There are several flavors of influential architecture which redefine cities; the
phallic tower of power... made popular in during Italian renaissance (Pisa
Eifel Tower, Chrysler Building, Space Needle etc.), the temple or jewel (Parthenon,
Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, Gehry's Bilbao or Rem Koolhaas's Seattle Central
Library), power plays (the Great Pyramid, US Capital building, Kremlin) and then
there is my favorite, the pragmatic but show stopping philosophical conversation
piece like Zaha
Hadid's Bergisel Ski Jump
(which conveniently directs jumpers towards a very
old cemetery), Golden Gate Bridge or the Statue of Liberty (basically a big, poetic
welcome mat, ideological advertisement and thank you note all in one).
Portland's Aerial Tram
is just that, a pragmatic but philosophical conversation piece. Pragmatically
it was made for transporting people from the tall new glass towers in the South Waterfront neighborhood to Oregon Health and Sciences University at the
top of Pill Hill but has courted and accumulated a lot of other meanings. Like
the Eifel Tower, Space Needle, Arc de Triomphe
and Statue of liberty
it will forever be considered alongside the pervasive philosophical challenges
and contexts in which it was built. For Portland today the context is questioning
man's relationship to the environment (fossil fuels in particular), health care
and science as a partner with nature, our use of increasingly scarce real-estate,
issues of civic interdependence and the nature and use of the US's power. It
is a unique architectural project and time will tell how the conversation it
spurs will pan out.
Yes it is there doing its job and some have argued that it
can be ignored just like a city bus. Problem is that only works if trams become
as common as busses. Obviously, the tram has been controversial because original estimates of 15 million dollars were unreasonable. I would jave guessed 45 million. Instead it cost 57 big ones.
Imperial price aside, it is important to note that unlike the Eifel Tower or Space Needle it isn't an imperial-style
structure designed to project power so much as conduct traffic. The Eifel tower
was a symbol of industrial know how and eventually became the lightning rod
for early modernism. The space needle was a viewing platform that said "we
are the aerospace town," back when Boeing was the only player in Seattle.
Dissimilarly, the language of partnership looms large and OHSU (a non profit)
is Portland's largest employer. The tram cars focus attention on the people
it carries in tiny little silver eggs. Human lives and minds are the precious
cargo. Treatment and innovation are the ideal destinations. The end result is
very Swiss and it taps something at the core of Portland, this is a city that
is civilized for the sake of being civilized. Schjedahl once called Portland,
"Sweden with SUV's"
but maybe we are simply the USA with a conscience?
A place with civic (not just civil) engineering and mass transit as a progressive
posture (before massive congestion) in the USA is just plain rare.
Tram with some unfinished South Waterfront buildings.. about 20 more major glass structures to come
Portland is completely different from all other major US cities which don't
value its individual citizens in the same way. For example, Im never surprised
that people get treated the same at a Portland coffee shop whether they are
a former governor, rockstar, billionaire or some wet behind the ears college
student and I see this civility demonstrated on a near daily basis. Portlanders
are simply over the celeb thing. Similarly, Switzerland though made up of distinct
cantons did absorb a lot of civic ideas when it was a Roman province and Portland
has a similar vibe. Far from being unambitious, Portland just doesn't fetish
power for power's sake. The city looks before it leaps and even when Bush's
approval ratings were at record highs people were demonstrating in Pioneer Square.
People here are awakening to the possibility that Portland is the where the
conscience of American cities lives, though we have some major holes to plug
in the educational department (even that is emblematic).
To be sure the Aerial Tram, like all conversation pieces has a tourist draw
element but it's unclear how it will develop (a restaurant at the top seems
like an inevitability that hasn't occurred yet). It isn't perfect but it is
thrilling, and a lot of people have already stopped grumbling about the 57 million
dollar price tag (40 million paid by OHSU, no doubt as a way to further its already high "research university" cred).
