A changed Oregon Convention Center
Long a familiar presence on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the convention center's pandemic duty gave it soul.
For more than 30 years, it has been the most prominent Portland building east of the Willamette River, stretching for several blocks along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
With its twin glass spires, the Oregon Convention Center has been a distinctive part of our skyline for more than a generation.
However, until this year, I'd wager that the convention center was not a local landmark — at least not in the truest, deepest sense. It was well-known, functional and successful, but not beloved. But as with another very prominent work of local architecture, the Portland Building, the convention center reminds us that history can change.
After all, "landmark" really has multiple meanings. It can refer to a recognizable part of the landscape or the built environment: a place that stands out from a distance. We also use the word in an official sense to designate significant old buildings for protection. But that same word also denotes a turning point: an event that takes us from one chapter to another, and that we remember as a result. That's what really makes buildings matter: the meaningful memories they accrue.
Since its 1990 opening — and all the more since a 2003 expansion — the ZGF Architects-designed Convention Center has played host to countless gatherings of comic book enthusiasts and job seekers, epidemiologists and antique-furniture collectors. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year — out-of-towners and locals alike.
Yet with its gargantuan square footage and its beige, corporate interiors, the interior has always felt like an airport without any planes. You could seemingly park a 747 in some of these ballrooms, and when you come out of them, it's hard to remember where you are in relation to the street outside. There is an impressive collection of public art on display, yet not enough to overcome the sense of vast blandness.
Maybe, though, the Oregon Convention Center was just waiting for its defining moment. In 2021, like never before, this building participated in Portland history: as a mass-vaccination center, with more than 500,000 shots given by mid-May. It's provided a surprisingly moving civic theater and collective experience.
I remember feeling trepidation as I entered the building to be vaccinated, with so many people pouring in alongside me after a year spent avoiding such situations. Yet within seconds of passing through the Convention Center's glass doors, I marveled at the well-oiled machine that this mass-vaccination site had become. No one ever seemed to be waiting in line despite a thousand people receiving the shot each hour.
It wasn't just the vaccinations themselves that created a sense of a shared historical moment. It was the army of cheerful volunteers, determined to not only move us from spot to spot but to make us appreciate that our world had just changed for the better. There was a sense of mild euphoria permeating the concrete block and the fluorescent lights of the stripped-down ballroom, not just that we were all newly immunized against the greatest pandemic in more than a century but that we had come through it together.
There were people of every color in that massive room with me, people of every (adult) age, not to mention urban and rural denizens, Democrat and Republican voters, Duck and Beaver fans. This was a communal experience on a grand scale at a time when communal experiences have been missing from our lives.
From now on, that euphoric feeling, not the cavernous contemporary architecture, is what I'll think of when I pass by the Oregon Convention Center. And I'm just one in hundreds of thousands.
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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