Every year, architect and developer Kevin Cavenaugh gets a little postcard. And every year, the postcard comes with a little medal on it.
"Congratulations!" it says. "You win ugliest building of the year…again!"
The guy behind Beaumont's Ode to Rose's building, East Burnside's garishly red Rocket building, and Kerns' Bauhaus-style food mall the Zipper is used to this sort of attention. But he expects it's going to get a lot worse this year, when his Fair-Haired Dumbbell buildings are completed on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Burnside Street—one of the most visible street corners in Portland.
For five months after construction is finished, a team of artists on scaffolding will paint them according to a design by renowned Los Angeles artist James Jean.
The roofs and all eight walls will be covered in a rainbow of blooming abstractions that look for all the world like the Day-Glo cell organelles of a junior-high biology book—mitochondria and ribosome and endoplasmic reticulum, an explosion of obscure and colorful biology.
"It'll be hated as a building, I promise," Cavenaugh says. "There will be people who write me letters every year. I'm OK with that. I'm tired of mocha-colored, vinyl-windowed boring. I can't change the fact that the streets are gray and the sky is gray. But the buildings? That I can change."
The Fair-Haired Dumbbell—yes, it's named after a person—will join two other new landmarks along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. One is the many-angled, knife-edged Yard skyscraper at the east end of the Burnside Bridge, colloquially known as the Death Star. The other is the twinned and steel-backboned Inversion +/- sculpture at the edge of the Morrison Bridge, standing as a ghost of buildings that were there before.
All three are hated and loved in equal measure. Together, they begin to create something Portland has pretty much never had: a street of public architecture worth talking about, caring about and looking at.
When the Dumbbell's colorful design was first unveiled at a City Council meeting, Commissioner Nick Fish asked Cavenaugh a question he has heard many times since then: "Is that what it's really going to look like?"
"I said, 'Yeah, my goal is to make small fender benders in front of buildings,'" says Cavenaugh, laughing. "After that, one of my partners pulled me aside. They said, "Maybe we shouldn't let you talk at meetings anymore."
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