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Big Ideas in Urban Design

Is Portland done?

Adam Garcia

In 1910, The Blackstone Hotel in Chicago made plans to build a rooftop station big enough to dock four airships. This was part of a larger strategy and vision to create dirigible service between Chicago and New York — where new skyscrapers would have masts that allowed such floating forms of transportation to dock and deliver passengers to the tops of buildings. In 1925, Raymond Hood proposed apartment bridges that would extend across both the Hudson and East Rivers to Manhattan. These inhabited suspension bridges would boast towers between 50 and 60 stories high, housing as many as 50,000 residents. The scheme included shops, theaters, and water-plane airports at their bases. It was a visionary plan, intended to reduce urban congestion, and take advantage of the extraordinary river views.

While neither of these were realized, my vast appreciation for big ideas hasn’t diminished. Still, there’s a real distinction between a good design idea, and a big one. To qualify as “big,” the vision should be so grand that our desire for it to manifest compels us to offer personal and public resources, and so ambitious as to ensure a healthy disbelief that it’s even possible.

When I was a student, I was encouraged to think big. I studied landscape architecture in the small West Virginia college town where I grew up. My classmates and I used Morgantown’s riverfront as the subject for many lofty speculations: we reimagined the vacant industrial waterfront as vast expansions of parks, gardens floating on barges, and our own versions of inhabited bridges spanning the Monongahela River. After graduation, I learned that our ideas were rejected in favor of a gob-based power plant (gob is the waste from coal mining operations). In the exact spot where we had envisioned tree-lined promenades and outdoor cafes, an enormous smoke stack dominates the skyline of the city. It was disheartening to learn that my community couldn’t see beyond its immediate needs to work toward something more wondrous. And I began to question whether big ideas could be realized at all. Then I moved to Oregon.

When I arrived in Portland, the big news was that a mall (Pioneer Place) was going to be built downtown, not in the suburbs. Which, of course, went against the development patterns of most other cities. That project was on the heels of another big one: where a parking structure was demolished and converted into a sort of living room space for the city. We now know it as our beloved Pioneer Courthouse Square. And yet others: the removal of a freeway from the river’s edge, the creation of a park sequence that brought the grandeur of cascade landscapes into view, the introduction of a light rail system into our urban fabric, and the drawing of a line around the city to create density and ensure the preservation of farmland. I had landed in a city of big thinkers, with a real ability to make things happen.

Twenty-five years have passed since I first arrived. And while Portland was able to help strengthen my belief in grand-scale projects, lately it feels like the city is losing some of its momentum. Portland appears to have become a city of incremental progress. That is, a bit complacent in its willingness to rest on the laurels of accomplishments put into place decades ago. It seems like much of what we’re doing now is the completion of visions past. Don’t get me wrong. I can see the advantages of such an approach. There’s a justifiable perception that more modest urban projects minimize the potential for tragic mistakes; that they engage stakeholders, and better reflect the individual identities of communities.

Portland is filled with wonderful smaller-scale projects like this that emerged out of a community-based process. Director Park, for one. And our network of storm-water landscapes is also a good example. But, one could make the argument that big moves still have big value. They capture our imaginations in larger ways, and they generate the momentum necessary to realize a grand vision. Because they’re large-scale and built to last, big ideas spark important conversations and create healthy debate. They’re forward-looking, and therefore freed from needing to react to the immediate needs and circumstances of a community. They are also often major contributors to the identity of a place. Take, for instance, Forest Park. As early as the 1860s, Portland’s civic leaders envisioned a landscape preserve. This led them to create a Municipal Park Commission that hired the Olmsted Brothers in 1903 to design a park network. Through donations and foreclosures, Portland acquired more than 5,000 acres of forest that supports 70 miles of recreational trails in a city-centered park. It would be hard to argue that having a forested park of this scale doesn’t somehow contribute to the character and culture of Portland.

The 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition built in NW Portland wasn’t a solution to a problem, rather an opportunity to connect the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the world. Portland’s version of a World’s Fair attracted more than two-and-a-half million visitors that year, over a span of four-and-a-half months. Highlights of the fair’s grand vision include a massive log hall created by the state in order to promote its timber industry; marble sculptures, compliments of Italy; a replica of King Louis XIV’s drawing room, thanks to France; and a million-dollar pavilion filled with cultural artifacts, courtesy of Japan.

