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Friday 02.02.07

« A 21 @ sign salute for Visual Codec, RIP | Main | Portland Modern Call For Entries: Issue #5 »

21st century conciousness and Portland's Aerial Tram


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).

going up

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 Tram 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 neighborhood:

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 Abts paintings, 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.

Upper tower

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 get 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

Posted by Jeff Jahn on February 02, 2007 at 16:46 | Comments (4)


Hi Jeff,

I like the idea of the tram as a metaphor for health care...overpriced and serving only a small section of the community.

The Beaverton/Wilsonville commuter rail and 82nd/Clackamas Max Line are infinitely better examples of the region's pragmatism in relation to issues of real estate and civic interdependence.

The tram has always been about developing the South Waterfront...a great idea, but since you brought up homogenization, can't Portland come up with a better model than condo/high end retail? Exactly when did Banana Republic, Crate and Barrel and The Oceanaire Seafood Room become symbols of sophistication?

The next big project is the I-5 bridge. That's a pragmatic piece of architecture to get excited about.

Posted by at February 3, 2007 10:25 AM

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2007 10:30 AM

I agree it is a great metaphor. Its part of why I like the tram. It could have been a more hidden form of transportation like busses or a tunnel but by making health care and elite design so transparent it forces the issue.

That said, plenty of hard working blue collar people will use the tram every day to go to work too. The tram is a metaphorically faceted structure whose sheer oddness really backs up the more typical (and more expensive) and max train lines. I find the tram more declarative because it is simply a more memorable project but without the max trains and streetcars would seem more like a stunt. Together as a transit system they say even more about the progressive nature of Portland.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 4, 2007 12:22 PM

To be fair, the Max is more expensive, but carries a lot more people (205 Max rider estimates are 65,000 per day, the Washington Commuter line is (very?) conservatively estimated at 5-6000). The tram is 1,100 per day now and 5,000 by 2030.

The commuter train is important because it uses existing rails (like the ACE lines in the Bay Area), and is one of the few suburb-suburb lines in the country (and we'll be seeing a lot more of them).

The tram seems like a stunt to me. It was marketed as 'our new postcard' and already needs a restaurant or some other destination for the tourists. I agree that Portland is 'over' celebrity. Much of the negative reaction to the tram comes from residents that are 'over' the need for the city to declare anything. There is great beauty in the less memorable projects that are taken for granted, but are very much a part of our daily lives.

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 4, 2007 10:33 PM

OHSU is the largest employer in the city. 8 million is a small price to pay to solve their campus expansion needs.

I like the variety of projects underway. Besides, keeping Portland a secret isnt possible so we might as well stand for something in more declarative terms.

Portland has a leadrship role to step up to nationally and the Tram has already proven it can capture a nattional audience.

I agree the new I-5 bridge is the BIG kahuna. Many in Vancouver washington dont want it. I live in North Portland and see the I-5 bridge project's need every day. It's bad getting worse and light rail to vancouver (max yellow line) is absolutely needed.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 5, 2007 10:42 AM

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