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Recapping 2009 in Portland architecture

Portland architecture

2009 was a tumultuous and trying year for architecture and architects in Portland, bringing new life to the skyline even as the profession struggled to eke out its very existence.

The year began in January with two major political events: the inauguration of President Obama and then the swearing in and subsequent eruption of scandal for Mayor Sam Adams. Arguably more relevant for architects, though, was the horrific state of the economy. Many firms began layoffs toward the end of 2008, and that only continued in 2009. Then, a well-known and award-winning firm, Sienna Architecture, closed its doors. It seemed like a dangerous sign for many local firms teetering on the brink of closure, although in reality it's never that simple; Sienna had other business difficulties.

Yet as the economy sputtered, there were signs of life, particularly in public projects. Boston-area architect Miguel Rosales unveiled designs for a “hybrid” bridge for Trimet’s Willamette River MAX and pedestrian crossing (pictured above). There was also the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s takeover of the Museum of Contemporary Craft.

February saw new attention and new life for one of celebrated Portland architect Pietro Belluschi’s buildings, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, after it was expanded and renovated by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Closer to home, historic preservation took an uglier turn. First there were threats to a local landmark of mid-20th Century kitsch, the Pagoda Chinese restaurant; it has since been demolished. Then Riverdale Grade School, a building by legendary Portland architect A.E. Doyle (the other most renowned Portland architect besides Pietro himself), saw the community rally in what would also end up an ill-fated preservation effort.

That same month, there were some potentially positive signs for architects and the economy, from LRS Architects designing the largest LEED building in China to Ankrom Moisan winning a commission for Danish wind turbine-maker Vestas’s new American headquarters in Portland. Skylab also unveiled plans for its stunning Weave Building downtown on Burnside, ambitiously looking to break ground within the year; it hasn’t happened yet, though.

Also in February was the 11 x Design homes tour, featuring a host of self-developed residential designs by the likes of Path Architecture, Atelier Waechter, SEED Architecture, Webster Wilson, Design Department and SUM Design Studio. It was a funny tour, because half the houses were still under construction. But these houses also represent a new up and coming generation of Portland architects, as I wrote in a Dwell magazine article about the tour. I was particularly fond of the Z-Haus by Waechter, which felt ideally Portland but reflected the talent of Ben Waechter as he learned architecture under renowned architects Brad Cloepfil and Renzo Piano.

In the spring, there was more debate about the Columbia Crossing bridge project and even Burnside Bridgehead reared its head amidst a new planning effort by the City. A proposal for the Oregon Sustainability Center (pictured below) by a team of local developer Gerding Edlen with GBD Architects and SERA Architects defeated a handful of nationally regarded competitors. The Portland Timbers won advancement to Major League Soccer, necessitating PGE Park become a soccer-only facility. With that, the first whispers began that Timbers and Portland Beavers owner Merritt Paulson was looking to build a new Beavers minor-league baseball stadium on the Memorial Coliseum site. Pietro Belluschi’s widow, Marjorie, also passed away.

The new Portland Streetcar loop for Martin Luther King Boulevard and Grand Avenue won federal funding in the spring as well. Murals became allowed once again under city code after a long effort to distinguish them legally from advertising. Habitat for Humanity unveiled its first LEED-rated house, in the North Mississippi district. Arun Jain left the City as its chief urban design strategist, following city planner Gil Kelley out the door as the Adams administration charted a new course.

There was also a neon rose placed atop the John Yeon-designed Portland Oregon Visitors Center, drawing the ire of architects and design enthusiasts who deplored the way this local landmark became part carnival attraction. But the biggest preservation effort was directed at Memorial Coliseum, as a host of organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the US Green Building Council officially called for the building to be spared.

In May, Trimet continued to vet competing hybrid and cable stay bridge options for its Willamette River crossing. The more unique design, Miguel Rosales’s hybrid, seemed to be squeezed out due to cost concerns, even though Rosales and his engineering partner were never approached for detailed cost information. Then the agency selected architect Donald MacDonald over Rosales. Initially it seemed we’d be stuck with a banal cable-stay bridge like MacDonald’s firm had done before, but ensuing design versions for the Willamette Bridge have turned out to be impressive. Rosales would have designed a great bridge for Portland, but MacDonald is no slouch.

