Fixtures in the Square
COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE
I could feel it as soon as I crossed Broadway and stepped into Pioneer Courthouse Square for the Portland Winter Light Festival: This is the kind of civic celebration the city's living room was meant for.
With a thumping dance beat, a giant illuminated disco ball spinning in the middle of the square, and hundreds of people gathered, I initially felt nervous about such proximity. Each arriving MAX train seemed to bring more festival-goers. Yet anxiety quickly gave way to joy at being swept up in the artworks and energy of a crowd for the first time in quite a while. It was as if a switch had been flipped.
It's been a dramatic and difficult two years for downtown Portland: pandemic, unrest, homelessness. While many of these struggles remain, and many of its corners remain empty, downtown is slowly coming back to life.
The Winter Light Festival, which ran from Feb. 4-12, has been popular since its 2016 inception, illuminating our darkest wintry times (both figuratively and literally speaking). In years past, the Eastbank Esplanade near OMSI has provided a wonderful riverside setting. That first year, attending amidst typical winter rains, I was no less soaked than if I'd jumped into the Willamette. But the colorful artist and designer-created light installations curated by artistic director Chris Herring were such a delight I didn't care.
This year, Pioneer Courthouse Square supplanted the Esplanade, almost like an all-star coming off the bench. Will Martin designed the square with an artist's sense of whimsy: a take on the classic golden (or Fibonacci) spiral, transposed on a classic Greek agora, or public square. A Portlander who beat out numerous famous architects for the commission, Martin would have loved the flickering fun at this year's Light Festival. He would have been even more thrilled by the crowd itself.
Martin's design deliberately left the middle of the square empty: no fountain, no statue. People, he believed, would not only fill the square, but actually complete the design.
It will take time for downtown to fully come back. Even when the pandemic truly ends, the revolution in remote working quarantine prompted means commuting to a central-city office will, to varying degrees depending on whom you work for, from now on be less of a necessity. Yet downtown has been written off before, particularly in the 1960s, another time of civic unrest and social progress, with doomsayers eventually eating their words as downtown was reborn in the 1970s and '80s as a more livable, pedestrian and mass-transit-oriented, park-filled place.
We can remake post-pandemic downtown Portland for the better, too: with a lot more housing (a mix of subsidized affordable units and market rate), with more pedestrian and bicycle-only streets and with more greenspace and public art. Every public investment comes at a cost, yet if you create places people want to be — fountains where children want to wade and squares conducive to a diverse array of local festivals — economic activity will accompany attendance figures. It was easy to lose sight of that basic truth during quarantine and as each new variant struck. Yet this annual festival and this central square always, to their enormous credit, encourage us to come together.
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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