Standing in the new multistory atrium at the center of Portland State University's Fariborz Maseeh Hall, it's hard to believe this wide-open, light-filled space is occupying the same square footage as the former Neuberger Hall.
Eight years ago, my lone college teaching gig was a winter term here: in a windowless classroom at the center of the building. Completed in 1961 (with a 1969 addition) and originally known as South Park Hall, Neuberger was large and utilitarian, not to mention full of asbestos, leaking, and difficult to maintain a consistent temperature inside. The 60 sophomores I taught there were a delight, but the fluorescently lit room itself was grim. Even in the hallways beyond the windowless classroom, no sunlight reached. It was like being underground.
Neuberger was the heart of PSU's campus, but it didn't feel like one. Masseeh Hall, on the other hand, very much does.
Opened last fall, the 217,000-square foot building was designed by Hacker Architects, the firm that 20 years ago was responsible for PSU's transformative Urban Center on Broadway. That's worth noting because the story here isn't just Maseeh Hall itself, but Portland State's continuing architectural evolution over these past 20 years, which the Urban Center (along with preserving the historic Simon Benson House by moving it to campus) seemed to kick off.
Hugging the South Park Blocks, PSU has always had a generous amount of outdoor space: that sense of a classic college quad despite being an urban university. But like the Karl Miller Center on Broadway, which gave PSU a large light-filled indoor space (a glass-covered canopy between its two buildings), Maseeh Hall gives students here another place to congregate for homework or to hang out during Portland's long rainy months. For an institution of 27,000 students, there needs to be a constellation of such spaces.
Equally important in the Neuberger-to-Maseeh transformation is its transparent first floor, where floor-to-ceiling glass humanizes the building by providing a view inside from the Park Blocks and from Broadway, which the hall also faces.
For too long, PSU has turned its back this de-facto Main Street with an unwelcoming succession of masonry walls. But with the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art occupying the glass-ensconced ground floor on Maseeh Hall's Broadway-facing side, there's not only a view inside but a tantalizing one at that: works by iconic artists like Jean-Michael Basquiat and David Hockney.
The geometry of the exterior façade, with silver metal sunshades over a black metal window system, feels a little too busy to my eyes. Yet perhaps the asymmetrical patterning, which creates a multiplicity of different framed views, makes a fitting symbol. After all, downtown Portland is better for having PSU, not just because it enlivens the city with youthful energy, but because the Portland State campus is more of a melting pot than anywhere else in Oregon. There's a special energy here, with or without Maseeh Hall. Yet Masseeh gives this university, on its multi-decade journey from middling commuter school to vibrant world-class urban university, the fittingly open heart it's always yearned for.
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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