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Spurning a Starchitect

PORTLAND ARCHITECTUREImagine if LeBron James wanted to sign a free-agent contract with the Portland Trail Blazers but management declined to even bring him in for a second interview.

That was basically the decision Multnomah County made recently when selecting an architect for its new courthouse. Maybe that’s OK, but only if it’s for the right reasons.

Winner of the Pritzker Prize (the profession’s highest honor) in 2000, Holland’s Rem Koolhaas is arguably the second-most famous architect of his generation after Frank Gehry.

From the Seattle Central Library to Beijing’s CCTV headquarters, his designs have not only dazzled the world, but in many cases have helped reinvent building types and urban settings. Koolhaas gives the otherwise trite term “starchitect” a good name.

But after Koolhaas’s Rotterdam and New York-based Office of Metropolitan Architecture applied (in partnership with Portland firm Architecture Building Culture) alongside seven other competitors for the commission to design Multnomah County’s new riverfront courthouse in downtown Portland, the firm was not even shortlisted.

COURTESY: MULTNOMAH COUNTY/SRG PARTNERSHIP - An artist's rendering of the new Multnomah County Courthouse design by SRG Partnership.Nor, for that matter, was internationally acclaimed American architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which has designed high-profile buildings like the new World Trade Center in New York as well as Portland landmarks like Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the U.S. Bancorp Tower (“Big Pink”).

Instead, the county shortlisted a group of local firms, all talented but none with Koolhaas and SOM’s international notoriety. They ultimately selected Portland’s SRG Partnership, in tandem with New York-based courthouse-specialist architecture firm RicciGreene.

The good news is that the new courthouse design, released in February, is indeed handsome, melding modern and traditional forms and materials in a familiar contemporary architectural language.

It will fit well alongside nearby government buildings like the Multnomah County Justice Center and the recently renovated Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. It’s just not a showstopper in the way a Koolhaas design would likely have been.

Given some of Multnomah County’s past stumbles, such as with the Wapato jail built and then sitting empty for more than a decade, perhaps their conservatism is understandable.

In some ways, an elegantly modest, locally-sourced design fits Portland. Compared to other West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco, we usually don’t build overly bold architectural landmarks; and when we have, like the Portland Building, it hasn’t gone well.

COURTESY: BRIAN LIBBY - Rem Koolhaas designed the majestic Seattle Central Library.Yet Portland aspires to be a world design capitol, and we can’t do that if we’re not ambitious in seeking out the world’s best talents as part of the mix.

To not even shortlist two internationally renowned firms like OMA and SOM for such a prominent waterfront public building is troubling not so much for the architecture that might have been, but how it plays into a long history of rejecting top-shelf out of town talent. Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Maya Lin: all these renowned architects have been connected to Portland projects that either didn’t come to fruition or saw themselves substituted for a local firm before the project’s completion.

Portland doesn’t necessarily need Rem Koolhaas.

In architecture, as in basketball, sometimes molding the right team and talents is more important than recruiting any one high-profile free agent.

But to keep up, Portland must demand design excellence in its most important public buildings. We can do it our way, but we mustn’t be afraid to do something great.


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


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