Event Notes: PDXplore – Event Recap
When: Tuesday, July 8, 2008, 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Location: PNCA, 1241 NW Johnson Street
View Event Details on Upcoming and PNCA News.
I just attended an mind-blowing event called “PDXplore” at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Five outstanding architects and urban planners presented their visions and philosophies on the future of Portland while surrounded by a body of their own work. Diagrams, schematics, and urban plans covered the walls of the college, and before the event, the audience had a chance to view, discuss, and explore the architect’s work. Bram Pitoyo was also sitting next to me and captured the event in his usual lucid, detailed manner. His review is here.
If you get a chance, check out the massive print-out of Portland and surrounding areas lining the entire main floor of PNCA. It’ll make like you’re flyng over a landscape infinitely larger than the view any mortal computer screen could ever offer the eye.
I tried to capture the essence of the entire event, and if I failed in any way, please let me know via Twitter, comment, or E-mail.
PDXplore is the first in a series of Architecture panels on the future of the City of Portland. PDXplore #2 occurs on July 22nd, 2008 from 6-9Pm at PNCA. The theme is “Collective Leaderships” and it features mayor-elect Sam Adams, Metro president David Bragdon, Hillsboro mayor Tom Hughes, Portland planning director Gil Kelley, and City of Gresham executive manager Alice Rouyere. RSVP for this event on Yahoo’s Upcoming.
There were five speakers, each were given exactly eight minutes to speak:
Speaker 1. Carol Mayer-Reed, a founding principal of landscape architecture firm Mayer-Reed. She is currently Exploring the larger context of the region in respect to the othe rmajor cities of the rest of the coast
Speaker 2. Rudy Barton, architecture professor at Portland State and longtime chair of the school’s architecture department. He has 30 years of architectural experience as an urban designer and has worked in Jerusalem and Barcelona. He’s also the designer of Portland’s original downtown.
Speaker 3. Mike McCulloch, former head of the city’s Design Commission and a veteran architect. He has designed urban districts and campuses.
Speaker 4. William Tripp, another venerable architect, studied in Finland (a magical place known for its brilliant minimalism and attention to natural processes).
Speaker 5. Rick Potestio, a native Portlander, and one of the city’s most talented architects.
:FIRST SPEAKER | Carol Mayer-Reed:
I’d like to talk about the DNA of Portland. More specifically, why do people live here, and why do people want to move here? This is what I call left coast, right brain. We need to use our right brains to plan our future.
Someone once wrote that, compared to the other cities on the West coast, “Portland is more about small discoveries than spectacular landmarks”.
Over the years Portland has a new and emerging view of itself. Portland now has enough self-esteem to come forward and encourage this type of comparison.
Now many from those other cities on the West Coast are moving here.
Out of 50 US cities, PDX, Seattle, and San Francisco rank high on the vectors of high connectedness and transit, and we have a 21% rate of growth.
Portland also supports collective shared values and sensibilities, and with these shared values and openness comes creativity.
We have rituals unique to Portland; we have farmer’s markets and block parties, bike rides and food carts that colonize our parking lots.
But can we retain these interesting characteristics as we grow, and can we continue to attract people with the same shared values and sensibilities?
Everywhere we look we have green surroundings. Our rivers have meaning; they both divide and connect us.
We’d love to bury Interstate 5 and join it to the east side.
Can we build truly green waterfronts on both riverbanks?
We have to be mindful against poor legislation creeping onto the ballot.
We have a reputation for being green in the US but we’re still a long way from European cities.
You don’t have to necessarily leave the city to access green spaces and places of recreation.
We need more work in linking parks and green spaces.
We redesign ourselves, but we don’t necessarily redevelop ourselves.
Words like quiet elegance, authenticity, and lack of pretence come to mind.
On the optimistic notion that one can make a difference:
Portland tops SF and Seattle in public voting and involvement.
We need to engage the voices. That’s what PDXplore is all about.
It has been demonstrated that periods of crises and questioning are the best opportunities for positive social change.
Let’s not wait for a crises, lets go out ahead of it, and push for more engagement in our public spaces
Let’s let the dialogue continue.
:SECOND SPEAKER | Rudy Barton:
As my wife can attest, I have an ongoing love affair with cities. Cities excite me, and great cities really excite me.
I love to watch them wake them up in the morning, I love to watch them as they go about their days, and I love to watch them rest in the evening.
Rivers and waterfronts are keys to the greatest parts about cties.
There is friction and tension between natural and manmade sources
Changing transportation systems all try to prevent us from getting to the river.
I’ve been accused by my colleagues of ignoring the Columbia river.
But the Willamette and the Columbia are two completely different entities.
