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Thursday 06.26.08

« Closing Events | Main | ArtTalk Summer »

A Better Bridge over the Columbia River

Zaha Hadid's Shiekh Zayed Bridge... it is time to up the ante on the new I-5 Columbia River crossing

On Tuesday night it was announced that the Columbia River Crossing Taskforce has recommended that an entirely new bridge be built to replace the aging pair of bridges that constitute the only remaining lift spans on I-5. What hasn't been discussed much are the opportunities that the estimated 4.2 billion dollar project opens for a new type of bridge, one designed to meet 21st century ecological and humanistic pressures. By not putting an onus on smarter design the project has negatively polarized some that would otherwise welcome a better bridge.

Yes the bridge is controversial but it's also the single best opportunity for Portland to put its money where it's mouth is, ethically, aesthetically, ecologically and technologically about being a progressive city. We aren't fond of cars here or more people, but they are unavoidable. Portlanders do however prefer better design, mass transit, human scale experiences, nature and green building ideas. The Tribune's article today emphasizes how the project must have MAX train mass transit. Ok that's a start, but it needs more.

Doing nothing is simply not an option. Simply put, we need a new span because; traffic volume, safety and the need for light rail... plus in a major earthquake the current bridges (on wood pilings) could be lost.... people would die. I-5 is not just some local route, it is the aorta of the west coast. Thus, instead of just some "car culture" necessity the new bridge could be the most visible statement of progressive northwest values, ever. With 4.2 billion this could certainly be done. Politicians like the mayors, city commissioners and governors of both Oregon and Washington should insist that if it is to be built it should be an iconic bridge for 21st century challenges in population, ecology and energy.

Here's how: hire a great architect (not simply an engineer)

Great architect's take seemingly conflicting and incongruous needs and alloy them into a structure that opens new avenues of thought as expressed in the use of space. The project is daunting but a true 21st century bridge would attract top talent. 4.2 billion (a figure I find artificially low) also means there is room for design in the budget. There's even the issue of Pearson Field and aesthetics that needs addressing... only a serious architect will fight to make certain the design isn't compromised and push the design to become more than just a bridge.

Replacement bridge concept drawing: for "discussion purposes only"...good because this stinks

This bridge isn't just an engineering problem it's a bridge between different ideologies (progressive, conservative etc). Im not just talking mass transit, safe pedestrian/bike paths... why not make something that generates electrical power (via wind or solar) and which opens our eyes to the Columbia River not as just a barrier but an opportunity to address the river as the central ecological icon of the region? The current artist renderings are pathetic beyond all reason... but it's just an initial "for discussion only" rendering. Portland demands better design than that!

Here are some architects to consider:

Composite renderings of Hadid's Sheikh Zayed bridge in Abu Dahbi

Zaha Hadid: probably the best architect working today (when the work doesn't get too blobby sculptural, she excels at pattern and spatial rhythm). Her Sheikh Zayed Bridge makes its impact not through monumental towers but through waves of superstructure creating an aggregate effect that would respect the landscape while showing it off. Here is another bridge project that has exhibition spaces... and therefore isn't appropriate for I-5 but it shows what she can do.

UN Studios' wonderfully unmonumental design for the Waldschlosschen bridge in Dresden (with vehicular and pedestrian traffic)

Another view

UN Studio: is a firm that is pretty familiar with Portland as they one of the competitors for our Aerial Tram project. They too seem to know how to do great things that aren't just purely monumental. Their work also seems very attuned to the landscape and the I-5 bridge would be a most definitive project for them.

Maryhill Overlook by Brad Cloepfil

Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works: or as we tend to refer to him "local boy." No he has never done a bridge of such magnitude but if a great engineer is hired that shouldn't be a problem. He's shown he has a knack for the conceptual space of a span as his Maryhill Overlook clearly demonstrated (making Lead Pencil Studio's later but nearby project look less impressive).

There should be a design competition and the list of candidates could go on an on, but the important thing to consider here are the possibilities this bridge presents... I sense internal combustion engine cars will soon become a thing of the past but this bridge will likely serve the area for 100+ years. The City Club of Portland will discuss the issue tomorrow at 12:15PM (it will be broadcast on OPB too).

Posted by Jeff Jahn on June 26, 2008 at 14:59 | Comments (8)


Agreed that if a new bridge is built, it should be a signature structure by a major talent. However there are limitations, like that little airport nearby that limits the height of a bridge etc.
But Portland doesn't need to spend ALL of the money available for such improvements for the next 20 years (at a cost of $2000 per taxpayer) on a new bridge to serve sprawl and single-occupant commuters in Clark County. For a quarter of the cost of a new bridge, the current ones can be made seismically safe (they're already structurally sound), the problematic on-ramps can be fixed, and light rail and bike/ped capacity added. Congestion can be further reduced by charging a toll for commuters; it's already dropping because of soaring gasoline prices. Then Clark County can pay for bus connections on its side for its commuters.