Yes, Portland's Aerial
is the most significant new piece of architecture to be added to Portland
since Michael Graves Portland Building in 1980. Designed by former Portlander
Sarah Graham and Marc Angelil of the Zurich/LA based architecture firm Angelil/Graham/Pfenniger/Scholl
who are known for their transit projects (midfield terminal Zurich airport).
I was at first unimpressed with their winning submission which had a wooden
middle tower (scrapped quickly because it wouldn't work) but very cool cars.
I preferred ShOP or U.N. Studios but in retrospect I think AGPS has come through.
ShOP was a tad trendy and U.N. had a slight retro "space needle" feel
that probably doomed it. AGPS made something exciting but with minimal histrionics.
Predictably, the project was largely defined by the engineering obstacles such
as its urban setting, massive torsion from the tram cars and the tiny 60 foot
square strip of land that the top tower had to be anchored to. Because the building
behind the top terminal is a hospital it cannot be anchored to it so this is
a lot more complicated than your typical mountain tram. It is both public art
and a transportation device.
Let's take a critical tour starting at the new 1.8 billion dollar South Waterfront
The spartan lower tram station
After one gets up out of the parking garage under the South Waterfront's Meriwether
building one notices it has a very generous lobby space full of curving Alvar
Aalto-esque slatted wood. As I passed through the standard revolving glass doors
and navigated the opening weekend tents the lower tram station appeared. It's very
industrial in a good way and the only elements it provides protection from are
rain and sun. The wind courses through structure. Also, all of the massive machinery
seems anything but militaristic. Maybe it's all of the openness of the wheels,
like being in a massive clock? By not hiding all of engineering the structure
might shock the skittish at first but it has a confidence inducing candor.
When one of the gleaming cars arrives it is graceful and smooth, not showy.
Im a little worried as I remember I have slight vertigo when I board the car.
I took this ride on January 26th, a day before the grand opening so only OHSU
employees and patients are on board. Most seem at ease and accustomed to the
ride, the only touristy people are myself and PORT' photographer Sarah Henderson.
The car is full of people but not cramped. Im grateful for the numerous railings
and polls as we start. At this point my slight vertigo kicks in and I feel at little
wobbly as we rise quickly towards the mid tower but it passes quickly and I
get my sea legs back.
Apparently we are traveling at ¾ speed at 15 Mph. 22mph is the top speed.
Ive gone up many a tram in Switzerland and this one seems sleek and modern by
comparison, not once did flugelhorns come to mind.
Middle tower from I5 travelling north
As we rise, the 197ft tall mid tower isn't very prominent in view from the
tram cars. It is more stunning from I5 where it stands like some giant minimalist
sculpture and with all the triangles it reminds me of Tomma
, nothing really retro about it. In the 21st century, composite triangeles like we see here are the new circles and squares seen constantly in mid 20th century modernism. The composite triangles I constantly see from Zaha Hadid to Daniel Libeskind
and AGPS are far more tenuous shapes than circles and squares popular from 1950-1980. When traveling northbound on I5
by car down the Terwilliger curves one first notices the new South Waterfront
towers as they come into view. As the forest continues to relent, Mt. St Helens
(on a clear day) appears and right after it we see the tram tower.
The tram tower frames St. Helens and the overall effect is otherworldly
this isn't Denmark but it seems a bit like Copenhagen. The view of the volcano
hits one with a certain primal force sending the lizard part of the brain several
key bits of info like, "good soil" and "didn't that thing blow
up in 1980?" The tram's midtower and cars have an inverse effect. Their presence
report that Portland survived that eruption just fine. In fact, it only makes this place
interesting since no man made histrionics can compete with the backdrop. The
message, this is a city that generally avoids hubris but has recently found outlets for a new kind of ambition.
Back on the ride up, the views from the car are interesting, parts of Portland
look like parks and the downtown looks shiny and bustling though nothing seems
as modern as the car that you are riding in
only in Tokyo or Shanghai
or Copenhagen would this car seem contemporary with other surroundings.