Compared to the Willamette, the Columbia is practically a stream.
It is sometimes a mile across in places.
“Raise your hand if you actually saw the river today”, McCulloch said.
The audience shifted in their seats, and about 75% of hands went up in the air.
“Now,” he said, “Raise your hand if you actually touched the Willamette River today”.
Not a hand was raised.
“The Willamette is the largest public space we have in the city, and as we begin to plan the city, we have to plan the role of the river and its engagement with the city.”
“I think it’s better for us in the long run if we confront our anxieties and begin to question what it is like to build next to the river, because the manmade can coexist with nature in places”.
“In urban design terms, Ross Island is a microcosm of the terms and conditions of what we’re going to have to confront in the future of the city’s intersection between the natural and the manmade world. We’re going to need a series of complex strategies to be able to deal with it”.
:THIRD SPEAKER | Mike McCulloch:
I wanted to talk about three things that happened to me that galvanized my participation with this.
What designers look for is a lot of things had stimulate their creativity, and then run some electric current through it and see what happens.
Jaime Lerner of Brazil had the idea that Portland could be as great a city as Curitba, Brazil if only it was courageous enough.
I was very lucky to be able to visit an architecture exhibit in Venice recently, and it was there that I realized that virtually every major city on the face of the earth is rethinking its structure, presence, and identity.
I spent 10 years one the design commission for the city, trying to help get the best projects into the city.
To me, it’s time to design something. It is time to take some dramatic steps to create what the city could be.
First of all, you have to understand how your city has been designed at the very smallest level.
I’ve tried, in my diagrams, to explain things in a way create a new of large concepts, sort of like a constellation map to understand the stars.
Because unless you understand it you can’t protect it.
Make sure you design. Make some mistakes, but make a human intervention to create things so that people understand them.
We need to list out three major areas:
1. First, our cultural DNA. Why are we here? What attracted us? How are we different from other cities? What’s the program? Who are we designing for?
2. Second is the river and the ravines that the rivers have carved (we live in these ravines next to the river).
3. Third is the urban growth boundary.
And then there’s number four; the room that’s created all of this.
To establish this diagram in the mind of a 4th grader, for them to carry on into the next generation.
I think of the city as a collage — you add to what’s already there.
In the 50’s we made the mistake of bulldozing everything, and then rebuilding. We can’t do that again.
We need to very carefully insert new buildings and new infrastructure into what’s already there.
If you’re thinking of moving to Montana because you think a million people are going to move here in the next few years, don’t. Instead, stay here, and design the city, so that you can keep it the way you want.
Because it’s possible to design the city to be the way we want it.
If planned correctly, the Central East Side could have the density that the West side has.
:FOURTH SPEAKER | William Tripp:
Portland is at a kind of turning point, and that turning point is a kind of issue of density.
There’s another kind of turning pint that Portland’s going to be living through — and that’s a city at the point of commerce that people come to, do their business, and then leave.
On of the challenges then, in making that shift, is to understand what makes a great city as a meaningful place to live.
It’s different to say that your home is your house, than to say that your city is your neighborhood.
Great cities are not defined by a collection of great buildings,
Great cities are communities of great people.
And what do people need to build and sustain communities?
They need a shared public space, the outdoor living rooms of the community.
Portland has a shortage of that kind of space.
It is not that we just need more public outdoor rooms, but that they need to be arranged in a meaningful way.
This brings us to the concept of “ritual space”. A wedding or a funeral takes place in a special type of space.
The a city is not a grid of private property to be developed as a means of raising private wealth, but a network of public space that all of us live in.
As you go about this exhibit, be looking for this community space.
What’s different about a design from an urban planner or a traffic engine?
Design is an intuitive creative act.
At the end of the day you have to make a mark on a piece of paper, you have to say, “It’s shaped like this”.
If you make choices about your garden a home you’re designing, you’re making choices about the “shape” of something.
The reason that design is so important is that design is the tool we use to integrate all of these forces that are otherwise irreconcilable.
To make these rooms at the largest scale to the smallest scale is to make a room and give it shape.
Please take away from this exhibit a new awareness of this exhibit… take away those unifying community spaces of the city that we use to call this place “home”.
:FIFTH SPEAKER | Rick Potestio:
What’s really at stake here? What are the opportunities that we have ahead of us?
We know that may people will be moving her in he future.
We need not to look at this as a problem, but something we need to embrace, and something we have the ability to direct.
We have the opportunity to decide how that investment will be directed.
Or will we be more and more reliant on practices that even now are becoming rapidly obsolete?
I know you all have noticed this Arial photograph of the city covering the ground of this space. It’s this setting that I’m most concerned about.
