I think there is plenty of "failure of imagination" to go around in the tiresome and tedious historical vs. modern debate. I offer two reasons why I believe both sides typically miss the point.

One: The philosophy behind so-called "traditional" design is obviously different from the philosophy of "modern" design - especially in the basic way that each rejects the other. Each of these philosophies takes form in a different “language.” I believe one obstacle is that few bother to learn (and love) both languages. The result is misunderstanding, endless bickering, and knee-jerk over-simplifications of the other side's point of view. Each language has its poets, and each has its hacks - but we have precious few who speak both with intelligence and beauty.

Two: I believe that the real conflict between traditional and modern is about emotion. How many times have we heard modern architecture dismissed as cold and unfeeling by traditionalists? How many times have we heard period architecture dismissed as nostalgic and sentimental by modernists? A romance language and a scientific language perhaps… My experience is that modern architecture struggles to satisfy emotionally (if you aren’t an architect), and traditional architecture struggles to satisfy intellectually (if you are an architect - hmmm, what is the common element here?). Obviously as long as the two are seen as mutually exclusive, neither can benefit from the strengths of the other.

As for "integrity," ask for twenty Saturday Market designs and you'll get twenty aspirations to (and defenses of) design integrity. The question is integrity to what? Arguments about protecting a design's integrity are often a red herring diverting attention from the fact that a project's fundamental intentions - before the layering on of any architect's preferred language - don’t have integrity, by which I mean that they weren’t clearly understood and agreed upon by the people with a stake in the result. In the Saturday Market project, it appears that not all with a stake in the result were a part of agreeing on the project's intentions. Surprise... conflict!

You have to admit that this design would look great out at the airport…


Sigh... I'm not sold on these designs at all. While I love the juxtaposition of old/modern, these renderings DO look cold, sterile, and out of place. Beyond the whole brick/faux historical debate, I am at a loss to how these structures respond to the existing neighborhood and future home of a folksy craft market. I'm not advocating tie dyed tapestry shelters... but am I the only "lover of all things modern" who feels like something is really off on this one?


Hey,Jum, I love good kitsch as much as the next person, I never thought it was the triumph of form over function.
Zhouse would make a great architecture theory teacher, I like his points.Maybe we should strive for "contemporary" design that is both emotionally satisfying and intellectually appealing, rather than bicker about the (now) historical style of "modernism".
Then again, when I look down 6th Avenue and 53rd street in New York, I get a jolt of pleasure from the big boxes of skyscrapers lined up like a domino, what a sightat night!(very emotional for me, so there, Modernism can be exhilerating)

Brian Libby

I agree that this contemporary design is not one I'm head over heels in love with, but I just am not sure if the reasoning from the historic side is sound.


In this particular instance I am not sure that the disconnect is between the public and the professional as Jim suggests, but more a disconnect between the public and the Landmarks Commission.

Lets all keep in mind that this particular design:
"earned favorable comments from a citizen advisory committee and received approval from the Parks & Recreation bureau after months of study and public comment"

It seems to me the point to be made here is not the conflict between traditional and modern design, but instead we should be asking whether the body representing the neighborhood actually reflects the opinions of the neighborhood. Given the positive feedback by the public it seems that the representative body is letting personal style preferences override their duty to represent the public.


This is simply a comment on the architect’s choice of media. It seems that TVA has not done themselves any favors by representing Portlanders as small porcelain figurines. For a space so vital to the life of a city I would expect these images to highlight central uses, such as performance or market space. Street vendors, musicians, people (in color) and a view taken at eye level (as opposed to the current levitated level) might have made this proposal easier to swallow. As it stands right now, the people of Portland don’t appear to be the primary concern of this design.


You can't freeze an area and expect it to remain vibrant and responsive to Portlanders ever-changing needs. How powerful should an Historic Landmark board be? Powerful enough to preserve but flexible enough not to fossilize... Lovely design, expressive and bold enough to engage the Burnside Bridge and tie-dyed hemp sundresses, but is it the right design to serve other uses year round? Tip of the hat to TVA and Macey Walker and best of luck to them to end up with a sucessful project all can appreciate.


What I find somewhat objectionable about the design, based just on these two renderings, is the choice of materials. In the semi-natural setting of a park and adjcacent to the oldest part of downtown Portland, I'd rather that the materials used were less impervious to time and weather than glass and white-painted metal, which appear to be the main components of the structures. Glass and painted metal can only deteriorate with age if not properly maintained, but can't really improve or change in an interesting way. How about using stone or even finely textured concrete with elements of wood--or copper or steel that's allowed to oxidize?

The TVA approach to design seems to aspire to a kind of timeless, antiseptic quality that comes across as neither very natural nor very urban. Sort of like space ships landed on a golf course. That may suit the Nike image, but it doesn't seem especially evocative of the downtown Portland waterfront and old town.


