I arrived in Portland in 1989, taking a break from my architectural studies at the AA. I had no idea what I’d find aside from the recently completed Portland Building, Michael Graves’ decorated box that was the flag-bearer of ‘abstract representation’. Seen up close, it was genuinely refreshing that a government building could be so fun, but also a confirmation that the architecture was skin-deep. Behind the gaudy facade with its overblown classical references nothing had changed; it was a boring office building with small windows and a paint job.
If Michael Graves was feeling the loss of an architecture of representation, it was right there in the buildings of downtown Portland. As in many American cities, late-nineteenth-century cast iron-framed buildings made urban blocks taller and the streets more enclosed, with a stretched classical language that Graves’ Portland Building looked to replicate. A few decades later and the downtown area was reaching 10 or 12 storeys tall, with buildings that retained a classical decorative tradition but embraced the scale and repetition that the new building types demanded.
I spent the summer drawing fabulous buildings… They felt so different to the solidity of old Europe, with a delicacy of detailing and material pleasure that our own post-war tall buildings lacked”
I spent the summer drawing these fabulous buildings: white glazed terracotta tiles reflecting light into the street; clock towers that capped a classical pyramid; pilasters stretching to the sky. They felt so different to the solidity of old Europe, with a delicacy of detailing and material pleasure that our own post-war tall buildings lacked.
I moved into a 1930s apartment building set within a neighbourhood of beautiful timber-framed Victorian houses, built from the famous ‘Oregon Pine’ – actually Douglas fir. The Pacific Northwest has been awake to environmental concerns for longer than most, and at the time was full of campaigns for the protection of old growth forests against the logging industry. Portland is a stone’s throw from nature, and attracted people who loved outdoor life; weekends were spent bike riding, windsurfing on the Columbia River, or skiing at Mount Hood. Oregon is known for its rain, but they have long, sunny summers too. This might be why Portlanders love trees in the city, and why downtown Portland is so green. As a city it has nurtured people-centric urban design policies coupled with progressive sustainable design. In the 1960s it created a green belt that stopped the characteristic American sprawl and densified the city. In the 1970s it removed a freeway from the waterfront, creating a beautiful linear park, home to the summer jazz festival.
Having gone to Portland thinking of what buildings I might see, I came back thinking about the power of urban design”
The walk into town took me through the old warehouse district, full of rail sidings, brick-built warehouses and factories. These were in the process of being converted, with the first round of artists’ studios and galleries paving the way for the real estate agents and developers. The artists, through a desire to engage and a need to sell, were at the heart of a resurgence in community activity. ‘First Thursdays’ were invented that year, with studios thrown open for public viewing at the beginning of each month.
This spirit of community action was part of the make-up of the place, and perhaps owes something to the urban form. Portland city blocks are 80 metres square – half the size of those in many American cities, and so attuned to the pedestrian. One block in the heart of the city is now Pioneer Square, with an amphitheatre set into its sloping ground. Created in place of a parking lot on the site of a demolished hotel, ‘Portland’s living room’ was paid for in part by the public sale of 50,000 inscribed floor bricks.
Having gone to Portland thinking of what buildings I might see, I came back thinking about the power of urban design, and the effort required to make a liveable city. I remember First Thursdays like street parties, with bars springing up and spreading into the street. The event still goes on, and the neighbourhood – now the Pearl District – is part of a rejuvenated urban centre.