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I suppose I couldn't support your idea for having the coffee shop accessible via a door opening onto the street in the SW corner it occupies. There's probably actually a lot of reason why this wouldn't be a good idea.

It's present configuration creates a kind of inner sanctum, yet one clearly visible to anybody that passes by on Burnside, by way of its near floor to ceiling windows. That makes it a very powerful tool for compelling people that find an interest in entering the coffee shop to thereby enter the store itself and pass by the many, many marvelous books during the long way there.

The coffee shop itself is not that large. A door might seriously affect the flow of people through it in way that might not be beneficial compared to what it is now. Of course, if the parking space above and its driveway to the north wall of the coffee shop is actually removed in the renovation, that could open up another more unobtrusive yet more accessible route to the street than the existing on.

I've heard that the bar code/alarm security for books is easy to defeat. Powell's is already doing what they can to deal with that situation, I imagine, so another entrance probably wouldn't be such a big deal for them.


Yeah, another entrance in the coffee shop just wouldn't work. They would have to reconfigure the whole coffee shop, and add cash registers and bag check and whatnot. There just isn't enough space.


I completely agree with both of you about the coffee shop being an inner sanctum. I used to spend a lot of time in there and loved the idea of being so far from the street and yet so close too it. And I agree Brian that the front entry needs to be very open and attractive from Burnside. Seeing the activities of the store from the street level would really add some interesting energy to an already vibrant intersection.


A bit off the topic, but I want to go public with the fact that I've lived in Portland for almost 10 years, am an avid reader, and buy tons of books... and I've never stepped foot in Powell's. It's gone on so long at this point, it's become a bit of a crazy challenge. Anyone else in Portland who has never been to Powell's who can challenge my 9 year, 7 month record?

Brian Libby

Kalliope, what gives? Do you just shop at other local stores, chains, online or what? I hope you're not doing a lot of browsing at Barnes & Noble instead. What's stopping you from going to Powell's other than keeping your weird streak alive? I'm certainly not saying you have any responsibility to shop there. Certainly not. But it's a little funny for an avid Portland reader, you must admit.

Matt Davis

Powells was my second taste of Portland, after Stumptown. Compared to other bookshops around the world it felt like coming home, and I agree about the coffee shop.

I must admit I'm somewhat wary of the redesign. The Gursky image is a nice one to muse on, but a transparent bookstore could easily look chaotic. A bit like the Eliot condos--seeing everyone's crap through the windows doesn't do much for the overall aesthetic. It's less postmodern beehive, more postmodern thrift store.

Part of what makes Powells what it is, in my view, is that shitty 1960s entryway. Without it, you're more like a Borders. It's a challenge!

Parking-wise, I couldn't agree more. Get rid of it. Who drives, these days, anyway?


"Part of what makes Powells what it is, in my view, is that shitty 1960s entryway." Matt Davis

Truth!! From the moment you walk through the door, it's clearly apparent that the experience before you is all about the seriously marvelous, personal business of exploring as many books as you can soak up while you're there. No aesthetic detailing is wasted on flash and glamour. The lighting is pretty good (they might change the tubes to daylight balanced if they're not already).

I also love the ramp from the lobby to the first room of books to your left as you first enter. It may be a bit steep though. If they could make it a little more gentle and still preserve the transitional ascent/descent as you go from room to room, that would be good I think.

Other than eliminating the parking and adding more floors over the entryway, I don't see that they need to do a lot in terms of being more polished or fancy.


"Part of what makes Powells what it is, in my view, is that shitty 1960s entryway." Matt Davis

Truth!! From the moment you walk through the door, it's clearly apparent that the experience before you is all about the seriously marvelous, personal business of exploring as many books as you can soak up while you're there. No aesthetic detailing is wasted on flash and glamour. The lighting is pretty good (they might change the tubes to daylight balanced if they're not already).

I also love the ramp from the lobby to the first room of books to your left as you first enter. It may be a bit steep though. If they could make it a little more gentle and still preserve the transitional ascent/descent as you go from room to room, that would be good I think.

Other than eliminating the parking and adding more floors over the entryway, I don't see that they need to do a lot in terms of being more polished or fancy.


Many of you sure can think small...Why can't this unique retailer with an important address aspire to something far greater? I for one can get excited about the possibilities of a far improved experience and a much better contribution to our urban fabric.

I think the gursky image is inspiring - I'm reminded too of the book stacks at the delft university library by mecanoo.

This project is brimming with potential. I hope Powell's architect is up to the challenge.


Brian, I do think you're right, it's now become keeping this weird streak alive, at least until I reach 10 years! I buy most of my books online, and buy a lot of magazines, mostly at Borders. The aesthetic of Powell's isn't very appealing to me. I've never felt compelled to go in, the place looks pretty creepy from the outside. I'm still looking for someone who can break my "never been to Powell's record". I don't share that much, people here in Portland find that a bit creepy!


