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Friday 03.19.10

« PDXplore: Crossing the Columbia | Main | Last chance for Judd Conference early registration »

Is the Columbia River Crossing Doomed?

In 2008 I was the first critic to call for a design competition for the Columbia River Crossing and publicly argued that the project had gone astray by becoming a blind man's elephant of conflicting interests without a sufficiently talented architect capable of creating a compellingly cohesive design... which they could then sell back to the public. Today the project is that same quagmire involving the same design by committee engineers and an architecture firm that merely makes cheap, mostly cheesy aesthetic gestures.

There hasnt been much critique in the generalist publications because the Oregonian does not have a proper staff architecture critic and they have utterly dropped the ball with horrible taglines like, "Can we afford Pretty?" when in fact the issue is more properly framed as a leaderless project in need of a head... ie a great architect. Sadly, the O has made themselves inconsequential to this very important discussion. Anyone with any real experience knows that the project wont get built without a serious design because this current franken-design doesn't make an arguement for itself. Previously I've described the design as similar to The Homer. What's more, Zaha Hadid has shown how the design could look and function great without extra tall design elements and Mayor Sam Adams noticed.

Zaha Hadid's Shiekh Zayed Bridge, excellent without tall structural elements

Simply put the current design team is out of their league because they are simply responding to pressures rather than the world class solutions this project demands (a rethink is crucial right now but it will take world class minds). Meanwhile Governors Ted Kulongoski and Christine Gregoire have simply ignored the crucial question of a design that people will get behind. The project's complexity requires a great architect to come up a with a convincing design that creates a consensus... that takes innovation and that is something which usually comes from top talent. A world class architect would then become the salesman, something none of the politicians have the clout or political will to do. Why have all of the designs originated from Vancouver Washington with additions from Tallahassee Florida?

Also, the new bridge IS needed, an 8.8 earthquake like the one Chile just experienced would result in a huge death toll and the traffic already piles up worse on I-5 every month. What's more federal funding at under 500 million seems startlingly low considering this is nearly a 4 billion dollar project with light rail for I-5, the major interstate arterial of the West Coast. About 2 billion dollars in aid is what is needed, till that materializes I say let the project falter or present a plan that requires that aid (or no bridge). The Federal Government has already marked the river crossing as a projects for the millennia priority but they need to know it wont happen without adequate support. You just can't do certain projects on the cheap and expect there to be the political will to complete them, maybe it will take a bad earthquake and lives lost to make this happen?

I've long supported the project but unless a world class architect is somehow brought In I'll be withdrawing support (the project is a necessity so maybe a restart is what is needed). To me the best option would be to spend a mere $200,000 for a design competition (the project spends over a million a month already). Some architectural firms to invite would be Zaha Hadid, MVRDV, Foreign Office Architects and Norman Foster. Without a great design to bring together all of the various (now conflicted) interests the project will be certain to meet with overwhelming opposition from Portland. Perhaps the city or a coalition of concerned Portlanders can develop the design competition and offer the (for now) now doomed project a way out.

Finally a group of local designers have taken up the charge with an exhibition and series of discussions at PNCA this month, but still I believe the only way forward is a serious design competition. Official or unofficial, if a competition creates consensus among Portlanders it will give this project new life... otherwise it is best to wait till the Federal and State governments pull their head's out of the silt.

for further reading, Portland Artchitecture posted this last night

Posted by Jeff Jahn on March 19, 2010 at 12:20 | Comments (0)


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