Two thousand years ago, ancient Roman architect and philosopher Vitruvius identified three elements necessary for a good design: strength, functionality, and delight.
Today, we've advanced architecture far beyond what Vitruvius imagined, able to soar to the heavens or operate on solar energy. But those feats are about strength and functionality. Often our built environment still lacks delight.
It was a typically dark, wet Saturday evening when I ventured to the Willamette waterfront near OMSI recently to see the Portland Winter Light Festival earlier this month. Even after a relatively short time, my pants and shoes were as soaked from rain as if I'd dived into the river. But what a welcome and utterly delightful experience the festival was.
The event already feels like an essential part of the Portland area's winter calendar despite being just two years old. Both last winter and this year, the popularity of the Winter Light Festival could easily be discerned from the thousands of attendees clogging this stretch of Central Eastside riverbank. In fact, I've never seen it more crowded. This year the party also stretched to the west side, with exhibits and installations near the Tilikum Crossing bridge.
Exhibits created by a variety of local and regional artists and designers tended to be relatively low-tech, which was part of their charm.
Many of my favorite installations were interactive, such as "Immersive Jelly" by Ivan McLean, featuring fabric streamers hanging from a steel frame and illuminated with constantly changing colors, under which visitors could pass through like cars going through a carwash. As the wind kicked up, the streamers would shift and sway dramatically, to the squealing glee of the young people underneath.
There was also "Cameo No. 3," by a team including Uncorked Studios and ZGF Architects, which offered a series of touch-sensitive podiums allowing groups of people to make music together. In "Feedback and Flow" by Max Strater and Kyle Paulsen, people passing before a projected video screen could alter its kaleidoscope-like imagery. And the "Ocular Operatic Observatory" by Hacker Architects, situated beside the Portland Opera building, created a miniature hall of mirrors with a soundtrack of fat ladies singing. But in this case, the fun was hardly over.
Or at least that's the hope. While similar winter light festivals exist in many other European and North American cities, most are funded either by city governments or large corporations, neither of which have proven feasible in Portland. Only through a constellation of funding sources within the local design and arts communities (along with benefaction from Portland General Electric and OMSI) has the fest come together. Eventually its organizers would like to make this a citywide event, but more will have to give.
Even if the festival grows exponentially in the future, I doubt I will ever appreciate it more than this year. The chaos of our national leadership in recent weeks has been taxing and scary to so many of us in Portland. Yet there's no better way to inoculate and rejuvenate ourselves than to walk together towards the light — and allow ourselves a few moments of delight.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com