I looked at the renderings above and went to the links supplied for TVA and Walker Macy, neither of which had this project listed, though perhaps I missed it.

There's quite a bit about the relationship of the new structure, the bridge, and the area surrounding them that's hard to pick up from those renderings. I think I've got the orientation straight, but the renderings could have done a little better job of providing a sense of the feel that this canopy will contribute to the area.

If they had, my feelings about the designs might be different. As it is, I'm not exactly sure what to think about them. They'll provide for better light than the current beneath the Burnside Br location. Beyond that, although they're not particularly unattractive, but I feel myself thinking, 'what's the point?'. Based on those renderings, the design seems a little pointlessly gratuitous to the Burnside Br. Why not have them do a little more visually than just borrow an angle from the Burnside? The roof just seems to shoot out and suddenly end, like it was goings somewhere, and then got stopped.

What about the river? Is this design acknowledging the river at all?

Modern is good...we just don't seem to get good, new modern downtown. Some of those modern residential houses and the fire stations Brian Libby featured here sometime back had some really good ideas that maybe could have translated well to this site.

There is more than brick. How long has it been since an architect has tried to do something with cast iron? How about all that natural stone from vintage buildings torn down across the country that gets hauled off to landfills? Just because those materials might be used doesn't mean they have to be used in a way that apes traditional design.

I hope for all of you that love modern design, that your dreams come true and in future, Portland gets some that's inspired and exciting. Hopefully those designs will be more significant than either the Apple or the Kurisu projects aspired to be.


My issue is what happens under these canopies for three-quarters of the year when Saturday Market is not using them. I'm hoping that the drummers and druggies don't come back.

Jeff Joslin

Once again, I'm a little limited in just how much is appropriate to respond to, given the active/early nature of the review.

But first, I've got to uncharacteristically simply disagree with three points in Brian's first 28 words.

1) Apple was not shot down - extremely modest, non-style based changes were requested. Whether the retailer walked in response to those requests we'll never really know, but Boston and New York asked for a much more radical design re-visitation, and ultimat-ly received venues in non-historic areas.

2) I don't consider Kurisu "dumbed down". It's not the sculptural, less-contextually-referential design that was originally submitted. While the sculptural qualities of the original design were rich and laudable, it was not consistent with the purpose of the community-driven historic district regulation that attempts to ensure and enhance the qualities and patterns of the respective district.

3) The Landmarks Commission is not "curmudgeonly". Numerous recent modern and expressive projects have been reviewed and approved by them. Some of these, as is continually noted and rehashed, have not been without challenge. To assault the Commission each time it addresses and critiques aspects of a contemporary approach as style-based, anti-modern, faux-historicizing, and the like is: inaccurate, and not acknowledging their contribution as a citizen-Commission, and the community-emplaced values that these districts and their associated regulation were created to protect.

Design of projects particularly public ones such as the Market, need to serve multiple masters. In this case, one of those masters is the Historic Design Review process - the project has always been known to be subject to review. Part of the difficulty at this moment is that this particular design, far along in a public process and its design evolution, was just brought before the Commission for the first time, even though the Commission has formal regulatory authority.

The Commission's purview is clear, and it's obligation to ensure that projects, whether public or private, appropriately reflect and forward the identified and designated attributes of the historic district is fundamental. Again, this does not imply any sort of mimicry, or brick, or some notion of randomly applying ornamentation. It does imply a respect for the process and the specifically crafted regulation, and the need to bring to projects notions of scale and detail and quality that can result in products that are both entirely of their time, while meaningfully historically referential and deferential.

Jeff Joslin
Land Use Manager: Urban Design, Design Review, Landmarks Review
City of Portland
Bureau of Development Services

Brian Libby


The points I made at the top about Apple, Kurisu and the committee being curmudgeonly were all loose opinions. If you call me on them being unsubstantiated, I suppose you might be somewhat correct. But in all three cases, I believe I was voicing the feelings of a lot of design enthusiasts out there.

The Apple store was indeed a case where the company pulled out. The Commission had what it believed, and many would agree, were relatively small concerns. At the same time, there seemed plenty of room to argue that even those small quibbles represented a questionable larger philosophy about design review and regulation. I believe strongly that Portlad should have things like the Historic Landmarks commission, as well as the Design Review process. However, it's a natural part of that process as well for us to argue about the results. It seems to me like Apple said, "To hell with this." That wasn't the City's fault, but some design enthusiasts felt the City was at least partially to blame. There's also a natural double standard, of course, because many of us see Apple representing superlative product (and retail) design. As a result, we trusted Apple more than, say, Home Depot if they put a store in Northwest. It's inconsistent, but speaks to the frustration I and a lot of others felt when the project fell through.