Jeff, you say "...aspire to something greater?", but other than references to visual appearance, you're not specifying what it is exactly that you think the bookstore, Powell's, can do to become greater than it already is.

kalliope, it's hard not to laugh at the reasons you offer for having not walked into to Powell's Books, West Burnside, for a look around. How can you say, "The aesthetic of Powell's isn't very appealing to me.", when you haven't even been in the place?

You haven't even experienced the aesthetic until you've been in the store, yet you're willing to let, perhaps, your impression from Powell's cheap variety store sign dissuade you from doing so. I'd really like to know more about why you seem to find that Powell's "...looks pretty creepy from the outside." What is 'creepy' about dozens of generally healthy people of all different types that, visible from the street, are inside a well-lit lobby paying for books, browsing in the stacks, or peacefully sitting amongst themselves and enjoying each other's company with books in a coffee shop?

Powell's has some old books. The store has kind of an old book smell. Maybe that's what you don't like. Borders's only sells new books, so maybe that's why you're more comfortable there, and of course, in some people's eyes, the beauty of online buying, is that a person doesn't have to physically be in the presence of people to get things they need.

Despite it's unspectacular exterior, Powell's Bookstore, West Burnside, seems to be one of the first places that many people from around the world coming into Portland, want to go to first.


"generally healthy people of all types" is a euphemism for homeless people (in the dictionary of pdx political correctness) an essential ingredient of any self respecting "gritty" city.
Jeff, aspiration for something greater in architecture and design is not going to happen because native portlanders want it (they seem to prefer the "shitty 60s exteriors) but it is going to happen because of all of us newcomers want it (there are a lot of us in case you haven't noticed) and that may be inevitable.
Having said that, it is unlikely that Powell's has enough money to invest in great design, so let's hope whoever they hire will produce something functional and at least passable (wouldn't hold my breath for a Gursky level photogenic result, anything that looks chic and clean portlanders denounce as "corporate" or "sterile" or "yuppy" or (gasp) too California..)


I think native Portlanders want greatness in architecture. Mostly though, despite influxes in both newcomers and capital for new construction, it hasn't happened in Portland in the Pearl or elsewhere in Portland. Occasional flourishes of good taste and ingenuity, but greatness is hopefully, yet to come.

Outsiders with relatively higher incomes compared to that of many native Portlanders have made their presence in parts of Downtown Portland by attracting new businesses catering to the kinds of expensive comforts that only they can afford. In addition, these outsiders in certain cases, bring with them a kind of arrogance and meanness that is not so great or inspiring, regardless of how cleverly an architectural design or renovation is rendered for the purpose of hosting them.

Whatever Powell's Books, West Burnside decides is the best design approach for its renovation, it's my hope that they will seek to avoid any kind of design concession that could undermine or destroy the friendly atmosphere of inspiration and conviviality that makes for the Powell's Books experience that native Portlanders and many hundreds of thousands of people around the world have come to love and enjoy.


Cue the applause and wipe off a tear, such an affirmation statement!(although slightly convoluted>>"a kind of arrogance and meanness that is not so great or inspiring, regardless of how cleverly an architectural design or renovation is rendered for the purpose of hosting them.")


Jeff, it's ok to laugh at my reasons, they are pretty funny. Couldn't answer your question about the old book smell... cause as I mentioned, I've never been IN there. I do find a more modern aesthetic and a general sense of organization and cleanliness appealing. I've still not been given a compelling reason for me to break the streak.


kalliope, it was me, 'ws' that mentioned the smell of old books. I can kind of understand your being put off by a crummy exterior, but trust me, that unintentionally deceptive initial impression will be more than made up for the experience waiting inside. As you may have noted, Powell's has had renovations prior to the one they're currently planning. Book rooms on the north side of the block are more open and have a less circuitous floor plan than those on the south side of the block. That's the way it seems to me at least.

If you're more comfortable with modern aesthetic, general sense of organization and find cleanliness appealing, you might stop by at Powell's Cedar Hill's Crossing store in Beaverton. I've been there and find it very nice. Coffee shop isn't as warm and friendly as Powell's West Burnside, but it has a nice entry/lobby and an interesting rock garden reading/lounge area with comfortable chairs. There's still some real Powell's employees working there too, rather than the britney spears wannebe progeny of some of those stuck up Pearl newcomers (just joking !).

I couldn't say there's anything special about the exterior of this store either though because, it's well....Beaverton; single level structure, part of a mall, oceans of parking lots. It was a year for me before I went into that store, just because of those negatives.

