Designing the future
Portland's architectural fabric grew and changed, even as we were shaken to our foundation.
In 2020, the downtown skyline got a gleaming new courthouse in its front row.
The city's most famous building re-opened after a nearly $200 million renovation. Downtown's most acclaimed fountain celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the world's most stringent green-building rating system saw its first Portland project registered.
Even the most significant and prominent building projects were easy to miss in this tragic, tumultuous year. Yet they remind us that a smarter, greener, more equitable future is awaiting our designs.
Early on, the future seemed bright. In January, I visited two memorably light-filled educational buildings, both designed by Hacker Architects: Fariborz Maseeh Hall at Portland State University (transformed from the old Neuberger Hall), and the Gilkey International Middle School in the West Hills. Creativity often happens in solitude, but innovation and learning happen best in groups. Hopefully, these classrooms and corridors will be safe enough to fill with students soon.
I also visited the completed Portland Building renovation by DLR Group early this year, so transformational it almost seemed like magic. What had been a dark, cubicle-filled, almost Kafka-esque city office building is now an inspiring, inviting space teeming with sunlight and views. Outside, an equally impressive switcheroo: re-cladding in an entirely new material (metal) without looking noticeably different.
Then everything stopped. For a full ten weeks beginning with Covid-19 quarantine in March, I literally didn't set foot in another building beside my own home. Suddenly I yearned to be back at my favorite gathering spaces: theaters, arenas, restaurants, atriums. In their absence, I also appreciated them like never before.
In 2020, the dramas only kept on coming. This summer's violent clashes between social-just protesters and police, as well as the massive forest fires that followed, were seismic events too. And they each impacted our sense of place. The overriding image of local architecture in 2020 may arguably be of empty and boarded-up buildings.
It's not to say the building community wasn't busy. While countless office workers, teachers and bartenders stayed home, the building industry has largely kept busy, and plenty of noteworthy and prominent building projects reached completion.
My favorite just might be argyle Gardens in east Portland, designed by Holst Architecture. It was the nation's first affordable housing project to open during the pandemic. This small village of colorfully translucent dwellings is a beautiful marriage of simple, compelling forms and much-needed function.
A few weeks ago, the long-anticipated Multnomah County Courthouse opened at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge. From jury duty to criminal trials, it will make the justice system more transparent than ever. At least, I hope it will. Honestly, because of the pandemic, I haven't yet visited. But the courthouse opening was clearly part of a banner year for architecture firm SRG Partnership, which also saw the completion of the new Hayward Field in Eugene; it instantly ranks among the top track and field venues in the world.
In 2020, several local landmarks reached milestones, led by the 50th anniversary of Keller Fountain and the 60th anniversary of Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Designed by legendary San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and Associates, the fountain was called upon its 1970 opening "possibly the greatest urban space since the renaissance," by famed New York Times critic Ada-Louise Huxtable. On my last visit, the fountain was off, and graffiti had just been scrubbed off. However, when the fountain is turned on, this is a wondrous respite: like a trip to Multnomah Falls without leaving downtown. And after the pandemic, the Coliseum is due to receive a substantial renovation that will make this modernist masterpiece come alive like never before.
The pandemic also saw the opening of perhaps the city's greenest office space, even if it remains unoccupied. Mahlum Architects' new Portland studio is the first locally to be certified by the Living Building Challenge. Located in an early 20th century former auto dealership and warehouse, it provides a road map for responsible renovation in a time of escalating climate change. During a masked visit to this empty space, I could still imagine it humming with people someday in the future.
In fact, Mahlum's was one of numerous office projects in the burgeoning Central Eastside to open in the pandemic and go largely unoccupied. Hacker's District Office and Tree Farm by Brett Schulz Architect each stood out too, for different arboreal reasons: one is constructed with mass timber, and the other features small trees hanging from its façade.
In the years and ahead, look for commercial office projects to occupy a smaller market segment. Millions of Americans learned this year that they liked working from home, and it saves employers money.
Indeed, the more challenging the times, the more opportunities arise to make a positive change for the future. It's time to take the boards off the windows. It's time to design the community we want to live in. It's to time to turn the fountain back on.
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 (portlandarchitecture.com).
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