Also in the spring, the Sustainability Center team began seeking feedback on its design, which seemed to impress people more for its ultra-high performance (meeting stringent Living Building Challenge standards) than for its look, which seemed a little like an office building with a giant leaf-shaped roof on top. Just across the street from the Sustainability Center site on Broadway, the new Cyan apartments opened. Designed by THA Architecture (formerly Thomas Hacker Architects), it showed a new way forward for downtown high-density development: smaller and less expensive. In sadder news, though, longtime historic preservation expert and architect Alfred Staehli passed away.

About this same time, the Memorial Coliseum preservation effort took a new turn when Mayor Adams announced the abandonment of plans to demolish the building for a baseball stadium. The Mayor then subsequently announced the formation of a Stakeholder Advisory Committee to look at future options; it began meeting in September. (I remain skeptical of the Committee because Memorial Coliseum doesn't need new program ideas; it needs to be preserved as the multi-purpose arena it already is.) Meanwhile, Lents briefly became the intended home of the Beavers’ baseball stadium until residents balked. The same happened in Beaverton, and now the issue remains unresolved.

In the summer,  Metro began to weigh future urban growth boundary expansion. And an alternative design was proposed for Riverdale School that would have saved Doyle’s original building. But the school’s leadership turned a deaf ear.

Summer 2009 also saw the opening of what may be the top new building design in Portland in 2009: the Ziba headquarters (pictured above), designed by Holst Architecture. Teeming with natural light, the building (as I wrote about in Metropolis magazine) also brought new ideas about how to arrange an office. Personal space is miniscule, and meeting space is huge. There’s even a special room for Ziba’s clients to chill out, watch TV and grab drinks from the fridge. Also, there was the opening of the Courtyard by Marriot hotel downtown, from a design by SERA Architects. That same month, though, there were two tragedies: the death of Bob Gerding (co-founder of Gerding-Edlen Development), and the demolition of Riverdale.

As the fall began, small projects like the SIPs House attracted attention. Its designer, SEED Architecture, was as involved with the materials and construction as the design, a do-it-yourself strategy that continues to gain traction.  Then, Memorial Coliseum got a shot in the arm when the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places – not just the exterior glass box, but the seating bowl inside as well. Two local health care projects, a Providence clinic on Interstate Avenue (pictured below) by Mahlum (with an assist from Rick Potestio) and a building at Oregon Health & Science University by Perkins + Will, were the top winners from the AIA’s national healthcare awards. And the city’s long planned Resource Access Center for the homeless was finally given the green light after a lawsuit involving city urban renewal was settled; it broke ground at year's end.

Also, perhaps the most prominent addition to Portland’s skyline was completed: the 12 West building by ZGF Architects. This is the first building in the United States to have building-integrated wind turbines. Draped in glass with gorgeous pattern-making, the building also represents the continued re-emergence of ZGF, the city’s largest firm, as generator of high-quality design.

October brought the death of another titan, the great landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who designed the Keller Fountain and numerous other public spaces in Portland. Portland Spaces and Portland Monthly editor Randy Gragg would soon release a book on Halprin’s designs.

Then there was the "China Design Now" exhibit opening at the Portland Art Museum, featuring a host of architecture, fashion and graphic design. Although the exhibit originated at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, China Design Now has felt particularly relevant to Portland as an emerging Pacific Rim city.

The annual AIA Design Awards, part of the overall month-long Portland Architecture & Design Festival, saw the bSIDE6 building on Burnside (pictured above) by Works Partnership and Shattuck Hall’s renovation by SRG Partnership  YGH Architecture walk away with the top Honor Awards. "A new generation of young architects is reaching beyond the expected to blend high density, sustainability, and thrift into a bolder breed of Portland building," wrote Portland Spaces' Amara Holstein, citing bSIDE6. "At last." After seeing its Museum of Art & Design open on Columbus Circle in New York, Portland’s Allied Works also won a major design competition, for a music center in Calgary.

Closer to home, the waterfront and Ankeny Plaza got a major uplift late this autumn from the opening of the Mercy Corps headquarters, a LEED Platinum-rated design by THA Architecture. Across the Willamette, there was also a design competition for a new firefighters’ memorial.

Looking ahead, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the economy. It’s not exactly safe to say Portland design firms are about to go on a hiring binge, or that we’ll be seeing more highrise condominiums sprouting quite so quickly anymore. Even so, considering the veritable freefall for the economy and the building industry that was still happening as 2009 began, there may now be a stronger light shining at the end of this long, dark tunnel. And given Portland’s sizable reputation as a world leader in sustainable design, the city seems well poised to lead the way as we remake and re-imagine the built environment in the wake of planetary climate change. Like Kermit the Frog and Ray Charles sing, it’s not easy being green. But it’s the way forward without question.

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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