As http://smarterbridge.org/ shows, a new bridge won't solve congestion -- it'll just fill up (as every other such expansion has) with more cars. Only 13% or so of the traffic over the bridge is freight -- the congestion is ENTIRELY due to single=occupant commuter traffic from Washington.

Why should Portlanders, who pay a premium to live closer to where we work, support their sprawly lifestyle (and global warming and further sprawl) when they can solve the problem by taking the bus and a new light rail bridge or carpooling? This is a 1950s solution to a 21st century problem and the opportunity for a pretty new artistic statement shouldn't blind us to the enormous damage and expense and opportunities for smart development it would cost us.

Posted by: brett [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 26, 2008 04:08 PM

Well first off 4.2 billion would not exhaust all of the funding for improvements... this is I-5 and there is federal money. If the congestion is all commuters then it would be paid for mostly be those commuters due to tolls. Right now they are idling and reducing air quality in my neighborhood. I'd much rather see them on the max encouraged by some emissions abatement program. There are agregate problems that requires a new design that addresses all of them. It has to do it better than the "for discussion only" design headed put forth so far (which is why people are so cheesed, and rightly so the design is stupid). A serious architect can save this and that's my point.

I'm not convinced it would serve sprawl either (though it's definitely something to watch out for). The traffic pressure after 10 years of bottlenecks when the bridge is completed would simply be keeping up with the use by then. Remember this is I-5 not just a link between the "couv" and Portland. It's Interstate traffic from California, Seattle and Canada too and even during non peak hours the accidents creates snarls. Also, 13% trucks is a lot esp when the trucks tend to come and go en-masse to avoid traffic snarls... creating new snarls during truck flow windows.

I live near enough to I-5 in North Portland to see how it effects traffic daily. I know the I-5 issue intimately, the current design produces traffic accidents and congestion.

I agree the way the rendering is drawn does look like a 1950's solution... but it's not because its not a legitimate drawing that captures the real design needs here (a better design would invite pedestrian traffic and make mass transit look less like an add on). A real architect can makes something more of this.

The bridge wouldnt be a mere artistic statement the way I've outlined it. Get a real architect, make difficult demands and get a better bridge... they live for these kinds of challenges but hoping we can get by with the current state of affairs wont work.

There are new pressures and a new and better design can address them. So far this process has left out serious design as a solution.

I also think we are talking about the same thing.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 26, 2008 04:31 PM

I'm with you on this. So much of the conversation misses the deeper community values and aspirations and artistic vision this bridge could express. Even to stop referring to it just as a bridge, but something much bigger. While much of the criticism seems to be about supporting car/global warming culture, you remind us that this bridge is part of the main transportation artery of the west coast. And that the Columbia River is a primary artery of our bio-region. . We are a place whose identity is strongly connected to both progressive ideals and to water. Can't we support a bridge that embraces the values of our place in a beautiful and modern form? I can't think of one contemporary design of a bridge anywhere around here. If we are going to invest 4 plus billion into this project, gorgeous design should be an imperative. What a perfect opportunity for a design competition and the sooner the better. The ideas and visions that emerge from the competition will profoundly enrich whatever we do.

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 27, 2008 09:52 AM

*comment removed for flaming

(mod's message- let's try to discuss this like adults and refrain from namecalling etc.)

Posted by: Walkamile [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 27, 2008 10:16 AM

4.2 million dollars is a lot of money. If that amount is to be used for the project I suggest it be used wisely. A big-name architect does not guarantee results. There are so many talented, progressive and original architects these days that I would consider searching for a lesser-known talent and allow this project be a pivotal one for that architect as well as for the future of green-building on a massive scale in general. We would save a lot of money and it would showcase a deserving talent and propel the designer into future great work in this region and.or beyond.

Posted by: atrautz [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2008 02:41 PM

Agreed, though a project of this size might be simply out of a younger architects ability to manage. I think a serios design competition with some major stars and a few promising hopefuls is the best way to explore what this bridge can be.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2008 09:24 AM

Being a designer myself (of the graphic kind, not the architect kind) I personally think there is nothing worse than a design competition. (see: http://www.no-spec.com)

Unfortunately, I do question whether our higher-ups in the city can really be trusted with choosing a specific architect to develop an intriguing passage between Vancouver and Portland. Which almost guarantees the possibility of a design competition. It's just a shame that design proposals waste so much time for the designer's who are not selected for the project.

Posted by: Calvin Ross Carl [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2008 12:10 PM

Well from a architects POV it could be a waste of time if they dont get the gig but from the project's (more important) POV it explores more ideas... which is crucial here.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2008 12:24 PM

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