This week, Portlanders have one last chance not only to emerge from the dark shadow of Michael Graves' Portland Building, but also to embrace the kind of architectural opportunity that comes here little more than once in a generation.
On Wednesday evening, the Portland Development Commission will allow the public to sound off on which projects it should pursue and which it should shelve (Feb. 27, 6:30-8 pm, Multnomah Building, 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd.).
The urge to prioritize stems from a recent Oregon Supreme Court ruling that ransacked much of the city's urban-renewal funds. Among the projects currently on hold is an affordable-housing project for Portland's River District developed by Homer Williams and designed by Frank Gehry, easily the world's most famous living architect.
It's been more than 20 years since Portland had the chance to embrace architecture's cutting edge, and many civic leaders still bear the scars. In 1980, the city commissioned Michael Graves' Portland Building. Despite its pedigree as the world's first major postmodern building, it's viewed as a failure because of numerous structural problems, its incongruity with the rest of Portland's urban fabric, and the short-lived reign of postmodernism. As a result, public and private builders in Portland have since shied away from bold signature buildings by famous names. The biggest economic boom in Portland's history over the last decade came and went with no new architectural landmarks.
Of course, showy buildings have never been Portland's style. "We tend to be more understated," says Paddy Tillett, an architect for Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership. "It's the boom-and-bust cities like Houston and Seattle that go for flash."
Yet it's precisely the odd marriage of Gehry to a Portland affordable-housing project that could have reaffirmed to the world Portland's maverick urban idealism. Like many famous architects, Gehry is known best for high-priced structures that are more fun than fundamental: the Experience Music Project in Seattle, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Although visually astonishing, they're primarily cultural candy. That Portland's Gehry project was devoted to the task of housing the poor would not have gone unnoticed.
"It would have been a wonderful experiment to see Gehry tackling basic needs instead of fantasies," says L. Rudolph Barton, chair of Portland State University's Department of Architecture. "Gehry would have seen opportunities very different from someone counting the number of studs in the wall to reduce costs."
Unfortunately, the very nature of the project has in all probability become its undoing. The Housing Authority of Portland was the original backer of the Gehry building, but support was withdrawn when it became clear it would cost at least $4 million more than a typical affordable-housing project. Williams thought he'd found a new partner in PDC until court-inspired austerity set in. PDC says the Gehry project is now on hold until at least the end of June and may never see construction.
That would be too bad. This isn't just about having our own billowing metal edifice, or curing the city's much-discussed design malaise with one building. It's about the rarer opportunity for architecture to transcend borders, to match a legendary designer with people who would normally never conceive of being his clients. If Portland lets Gehry go, it will have wasted the chance for an audacious act that would not even occur to leaders in most cities.
"I think clearly this should not be just a bottom-line decision," says Barton, "but evidently that's what it has become."