David Benson

Kill Powell's parking? Horrors! It is idiosyncratic. Its ramps are too steep. They test clutches. There are posts that prey on the corners of cars (as my own dented Civic can attest). It has no elevators. There's an employee bike cage in one corner. You have to honk going up and down. You enter and exit to the left of opposing cars. It has character. It's Chicago, not Las Vegas. It's funky not refined. It's memorable. It's old. It's the only parking structure I feel affection for. It seems an individual. Am I alone in thinking so?


I had mentioned previously whether the existing garage-cafe structure should be left standing. If the entire Southern half of the block is rebuilt from scratch, there is an argument for 1-2 levels of underground parking. That approach would also allow levels within the building to become more accessible. Someday we'll be overrun by innumerable personal electro mobility devices as the population ages. (Will they take over the bike lanes, or the sidewalks?) If the couplet is ever built, subject to the location of underground utilities, an underground garage could extend partially under the Burnside right of way.

That being said, keeping the old brick building allows a story to be told about the evolution of the business and the block. What was done nearby, in I believe the Whole Foods block, was to preserve the historical facade as a shell, and its valuable minimal setback, but rebuild everything within, and higher.

There is a good argument for block scale level floors, keyed off the new North building levels.

One model for the Gursky glass box facade is PSU's library. Hopefully even more active, broadcasting the message to enter the store.

I would argue that most people's experience of Powells is solitary or with a very small group. The cafe is probably the least social cafe in Portland. That is because the adult bookstore experience is that of the explorer. For families it is different. Powells romanticism is reminiscent. That is not all bad. (Borders would die for even that!)

A more interesting question is how the program of the entryway can establish and energize interaction and create a Powells community in the place. "Let's meet at Powells."

One idea is to activate the space with the sound of conversation, even if it is created artificially, removing the library vibe. Events are important.

As the reading world changes, independent booksellers must create a new identity to draw people. A recent Steve Jobs quote about reading books was not exaggerated. Create excitement. Engage customers' emotions and aspirations. Create participation. The bookstore 2.0 and beyond. Otherwise the architecture becomes a mausoleum. It can be more than a pretty one.

This is the more interesting question.


There's only been a couple small news reports about the Powell's Books renovation available to the public that I'm aware of. From those articles, my impression was that Powell's wouldn't do something so dramatic as tear down the entire south half of the block and rebuild with underground parking. Not that such an idea isn't worth considering.

Even though downtown property resources are finite, the property owner, based on how much capital investment he can and chooses to muster, largely determines how resourcefully the property will be utilized. The city really needs to conserve space wasted by above ground parking, but unless Powell's elected to take on the double cost per parking space compared to above ground parking that underground parking represents, it likely wouldn't happen.

Keeping in mind zoning, air rights, and all that stuff, if Michael Powell were really a big thinker and seriously wanted to make a major design impact on West Burnside, he might try a little of Tom Moyer's mojo; Get a handful of serious, visionary investors. Level the entire block and build the best, most aesthetically magnficent modern tower Portland has ever seen in it's entire history, a living monument to the business of learning and knowledge through books. It's not as though there isn't enough space nearby for temporary Powell's Books West Burnside headquarters.


"Chic and clean" Ha, so early 2000's. Thank God we are finally getting over the "chic and clean" 70's regurgitation phase of architecture. It lasted way to long. All those architects who paid big bucks learning how to convince themselves that cheap plastic is "chic and clean" are having a tough time giving up on there failed education emphasis. The language of soul deadening modernism is effectively dead man walking. And just in time, our collective souls hurt from all the snobby empty sameness. Bring on the dusty details and character that any respectable book store should have!

Brian Libby

Fair enough, Greg, but how do you write dusty details and character into a program? What does that translate into? Are there any examples of other buildings that do this well? I'd love a new Powell's building to retain that feeling of an old Gus Van Sant film. I hate that this part of Portland is disappearing. But time marches on, and new architecture is gonna get built. How does the spirit translate into brick and mortar, or glass and steel? (Just tell me it's not made out of cobb.)


Well I thought that architects were supposed to come up with the new. Architects for too long have been passionately arguing that they don't want to go back to the architectural form that the public likes (stuff before 1950) yet they have been stuck in an artistic time loop of failed modernism. I think that maybe the architect community made a fundamental error when it circled the wagons against the uneducated heathen’s criticism. They failed to understand that maybe just maybe the masses didn't want to go back and reproduce the old buildings but rather wanted architects to actually move forward and create forms comparable to older buildings. So, to the architectural community, I say, sorry you spent so much time studying in essence architectural Esperanto, but it didn’t take lets move on and try something new. The hanging on to a failed form is fundamentally harming our entire cultures built environment.


I think that the DeYoung museum in San Francisco is good example of modern architecture that has a bespoke, living, not perfect feel.


