A new Burnside Bridge is coming, and it's time to put the design in the driver's seat, writes Columnist Brian Libby.
Nearly fifty years ago, Portland built one of its most beautiful and popular bridges: the pleasingly curvy Fremont.
The added design effort that went into that span resulted from the public outcry over the ugliness of its predecessor, the Marquam Bridge.
That's a lesson worth keeping in mind as we prepare to build a new Burnside Bridge.
Bridge design and construction is a marathon that's hard to consistently pay attention to during its multi-year process. But we have to get this right, and now is the time to send Multnomah County a message.
Earlier this month, the county took steps to replace this circa-1924 span, which wasn't built to withstand the massive earthquake predicted. A committee recommended a new long-span bridge because it needn't touch down in unstable riverbank soil. The long span could take a few different forms: a tied-arch like the Fremont Bridge, a cable-stay like Tilikum Crossing, or even a through-truss like the aged Hawthorne and Broadway bridges.
Though hiring a designer or even settling on a bridge type is still a year away, this summer Multnomah County released a series of digital renderings to demonstrate basic design options. Many in the general public seemed to mistake these renderings for the design itself. Thankfully, the bridge designers will have better software than Google Sketchup to work with.
Even so, I worry about the local government's ability to deliver or even to prioritize design excellence. It's not that county and city leaders always choose the low bid, but our track record is mediocre and the process flawed.
For example, Multnomah County is picking a bridge type long before they hire a designer. It's like deciding on a prescription before you even see a doctor. This comes in addition to the county's recent track record of not prioritizing talent on major projects.
For the recently-completed Multnomah County Courthouse, two of the world's top architects, Rem Koolhaas and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, applied for the design commission but were not even shortlisted. That's because the selection language explicitly favored local firms.
Portland doesn't have any real bridge designers, so local preference won't be the issue this time. But it's a question of priorities.
It's not just county leaders to hold accountable. When TriMet chose San Francisco bridge designer Donald McDonald for Tilikum Crossing a decade ago, they got a handsome enough span, but one that looks like half the other cable-stay bridges in America. This was after TriMet rejected a unique proposal from Boston's Miguel Rosales that combined the cable-stay and suspension-bridge types to resemble Portland's most beautiful span, the St. Johns.
Maybe this says something about Portland itself. We favor inclusive processes for public works, and that's largely a good thing. As a river city, Portland historically has rejected the kind of showy works of architecture and infrastructure of ocean-port cities like Seattle and San Francisco seem.
Even so, bridges are an extra-special opportunity and their looks matter. That's why people love the Fremont and hate the Marquam. Which is the Burnside going to be? And I don't mean what type.
Burnside is the kind of grand boulevard this city mostly lacks. It's the only street that touches the Southeast, Northeast, Southwest and Northwest quadrants. It's also an important emergency-evacuation route.
By no means need a designer prioritize Instagram-worthy looks over vital function. Yet a truly world-class designer, such as Rosales or Italy's Renzo Piano, can make even a quiet bridge sing. And like the Marquam, it's the one thing Multnomah County's preliminary renderings definitely don't do.
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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