Regarding Kurisu, you make a fair argument that the project was only made to integrate better with the neighborhood. But I and many others, not just from Holst Architecture (the designer), have seen the before-and-after renderings, and from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, feel that the original was a better looking building. Of course there are other issues than pure aesthetics. So sue me! I want pretty buildings, alright?

Besides, in both this and the Kaven case, people notice that sometimes hideous structures seem to get built, and so when a serious, talented architecture firm has trouble, it seems crazy, even if things aren't so simple.

The last thing you mentioned, about the 'curmudgeonly' comment: there are probably a disproportionate amount of projects the Landmarks Commission reviews without fanfare that make the average building better integrated with its historic setting. But in certain cases, there's just no way the Commission is going to avoid controversy. You perhaps more than anyone at the City have been great about encouraging and participating in this dialogue. As you say, this is perhaps a rare case where we outright disagree, but that's the nature of opinions, right?

In other words, I believe wholeheartedly in the Landmarks Commission being around. But part of their job is to deal with second-guessing from people like me. That helps ensure when they do make a decision, they've thought long and hard about it because the public is watching.

Randy Gragg

Mssr. Joslin,

Exactly WHICH recent modern projects have been approved by the Landmarks Commission? Yes, there's the little housing project on Burnside and 3rd -- modern but, ahem, brick. But let's roll out some specifics.

As for all the rest of this commentary on TVA's big carport, both sides are getting woefully wrong. Landmarks wants it to echo the warehouses or be maritime themed. Modernists want to defend the march of history. But what any designer or landmarks commission with a clue would go for something much simpler: make the canopy disappear. A beautifully detailed steel and glass canopy is the obvious solution -- our own sleek mini version of the crystal palace. You see it when you're in it, but it otherwise lives lightly in the park disrupting neither the historic fabric nor the landscape.

Of course, that would be expensive. Which brings to the REAL problem: the fountain. Who needs another fountain in Waterfront Park, particularly another circular one. This project is already WAY over budget. More money has to be raised or something has to go. Get rid of the fountain and give us a canopy to be proud of -- that is about context, not the result of two designers' trying to lift their legs on Portland's front yard and a landmarks commission happy to let them as long as the fire hydrant looks old.

Randy Gragg


Damn. This is why Portland needs Gragg back.

Jeff Joslin
Jeff Joslin

A dream come true: double-teamed by Libby and Gragg. Bring it on! (only kidding, only kidding)

Recent approved contemporary projects include: the addition to Fruit and Flower Nursery by GBD, Hacker's addition to the Unitarian Church nearing completion, the Union Gospel Mission building at 3rd and Burnside which you mentioned (yes, there's brick in all three, but by design, not mandate). And yes, I'll stand behind Mississippi Lofts and Kurisu once again - though modified through the process, these are decisive, modern designs, and strong and clear expressive statements. I personally believe the Lofts project could have received approval without the introduction of brick on a portion of the façade, but the developers and designers chose to introduce that as a design element, rather than as an option for further discussion as to its necessity.

Note that Union Gospel is not red brick (and not the predominant material), as has been frequently suggested is the only imaginable approvable historically reflective building material. In fact, there have been comments to such effect by both of you in the past. I consider such intimations to be less than fair-minded.

For example, when the Pacific Tower in Old Town reverted from a red brick to a lighter brick, it was Mr. Gragg reported that this was against the will of the regulation, staff, and the Landmarks Commission as a result of Mayoral intervention. Nothing was further than the truth: in fact, the shift was a result of a multi-year campaign on my part to solicit a point of view from the esteemed designer of the Classical Chinese Garden as to appropriate expectations for the aesthetics and scale of buildings potentially visible from within the garden - the Mayor played no role in the aesthetics. Once Mr. Kuang was comfortable enough with our relationship to openly weigh in, that information was utilized to encourage the developer to make a number of changes to the building, including the shift in color, and has continued to inform other such reviews.

I raise this not to publicly air historic dirty laundry (pun intended), but to attempt to raise the critique ante a bit. Thoughtful, truthful analysis and critical prose has a better chance of advancing the dialogue and the process than does a battery of easy mantra-like cheap shots.

That said, your broader design prompting is extremely welcome. I suspect such assumption testing has been somewhat absent from the park process to date. I regret citizen Gragg's lack of presence at the hearing, and hope he'll attend the next.


before: http://chatterbox.typepad.com/portlandarchitecture/2006/10/holsts_mississi.html

after: www.citygardenpdx.com



before: http://chatterbox.typepad.com/portlandarchitecture/2006/10/holsts_mississi.html

after: www.citygardenpdx.com

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