When is a park picnic shelter more than a park picnic shelter?
Perhaps when it feels like a soaring work of art as much as functional space. Or perhaps when it's merely the centerpiece of a well-set table.
But as the winner of a recent American Architecture Award from the Chicago Athenaeum, the Luuwit View Park Picnic Shelter certainly does more than protect visitors and their potato salads from the rain.
Designed by Portland firm Skylab Architecture, the shelter, built from a simple tubular steel frame, looks like origami with its folded triangular forms. The walls and roof are all one continuing pattern language and material, less a kit of parts than one large wingspan, framing views and balancing openness with just enough sense of enclosure. This structure seems ready to take flight, which is all the more appropriate given the stream of low-flying jet planes landing at nearby Portland International Airport.
Though it's the largest structure at Luuwit View Park, which completed two years ago in the Parkrose neighborhood of outermost Northeast Portland, the shelter is just part of an exceptional overall design executed by landscape architecture firm 2.ink Studio and Skylab.
The site, where a neighborhood of single-family homes and Shaver Elementary School gives way to a working farm, is both banal and picturesque. The park is too young to have any mature trees, so amidst this flat terrain, the design choices stand alone. There are framed views of distant mountains (the peaks of which resemble the shelter's triangular geometry), and spaces for a variety of activities: a children's playground, an off-leash dog area, skateboarding space, grassy open area, and even a modest tiered lawn that would be conducive to seating for live performances.
Though Skylab has been a perennial award winner, with a kind of signature angular, slightly futuristic architectural language (to which this shelter belongs), the firm has taken flak in recent years for its eye-catching if darkly clad Yard building at the east end of the Burnside Bridge. For some, Yard seemed to represent a kind of hard-edged gentrification and loss of innocence, as if Darth Vader had taken up residence in the Rose City. Yet it too was quietly an exercise in landscape (also in tandem with 2.ink), its podium slanting in parallel to the original waterside topography.
Regardless of what thinks of Yard, the Luuwit View Park Picnic Shelter reminds us how stellar Skylab can be, not only able to adapt its fingerprint to any project but to do so in a way that makes the whole design come alive.
In recent years Portland's parks bureau has been budget-strapped, with controversial cuts to greenspaces and community centers alike. Spending time at Luuwit view Park and experiencing its inspired design — especially that picnic shelter — is a tonic against such real-world difficulties, as well as a reminder that we must draw a line in the proverbial sand. In Parkrose and throughout Portland, we need not just covered picnic spots but places that inspire us to stop and admire the view.
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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