Docking at upper terminal
As we are let out on top I notice how much crisper the air is. The wind is
whipping and yes for a second I forget where I'm at and contemplate putting
my skis on. Funny, some local artists dressed up as skiers on the tram's opening
day for the ride.
The upper terminal has the sense of unease found in Rem Koolhaas' except that
the tension induced by all of the shifting angular juxtapositions of materials
in Koolhaas' work is less necessary here since the entire structure has a slight
harmonic tremor to it when the tram cars are traversing the span. Once again
the mechanicals seem very much like a giant clock and very much like something
in a George Lucas film.
Building and tram car mesh on top floor
The outer cladding is a stainless steel mesh which provides some wind break. At the time this was not completely finished. It is also unfortunate the photovoltaic solar
cells originally proposed were nixed due to rising steel prices. This shiny
cladding is nice because it begs the visitor to press their face to the holes
to get an unobstructed view to the north or south.
View of Portland and Mt. St Helens in the distance from upper tower.
The views are stunning, and I expect some
sort of viewing holes will have to be added. Right now it is an oversight or
maybe a design feature to keep this from being a true viewing platform.
As mentioned earlier the upper structure itself has a tiny footprint in the hillside
and with its massive, crisscrossing legs it seems like it is engaged in a massive
tug of war. It is and the architects have reputedly likened the top tower to
a dancer. I agree, a dancer but its a influenced by Martha Graham, not one of
the sugarplum fairies from the nutcracker. There is a lot of grace, gravity
and sheer unpredictability to the structure. Thom Mayne or Herzog and de Meuron
might have done the top structure. Where you can tell that a starchitect isn't
responsible is how it marries to the building behind it. A starchitect would
have insisted that the two play together more, that they have more control.
Upper tower from the side
It might actually be better withot homogenization as the unrelated buildings comprise an interesting
collection, especially from the outside. From the inside once you reach the
hospital you know you are in a hospital.
There is art up here too. A nice Mary Henry entitled Language Barrier with
Blue greets you as you enter the hospital from the tram. There are also works
by Ellen George, Eva Lake and Mary Josephson. All are nice. In particular, Lake's
60's/80's is my favorite painting of hers but somehow a major installation commission
would have been better as a way to prepare the transition between the two structures.
These are nice works but they feel like a cattle call. It could have been worse. On the outdoor deck facing the tram tower there are some unspeakably horrid benches with frogs. By comparison the paintings look like the work of a good consultant and the outdoor deck is well, dreck.
Yes the tram is operational and nearly complete. It sets new standards by being
more than just a stunt but it also throws Portland into a completely new light,
regaining some of the ambition seen in the 1905 worlds fair but tempered with
a maturity you wont see in other US cities. How could a radical, interesting
and sophisticated project as the tram be right next to amateur move like the
frog bench? It also states loudly that Portland its ready to do things that
the attention of the New York Times
. The answer is the frog bench came first
and now that the Tram is here, greater consideration has to be taken. Post tram
Portland is a city that cannot hide from the fact that others are looking to
this city for answers in livability, transit, aesthetics and philosophies that
make them consumable.
Cities exist to connect talented people to projects where they can shine. The
question is what next? There is a 150 million dollar Multnomah county courthouse
project, who will be connected to that project? After the
Thom Mayne courthouse in Eugene
and the Tram the question is will this be
a project that furthers the architectural revival in Oregon? One thing is certain
the new views of the city provided by the tram create a situation where a lack
of good design will be just as difficult to defend as good design. The city
of Portland and what it is to become will no longer allowed to be made blindly
and somehow one supects thats a good thing for the American consciousness in
the 21st century. Right now the tram stands for new reliable options at a time when options seem very limited.
Also check out Sarah
Henderson's more comprehensive images on PORT