In addition to its exhibits from a multitude of states and countries around the world, there was also an amusement park, where concerts were held, and motion pictures were screened. Raising the awareness of Portland as a vibrant city and viable trading partner, the Exposition also turned a hefty gross profit of nearly $85,000. Capital investors received a 21% return on their investments, and a million out-of-town guests flocked to our city, resulting in significant dollars added to the local economy. It is estimated that construction of the fairgrounds alone created 1,000 jobs.

But Forest Park and the Exposition were realized a century ago. Our generation of designers and civic leaders, I would suggest, aren’t thinking so large. I don’t believe it’s a lack of talent or ideas, rather a host of contemporary forces that are working against the very notion of the grand vision. The first of these, I believe to be our current lack of champions. Big ideas take time and political capital. Someone has to be so passionate about an idea that they’ll tolerate immense criticism and even risk their reputation in order to make something remarkable happen. Governor Tom McCall was a champion for the removal of the Harbor Drive Freeway, to make room for Waterfront Park. He had tremendous community support from groups like the Portland City Club and the Downtown Plan Citizen Advisory Committee, but the project still needed the kind of leadership and advocacy that he provided. Unfortunately, our current landscape of single-term politicians and professionals chasing markets doesn’t afford the time or resolve that’s necessary to realize such major vision.

Another force that’s holding us back is Portland’s low tolerance for failure. Thirty-five years after its construction, the post-modern Portland Building designed by Michael Graves draws vocal criticism. The Oregonian remarked, “It's hard to find anyone who doesn't like Pioneer Courthouse Square ... it's even harder to find anyone who admits to liking the Portland Building.” To which Oregonian columnist David Sarasohn added, “huge blue tiles, colored glass and odd pastel flourishes meant to evoke early modern French paintings,” actually resembled “something designed by a Third World dictator's mistress' art-student brother.” Because Graves won the right to design the Portland Building through a competition, there are those who remain skeptical of any large-scale projects brought to fruition by similar means.

As with everything, there’s more than one way of approaching the same conundrum. A colleague of mine once asked a local from Barcelona what he thought of a large, unpopular Lichtenstein sculpture in his city. “We will do better next time,” was his optimistic response, which still left room for the next great addition. He understood what we all should: when cities undertake grand experiments, there will be unfavorable results alongside the remarkable ones. However, Portland just doesn’t seem to have this brand of appetite for risk. The last thing a designer or a politician wants is an unfavorable article in the Willamette Week. This is compounded by the public’s quick inclination to criticism, particularly in the case of public funding. We’ve lost the ability to think in terms of legacy projects, and the willingness to give big ideas a chance to prove their worth.

In addition to champions and community support, big ideas generally require large amounts of money. But Portland isn’t a city of enormous wealth, and this is illustrated by our lack of Fortune 500 companies. The few families with deep pockets are overwhelmed with requests. Major companies like Nike and Adidas have a global orientation. They’re not hometown companies with a local agenda; their resources go to making spectacular moments happen at international sporting events. Because our need has outstripped our resources, there appears to be a tendency among civic leaders to let the private sector take on the role of “creators.” It’s an attractive strategy — one that doesn’t cost the taxpayer, and generates revenue. While the small, but mighty McMenamins empire is doing a lovely job reimagining historic structures, and Voodoo Donuts contributes nicely to our city's brand identity, these are still shining examples of the jewels of capitalism. Modestly scaled, they don’t really belong to you or me; they’re just on loan as long as they’re profitable. Big ideas, I argue, should last. And we should all have some ownership of them.

But perhaps the most unfortunate force behind Portland’s reluctance is an all-pervasive belief that we’ve already made all the big moves. We’re constrained by the paradigm that the vision for Portland is complete, and that our finite resources should be dedicated to maintaining what we already have. We’ve read our own press, and are basking in the glory of what we once accomplished. We’re comfortable living with the parks and infrastructure made possible by the hard work of those that came before us.

I love my adopted home, and feel I owe a great debt to the visionaries and civic leaders who worked so hard to make this city what it was prior to my arrival. But it is with great respect for its past that I say, Portland isn’t done. Now, more than ever, we need big thinkers in the face of major technological opportunities, climate change, and increasing populations. We need to, and can, serve as a model for the towns (like my own hometown) that could use an injection of vision to shake up and inspire their choices. In the meantime, I’m ready for our next great champions to rise up, and for the rest of us to lend sustained support. I, for one, plan to be the first rider on Portland’s dirigibles.