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November 26th, 2008 Mike Thelin | Featured Stories
 

Building Block

America’s most lauded architecture critic loves Portland. Just not its buildings.

     
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STRUCTURE JUNKIE: Architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Portland’s Commonwealth Building.
IMAGE: darryl james(l) and ashley strum(r)

Ewwww,” moaned Paul Goldberger as his tour guide pointed out the van window at the bland Wells Fargo Center, Portland’s tallest building. “I kind of have an affection for that building,” confessed one of his seatmates, local architecture critic Randy Gragg. “It’s like the squirrelly lamp in your living room.”

“I understand the affection,” Goldberger countered, “it’s just a very, very big lamp.”

Goldberger, a sharp, affable New Yorker in his late 50s, is one of America’s foremost architecture critics. Since the early 1970s—first for The New York Times and, in 1997, switching to pen New Yorker column “The Sky Line”—the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has been a respected voice for great buildings and strong neighborhoods.

Last Thursday he was at the University of Oregon’s new Old Town campus to deliver an evening lecture. Earlier that day, a pack of locals were entrusted with the job of showing him around. Goldberger rode shotgun while Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects principal Jeff Hamilton played official tour guide with Gragg. (I was jammed in the back seats with UO Journalism prof Al Stavitsky and architecture-school dean Frances Bronet.) Windows fogged, quarters were tight. I could feel the keys in Stavitsky’s pocket imprinting my leg, but I didn’t mind. You don’t often have a chance to pick the brain of a man considered one of the country’s best authorities on buildings and cities.

The excursion took us through Old Town, jetting past rows of historic buildings that Goldberger described as “wonderful,” until we paused at the intersection of Northwest Davis Street and 4th Avenue. “That surface lot is terrible,” said Goldberger of the parking lot that scars Old Town’s epicenter. When Gragg mentioned that the barren lot could soon become home to a gigantic Uwajimaya grocery store, Goldberger sounded his approval.

“This parkway is just so beautiful,” noted Goldberger 10 minutes later as we drove along the South Park Blocks, past the home of the Wednesday farmers market, the melancholy statue of Lincoln, the Schnitzer Concert Hall and Pietro Belluschi’s Portland Art Museum.

Throughout the tour of downtown, the Pearl District and the rest of Portland’s west side, Goldberger heaped praise on our active streets, ample public transit, and urban feel despite our small size. But of all the positive accolades about Portland and its aging landmarks, Goldberger had curiously little to say about Portland’s buildings, particularly any built recently.

This could be because Portland builds great neighborhoods, not notable architecture. Not since 1982, when Michael Graves unveiled the ill-fated Portland Building—that beribboned gift-box monstrosity on which the statue Portlandia is perched like a gaudy hood ornament—has the city tried to create anything of note.

In fact, of the hundreds of buildings we passed in the city’s central core, there was only one Goldberger wanted to stop to see: Belluschi’s Commonwealth Building. Built in 1948, the 13-story structure at Southwest 6th Avenue and Stark Street is credited as one of the first glass-box towers ever built. It doesn’t stand out much today among its modern peers, but when it was built, its aluminum sheath and flush curtain wall were about 20 years ahead of its time. Inside, a mural by the architect is plastered on a high wall. It’s a minimal and playful collage of red rectangles, yellow blobs and a blue swoosh on a stark white background. “It’s just lovely,” Goldberger remarked.

“Coming here to talk about the meaning and the physical form of cities in our time seems a little like a Catholic missionary going to Rome, or a liberal Democratic politician campaigning on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” Goldberger told the 200 or so admirers who gathered for his lecture later that evening. “It’s a form of preaching to the converted.”

Later, he referenced Portland’s rep as the “anti-Houston”—we’re a city where planners start with the premise that streets are more important than buildings, and that quality of life is more important than quantity of growth. The audience, filled with Portland planning and academic types, loved hearing that. They’d heard it before.

The Portland story Goldberger applauds is indeed a wonderful tale of urban planning, but it’s also the same one we’ve been telling for decades. Portland shouldn’t have to choose between vital streets and good buildings. Great buildings, like Seattle’s Space Needle or Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, help a city create a reference point to the outside world, and serve as an inspiration to its residents. Great architecture should be essential, no less important than museums or libraries. Goldberger may fawn over our streetcar system and bike lanes, but Portland’s still lacking a single building that could establish the city as the global center for good design that it’s becoming. Whether it’s a permanent amphitheater on Waterfront Park or a stunning year-round home to the Portland Farmers Market, another attempt at great architecture in Portland is nearly 30 years overdue. We should invite Goldberger back—just not until we build it.


MORE: Read Paul Goldberger’s work at paulgoldberger.com.
 
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