COLUMN: An Eastside tower from the inside out
The Burnside Bridge's east end has become a kind of architectural laboratory over the past four years, with a succession of tall, eye-catching buildings.
That started with the 21-story Yard and the 10-story Slate in 2016, each fusing dark metal and glass in a sleek contemporary language you might call Darth Vader chic. Then came 2017's Fair-Haired Dumbbell, not nearly as tall yet standing out even more thanks to a colorful mural-like artist-painted façade.
5 MLK is not officially part of the city-developed Burnside Bridgehead like the other three. However, standing directly across Burnside at 17 stories, the building joins them to bookend the bridge with height. Yet 5 MLK is different in another way. Height notwithstanding, its design seems less about calling attention to itself and more about the experience inside.
For nearly 120 years, this site at the corner of Burnside and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was home to the Buckman Building, completed in 1900 and long known for its Fishel's furniture store. But unlike the nearby Vivian Apartments, a 1912 building renovated two years ago for Icelandic lodging chain Kex, the Buckman Building was torn down. It's hard to blame the developers, though. The site is zoned for height, and this corner is one of the city's most significant crossroads. 5 MLK even helps legitimize the other big buildings here. Together they're not so much outliers but instead, coupled with the Lloyd District, are one growing East Side story.
Designed by Chicago firm GREC Architects for Portland developer Gerding Edlen, the 450,000-square-foot, full-block 5 MLK has five levels of commercial space giving way to residential units above. But it's not just a skinny tower sitting on a multistory stump, or even a simple L-shape, and not a clean break between office and apartment wings.
The 5 MLK design underwent numerous iterations following criticism from the Portland Design Commission. Along the way, it seemed to lose clarity but gain in other ways, namely kinetics and transparency. It's as if an ordinary podium-and-tower combination has been pushed and pulled apart.
Despite its girth, the design does its best to keep a lower profile. Its towers step down to the corner on two sides, bringing more light to the street. At the same time, to emphasize verticality, 5 MLK's mirrored glass curtain wall is fused with vertical strands of thin porcelain, acting almost like drapery.
Inside, be it the lobby where office workers and apartment-dwellers mix or upstairs in a series of shared spaces, the project is set up as a kind of fishbowl onto this urban crossroads, interspersed with local art. From the lobby, it's possible to look through the glass in four directions: west, north, east, or straight up through an oculus skylight. (Or be mesmerized by a multi-screen video installation by Portland's Stephen Slappe.) From two outdoor terraces, including a top-floor pool deck, the 360-degree view of the skyline and Cascade peaks is breathtaking.
Portland-based Gerding Edlen has spent two decades developing high-density, sustainable mixed-use buildings here and in several other West Coast cities. 5 MLK fits that brand: centrally located, glass-ensconced and highly sustainable. If it's not the most aesthetically distinctive of this era's Burnside Bridgehead buildings, I think 5 MLK can boast its design credibility in another way. It's the building of this bunch I'd probably be happiest to live or work in.
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
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.