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Portland Sets Example in Urban Design

September 24, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

PORTLAND, Ore. — Although architecture is arguably the most permanent of the arts, the focus of the profession can be very ephemeral.

Over the last decade, the focus has been on how buildings look and what sort of statement they make.

But lately, there seems to be a healthy shift in the focus to a concern with how buildings function within particular settings, how people use buildings and how buildings affect the life around them.

It's also appropriate that this issue of design priorities--being at least as concerned with the experience of buildings as with their potential individual expressiveness--be raised in this damp Northwest city.

It was here seven years ago, that the bulky, grossly colored and flamboyantly decorated municipal building designed by Michael Graves was unveiled, and subsequently hailed, and then condemned as a landmark of the Post Modernist movement. The Princeton-based architect was touted by profession icon Philip Johnson, acting as a competition adviser to Portland.

The building generated star status and a bevy of commissions for Graves. And it put Portland on the architectural map as the site of the "most important significant American building of the decade," according to a prominent East Coast design critic.

Now, seven years later, the Portland Building, as it is called, seems oddly faded and does not command a second look, except for a monumental, figurative sculpture of a graceful maiden above its entrance. It remains, as it did when dedicated, an isolated architectural object, not particularly friendly to passing pedestrians or users.

Instead, the design focus in downtown Portland these days has shifted and broadened. It is distinguished not only by the preservation of landmarks, but also how buildings are sited and scaled, and how they are knit together by streets and sidewalks to create an engaging urban scene.

We are not talking here about the image of a building or an ensemble of buildings as an isolated object, leaden with symbolism, to be viewed as a piece of sculpture, preferably from a distance. But rather, about how buildings function at ground level, what spaces they create, the experience of bordering sidewalks and streets, broadly defined in the design profession as the public realm. It is the stuff of urban design.

Helping is Portland's traditional sensitivity to open space, light and air--a sensitivity heightened by the cloudy conditions here part of the year. When the sun shines, everyone wants to enjoy the rays and not be in the shadows of a bulky building. Accommodating this are wide sidewalks, a network of open spaces, edged with benches and spotted with fountains, several inviting plazas and parks, and an attractive light-rail system serving downtown.

The result is an accessible, humanistic city offering a wealth of lessons in urban design. These include how buildings are scaled so as not to overwhelm streets, how their ground floors line the streets with engaging shops and stores, how detailing such as brickwork lends color and safety to pavements, how parks are made inviting to all and how people are encouraged to park their cars and get out and walk, even in the rain.

To be sure, the lessons are not new.

What is happening in Portland is going on in varying degrees in many other cities. San Francisco a few years ago approved an imaginative, if controversial, plan to protect its downtown streetscapes that many felt were being overwhelmed by indifferent commercial monoliths.

"There is a renewed appreciation in our design reviews of how critical pedestrian life is to the building, the street and the city," comments Edward Helfeld of the city's redevelopment agency.

And San Diego is looking much closer and carefully at how new developments might generate more active street life, instead of discouraging it or channeling it into the privatized world of a mall.

Buildings should not be viewed as pieces of sculpture but as part of a puzzle, suggests Michael Stepner, who recently was appointed to the newly created position of city architect. He notes his major concern is urban design.

In Los Angeles there also seems to be an increasing awareness of the importance of urban design, particularly in the planning of large-scale developments.

Note the recent debates concerning the shaping of the open space for Phase 2 of California Plaza, the interest in the streetscape designs in the Library Square area and the concern for how the Grand Avenue Plaza proposal will affect the historic scale and tone of 7th Street.

Most environmental reviews now include an urban design element evaluating how particular developments will relate to neighboring buildings, and bordering streets.

"As the city becomes more dense, the nature of the spaces between the buildings becomes more critical," observes senior city planner Deborah Murphy.

This increasing awareness should be especially encouraging to those concerned with the livability of the city.

After all, contrary to some opinions, Los Angeles is more than some sort of facade seen from a freeway erected overnight like a backdrop for a movie set, but a place where some people might actually want to get out of their cars and stay awhile.

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