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June 20th, 2001 Brian Libby | Visual Arts
 

Design of the Times

Bart King's new book shows where Portland architecture has been -- but where is it going?

     
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Bart King's An Architectural Guidebook to Portland arrives at a curious moment. Propelled by years of economic boom and public fervor for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao--a reminder of great architecture's power to revitalize cities--the last few years have brought impressive projects to virtually every West Coast city but ours.

Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, San Francisco and Las Vegas have new museums by legendary architects Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Mario Botta and Antoine Predock. Stunning new ballparks are rising in Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego. Seattle's new Koolhaas-designed library, an angular labyrinth of glass and steel, truly boggles the mind. Meanwhile, we've undertaken a variety of modest restorations with only one really signature project in the last two decades--Michael Graves' Portland Building--which is almost universally reviled. It's not to say cherished older institutions like the Portland Art Museum, City Hall and Central Library deserved the wrecking ball--far from it--but what kind of mark has this generation made on the landscape?

As King's comprehensive survey of Portland architecture helps reveal, ours is not a place for landmarks but rather a fabric of smaller-scale new and historically preserved projects that achieve collective harmony. It's not flashy, but it works.

It's telling, therefore, that Portland's most notable architecture of late is the Wieden & Kennedy building, Brad Cloepfil's imaginative restoration of a,
nevertheless, banal Pearl District warehouse. Modest in scope, W+K speaks to a larger issue: It would be a treat to have more adventurous architects working here, and it's a shame that the Portland Building has scared public and private leaders from commissioning signature structures. But take a stroll through Portland--either literally or in King's book--and you'll find an array of small treasures that might have fallen victim to the wrecking ball in other cities.

King not only examines the city's architecture, but provides the social history behind it as well, such as the famous dialogue between Pietro Belluschi and Frank Lloyd Wright that gave birth to the Art Museum. Unfortunately, King also pulls punches where they're most warranted. Be it the urban planning disaster at the Rose Garden or design mediocrity at the ODS Tower and 1000 Broadway, the author withholds any strong negative judgment. Luckily, for each of these failures there are terra cotta gems like the Jackson Tower overlooking Courthouse Square, modest art deco delights such as the Coca Cola Syrup Factory off East Burnside, and the timeless modernism of Pietro Belluschi's Equitable (now Commonwealth) Building. If other cities have diamonds, we have a string of pearls.

Thus, An Architectural Guidebook evokes equal measures of pride and discontent. It's no accident that leaders from other cities genuflect at our collective feet, but these years of prosperity have brought sadly little inspiration to our built environment. Portland was founded by mavericks with unbridled dreams, but for too long we have patted ourselves on the back in the shadows of their buildings. Livable or not, our city is capable of so much more. Brian Libby's Favorite Portland Buildings

This not a comprehensive survey of Portland's best architecture, but rather a tribute to lesser known and under-appreciated buildings scattered throughout our city-and in one case, merely recognition of architecture's symbolic power even in failure. Here's to them.

U.S. Custom House
220 NW Eighth Avenue
Architect: James Knox Taylor/Edgar M. Lazarus, 1901
Often ignored by drivers and pedestrians on busy Northwest Broadway (not to mention the city as a whole), this elegant French Renaissance-style building is a sleeping giant. It features a massive courtyard and regal, ornate detailing in terra cotta and granite. Occupied by the Army Corps of Engineers, it's merely an old government office building now-but in a city famous for its historic preservation, the right tenant could bring this handsome behemoth alive.

EIGHTH CHURCH OF CHRIST SCIENTIST
3505 NE Imperial Avenue
Architect: Charles Ertz/Stanton, Boles, Maguire and Church, 1926
Even in a city known for its innovative church design, few houses of worship command a presence with such modest square footage. Fascinatingly geometric yet elegantly curved, the building combines a Mediterranean roof, Romanesque detailing and Byzantine massing. It's a veritable trip around the Old World, yet displays an effortless uniformity.

GILBERT BUILDING
319 SW Taylor Street
Architect: Whidden and Lewis ("probably", says King), 1893
A beautiful execution of the simple, modest 19th Century brick office building. Romanesque arches lining its upper faŤade give the Gilbert an understated elegance that has aged gracefully over the last 108 years.

MARILYN MOYER MEDITATION CHAPEL
The Grotto, NE 85th Avenue at Sandy Boulevard
Architect: Thompson Vaivoda and Associates, 1992
Perched atop a cliff overlooking Portland from The Grotto, this non-denominational chapel is one of the most peaceful enclosures in the city. What's more, the outer glass shell and streamlined shape point our thoughts skyward with a subtle visual poetry.

Portland International Airport Canopy
Portland International Airport
Architect: Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership/KPFF Consulting Engineers, 2000
Yes, it's just a big awning, but is there a more striking panorama of metal and glass in this city? Over two acres long with intricately woven cables holding pedestrian bridges, what was once an unpleasant trek from car to terminal is now a theater for the possibilities of engineering. Reminiscent of Norman Foster's Waterloo Station London or the new Penn Station being built in New York, this is a grand glass entrance to the city.

U.S. NATIONAL BANK BUILDING
321 SW Sixth Avenue
Architect: A.E. Doyle, 1916
Every city has a bank modeled after the classic Roman temple. That said, this version by A.E. Doyle, possibly the city's greatest architect ever, carries a majesty that transcends its somewhat common manner. From carved bronze doors to a cavernous tri-colored marble interior, genius here is truly in the details. The U.S. National is an ode to the almighty dollar even someone with mere lint in their pockets must stop to appreciate.

PORTLAND TELEGRAM BUILDING
1101 SW Washington Street
Architect: Rasmussen Grace Co., 1922
Another splendid old building that has fallen into disrepair, the Portland Telegram Building was originally home to a newspaper of the same name-hence the tower, an architectural tradition for this industry. A striking combination of brick and terra cotta that catches the eye of virtually every passerby despite its shabby state, this is where the Mercury or Tribune should have set up shop.

COCA-COLA SYRUP FACTORY
2710 NE Davis Street
Architect: James M. Shelton, 1941
Art Deco is arguably the most elegant and handsome visual style of the last century, but it is rare in Portland. While this modest two story complex would pale in comparison to many of the Art Deco buildings in, say, Miami, it is a welcome stylistic divergence in the Rose City, making an irrelevant little office a lot more fun than anything around it for miles.

UNION BANK OF CALIFORNIA BUILDING
407 SW Broadway
Architect: Anshen & Allen, 1969
At first glance this building looks austere and uninviting, its massive concrete faŤade reminiscent of the daunting monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But as one of Portland's only remnants of the International style of the mid-20th Century, the Bank of California is a reminder of architecture's bygone idealism. This was a vision of the future that didn't take, which makes it all the more interesting in retrospect.

PORTLAND PUBLIC SERVICES BUILDING
1120 SW Fifth Avenue
Architect: Michael Graves, 1984
Consider the listing of this building a statement of sorts. Granted, the architecture here is in many ways downright shabby: It's an unpleasant place to work in and completely uninviting at street level. In other words it's a bad gift with great wrapping. What's more, the Portland Building's legacy has arguably scared us away from real signature architecture for the last seventeen years. Yet in a city that favors the agreeable to the bold, and function to form, here's to architect Michael Graves and his backer on the project, Philip Johnson, for aspiring to something more than merely another banal government office building. If all architecture followed the Portland Building's path, we'd be in big trouble. But thank God at least one structure in this city dared to shake things up.


An Architectural Guidebook to Portland
by Bart King
(Gibbs Smith, 310 pages, $21.95)
 
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