The idea that Modernism "didn't take" is a fallacy. Modernism is so ubiquitous that we do not notice it anymore, but it is everywhere! The prime examples of Modernism (The Neue Gallerie in Berlin, Kahn's Salk Institute in LaJolla, the Barcelona Pavillion by Mies, Johnson's Glass House, the Seagram Building in New York,Tadao Ando's Modern Art Museum of Forr Worth to name a disparate few) are breathtaking in their elegance, simplicity, inspiration and embodiment of their (and largely our) time.
I agree that new architecture should come from new architects, but this blanket rejection of "ugly modern buildings" and this "nostalgia of the old" is almost morbid and whiffs a bit of provincialism. The so called "massess" are very diverse and we all want different things, to pronounce in their name, seems arbitrary to me. The massess cannot both like the buildings before the 50s AND want the architects to move forward. Who are these masses anyway? They are always used as surrogates to give legitimacy to our arguments for or against this or that...

Hey ws, I never agree with you, but you suprised me with your daring vision for Powell's in your last post! Way to go!I'll drink to your proposal!


But Nikos its not about nostalgia of the old its about nostalgia for quality. For every successful building 100's of modern crap get built. I think in moderation a modernist, simple building works as a contrast to older more detailed buildings, but built on mass modernism simple doesn't work. Its too self centered. You look at these buildings as a whole so they work wonderful for photographers, but try walking past giant blank walls of modernist "masterpieces". A lot of these buildings are like Nazca Lines, you only understand them from vantage points that are not practical. Seriously its time for the industry to break out of the recycling of older themes and develop an entire new form. To be fair this maybe a western school of thought issue. The eastern world has broken out of the Box and will probably lead in the near future.


Great conversation here. The energy that creative sparring generates is always positive. I'm having flashbacks to Howard Roarke... and who is John Galt?


In reference to kalliope's comment, the DeYoung Museum is not a bookstore. We're talking about the renovation of an urban retail bookstore housed in existing, indigenous utilitarian architecture. The exterior of any new addition to the structure that Powell's is housed in will not escape comparison with the existing architecture. Add to this, Powell's distinctive identity and community relationship with it's customers, and an expectation .

At Powell's, the exterior physical structure has always been subordinate to the interior functionality of aiding the customers interaction with books and with the purchase of books. It seems unlikely that the minds behind Powell's Books vision and operation would be well advised or seek to abandon it's distinctive identity and community relationship with a renovation design that didn't continue to take a subordinate, supportive role in fulfilling Powell's Books primary purpose to its customers.

It's true that new architecture has to get built, but isn't it also true that a great deal of today's prominently visible architecture fails to acknowledge, excel, or complement much of existing, indigenous architecture? And why is that?

There's nothing inherently bad about modernist architecture. Some of its originators were very skilled at effectively incorporating their modernist ideas into settings with architectural styles differing dramatically from modernism. Modernism acquired the disregard regularly associated with it today as developers latched on to this architectural style (descended from the original distinct philosophy behind it)for the formula arising from it that allowed them to rapidly construct comparatively cheaper, bigger and taller buildings. As this formula snowballed, the artist-architect, as far as the construction of new modernist architecture is concerned, largely went by the wayside, replaced by the developer specific functionary-architect.

As a result, bad modernist influence proliferated, and to excess, still does to this day. This happened a lot in downtown Portland after about 1940, in remodeled storefronts, to cite one example. Unfortunately, some of that stuff still manages to hang around, perpetuating the dislike many people continue to have for modernism.

I'm curious like everyone else here, about what Powell's will decide to do. I can't see them sticking a slick modernist treatment like the Market 2000 builidng (Portland's answer to the Seagrams building) on the SE corner(the main entry), but it seems like a talented architect could certainly come up with something interesting that wouldn't simply be a continuation of the traditional brick industrial architecture on the SW corner of the block (above the coffee shop). Of course, if they were to completely tear down and start over, all kinds of possibilities open up.


being that powell's nickname is "the city of books", i think it is more interesting to have a conglomeration of buildings on one block than to have one entirely new building. as powell's continues to grow, quadrants of it's city block can change and develop over time just as a city does.

in response to somebody's previous comment, i also have an affinity for the interior garage - its almost a portland rite of passage learning how to navigate that thing. of course i think the space would be better used as book space via a renovation of the existing building. of course, they would have to meet their parking requirements somehow and the best garage access location is the current location. whether they can go underground at this point is a questions for engineers.

in terms of programming i think it would be awesome if they designed a comfortable (but not too comfortable) reading room or provide additional seating throughout - i always find myself sitting on the floor with ten books piled up and blocking other patrons.


there are no parking "requirements" and i sincerely doubt they need parking on site to thrive. but i do like the idea of all four quarters of the block having a separate identity.

the front porch aspect hasn't been discussed much on this forum, but to me it's what makes the se entrance so much better than the nw entrance - that in between threshold. i think it's the character of that threshold that will be the key to the renovation's success - regardless of style.

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