Pioneer Place Portland Oregon USA building in context 197990

Central Portland has a number of characteristics that make it unusual amongst American cities. The first difference is that its blocks are small (200 feet square; 61 metres square) and the streets are narrow (60 to 80 feet; 18 to 24 metres) thus providing a pedestrian friendly, easily walkable environment. Secondly, the downtown area has block-sized parks. (There is also a linear park along the western edge of the Willamette River). Thirdly, the city has many older buildings that give it both a sense of history and visual character. Fourthly, sunlight at street level is valued; Portland is cloudier than most North American cities! Fifthly, many of the streets have views to the surrounding hills. In sum, these variables make Portland, well, Portland. They form a well-loved city pattern.

A proposal by property developers Cadillac-Fairview designed by the Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership in 1980 demonstrates the issues that arise in designing in cities when a building complex, architecturally interesting, but paying little respect to its context runs into political opposition. The proposal was for a multi-use four-block scheme that combined four buildings (one on each block) into a single development (see Figure 6.2). The four buildings were to be linked with skybridges such as those in Minneapolis although Portland's climate is considerably less harsh than that of Minneapolis. Unlike the sky-bridges in Minneapolis that must have glass walls (see Figure 10.22), the ones in this proposed complex were lined with shops that made them wide and opaque. Their function was to make the buildings a unified cluster, an island, largely independent of its surroundings.

Portland is a city with a lively street-life, yet the proposal turned life inwards as if it was a suburban shopping centre. The size of the complex was well beyond that of Portland's block structure; the skybridges blocked the view of the hills and, it was feared, as in Minneapolis, that they would take people, particularly the middle-class, off the streets. The size of the complex would have also dwarfed the adjacent Pioneer Courthouse. The proposal, if built, would have changed its context in a way that was regarded as negative and would probably






Figure 6.2 The Cadillac-Fairview proposal, 5th and Morrison Streets, Portland.

have acted as a catalyst for other similar developments. Portland would no longer be Portland.

Negotiations between the Portland Development Commission and Cadillac-Fairview over the nature of the design broke down and the regional economic climate turned sour so the development was shelved. What it did do was act as a catalyst for other possible ideas for the site so the commission invited other proposals. One presented by the Rouse Corporation was accepted. It was designed by ELS/Elbasani and Logan, Architects. It was regarded as being more in the public's interest. It too evolved as a result of negotiations; failures to attract tenants and eventual successes shaped it.

Named Pioneer Place, the proposal focusing on Morrison Street made the Pioneer Courthouse (currently being revamped in 2004) a foreground building instead of having it dwarfed by high-rise buildings (see Figure 6.3). While the four blocks of the project changed the architectural character of the city, it maintained the city's nature of small blocks and open spaces. One of the blocks contains a 16-storey office tower with a 60,000 square feet department store - Saks Fifth Avenue, the complex's anchor store. Pioneer Place also contains an internal shopping pavilion of 155,000 square feet. Shops, nevertheless, grace the street frontages. The proposal does retain skybridges but they are smaller and less obtrusive than those in the Cadillac-Fairview proposal. They link the pavilion with Saks Fifth Avenue across the street.

This case study shows that 'context' has to be defined with some precision. Often it is reduced to simply the poorly defined 'visual character of buildings'. It has to do with the way buildings meet the street, their height (especially on their streets fa├žades), their ground floor uses and the distribution of entrances, their materials and fenestration, cornice and roof patterns. Buildings can be designed to either support or change the context. What developers propose, depends on their values and what a society prescribes, if anything. It would have been easy for Portland to think 'We'll take anything' when the economy turned sour. It did not; the Morrison Street scheme is the result. Designing in context can be highly innovative but it does require additional thought. Fiscal conservatives would, nevertheless, question whether the original proposal was not more in the public interest.

Major reference

Attoe, Wayne and Donn Logan (1989). Portland Oregon: A positive catalytic reaction requires an understanding of context. In American Urban Architecture: Catalysts in the Design of Cities. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 96-101.

Figure 6.3 Pioneer Place, Portland, Oregon. (a) The Morrison Street concept in response to tradition, (b) an active street-life proposal and (c) the development in 2004.

Figure 6.3 Pioneer Place, Portland, Oregon. (a) The Morrison Street concept in response to tradition, (b) an active street-life proposal and (c) the development in 2004.

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