The politicians haven't appeased the neighbors, but the basic design of Portland's controversial tram is set--and it's drawing cheers from local architects and designers.

That's not to say everyone is thrilled with the minimalist plans drawn up by Angelíl/Graham/Pfenninger/
Scholl (many architects preferred proposals from tram finalists UN Studio and SHoP Architecture). But the competition used to choose the designer for an aerial tram between Oregon Health & Science University and the new South Waterfront district was generally considered a success.

"I thought it was an incredible process," says Diana Goldschmidt, one of the tram-competition jurors. "It's good every now and then to bring in some world-class talent to look at our local issues and how they would address them."

As seen with the World Trade Center rebuilding project, design competitions require considerable time and organization--and the hassles of public scrutiny. But the end result is usually better than what would otherwise have been built.

The traditional method for hiring architects, whether the project is public or private, is based largely on connections and experience (even if that experience comes from making mediocre buildings). It rewards predictability and often penalizes innovation.

Competitions, by contrast, ensure a variety of choices and include architectural experts in the decision. In theory, this provides an even playing field that showcases the architecture, not the architect. It's an appealing prospect to smaller firms, which usually lose out on big jobs.

Of course, it doesn't always turn out that way. Portland's last major competition was for the infamous Portland Building. Although it has earned a place in architectural history as America's first major postmodern building, its inhabitants largely disfavor working there (tiny windows in a rainy climate?) and its campy, faux-historic exterior spawns a fair amount of ridicule.

Still, much as we deride Michael Graves' building, a nondescript office tower would have been worse. And it's worth noting that our celebrated Pioneer Courthouse Square also arrived via design competition.

Considering how Portland architects and civic leaders have in recent years declared a design malaise, the tram competition prompts the question: Why wait another 20 years to reinvigorate Portland architecture?

"It's a great way for younger firms to get their start," says Amy Miller-Dowell, president of Portland's American Institute of Architects chapter. "It would be great to hold them a little more frequently." Had we done that in recent years, maybe some of our mediocre buildings, like the ODS Tower and Fox Tower, might have turned out better.

Competitions need not be restricted to big jobs with international invitation lists. Recent smaller competitions, such as one for Jamison Square, the city's new Pearl District park, resulted in innovative designs. "I think it's a great model," says City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who says this method will continue on a modest scale.

Looking ahead, the Oregon Symphony and three other arts organizations have proposed a 2,000-seat hall to be completed by 2010. A competition would be ideal. "I'm fascinated by it," says Symphony president Tony Woodcock, "and it's certainly a model we'll take a look at."

Portland has long been lauded as being among the best-planned cities in America, but always with the caveat that its architecture lags behind. Perhaps the tram will carry us not just over a couple disgruntled neighborhoods but into a brighter architectural future.