As a kid I grew up near council crest, and walked up to the top of that mountain and looked out over this green and verdant landscape as far as the eye could see.
And as I grew older i got a bike and took it out further and further, each time discovering more and more how truly unique each space was.
Cities tend to develop at an optimum point, where the rivers and forests and mountains are closest together. It is at this spot that we are now churning under.
We have some of the most spectacular land of anywhere in the world. It is our Eden.
This Eden is what I think is at stake, which is why I and my team have delved into this project.
There is this idea of density influencing the quality of life, as if somehow those have become fused, like an equation.
But it’s not like an equation, it is more like a story problem; a story problem that involves theorems and an understanding of things that can’t be completely proven but that we can somehow intuitively understand.
“Can we fit all half a million people in the confines of what we’ve defined as the city without sacrificing what we already have? Can we do that while also building more into it? While also being able to build better communities with solar panels and community gardens?” If we can make these things, we have a chance at living up to the idea of the city as
“Our time is now — this is our defining moment. She (mother nature) who watches is really wondering “what will we do with this time (that we have)?” ”.
Host: so you’re really laid out a very large vision…it’s not about 5, 10, or 25-year plans, but a challenge for us to think about a city in terms of thinking about a forest.
Host: What are the other exemplary cities around the world you think have done exemplary work that you think have built on these visions?
Barton: It’s about littering every neighborhood in he city with all sorts of public improvements.
McCulloch: one other think is important to look at with other cities is the political structure that leads to that city’s building as well.
well, singapore is great! but their govenrment knows everything, so the city’s going to be just as structured as well.
Tripp. Designers speak in this strange language. we make diagrams…and no one can understand them”.
He pointed to a man named David in the audience and made him stand up. “But David,” he said, “was able to take these rather abstract ideas and create stories out of them”. Meaning accessible to people who were not architects.
Q: I noticed that there weren’t any cars populating the designs that were up on the wall. Are cars inherently the enemy of good design?
Potestio: It’s easy to bash on cars. I don’t think they’re going to go away anytime soon. I think that cars have destroyed urban design and our communities as well. They’ve made us a lot more isolated as well.
We can only get that community back by taking a bike ride.
Mayer-Reed: One of the things I noticed about Portland is that we don’t immediately honk at someone when they don’t go immediately at a green light. We let them have a minute. We’re not like other cities in this respect.
If you ask a retailer, they want a busy street outside their door, because it means business.
(Author’s note: In an increasingly digital world, retailers can substitute digital traffic for analog traffic. This takes up less time and less space, allowing for a larger amount of public space with less cars).
Tripp: There is a different between designing open plazas for people that allow cars to go into instead of designing streets for cars that you also allow people to go into. It is a matter of priority.
McCulloch: There is a kind of humility in the way that people design things in this city. One does not takes an investor’s money and go and build the latest, shiniest thing out there. We look down upon that as a community. I think some of our building plans are worthy of recognition (in that respect).
Potestio: There’s the idea of the architect and the ego, and then there is the design that comes from when the designer’s work is generated from a thorough understanding of the problem. Or if the work is an opportunity to show off an idea.
When we think of the great cities, like Florence and Amsterdam, we don’t think of a collection of buildings. We think of a cohesive entity. These cities become contexts that then become admired, respected, and revered throughout history.
Tripp: If you think about it as your own house. You don’t assign a designer to create your house with a different idea in mind for each room — the rooms combine to make the entire house — societies are the same in this way. When you think about Rome you don’t think about this building and that building and this building — you think about the city as a whole.
Understanding Portland is understanding the layers of meaning that are at work in the whole city and then make those meanings visual.
If a building is out of synch with the DNA that is fundamental for the city’s functioning, it won’t be absorbed into the bloodstream of the city. (It’s like transposing type A blood into a B patient).
Harmony has to do with how the forces of the city work through that building.
What are those forces and those alignments of the city that are correct for that building?
Those alignments that cross purposes with our future need to be changed and repurposed. To change those patterns, is to express new lines of change in our city. This takes transforming research into art.
Barton: We want to move our discussion away from the designs of buidlings to the spaces between those buildings.
Audience Member: Why give your kids a big back yard, when you can give them an entire city?”
Potestio: A lot of building design kindles a fear factor; a kind of reluctance to want to know our neighbor. A lot of green spaces are closed off to the tenents of the property who live there. It’s a kind of in-between inaccessible space (often decorative).
Mayer-Reed: I find it interesting that retail centers now imitate small downtowns.
Tripp: I think primarily the role of art is to ask us to look at things in different ways. I think art is like breathing.
Potestio then pointed to a blue piece of plastic hanging down from the ceiling, That object is a proposal for a website tool for urban planning”, he said, “we now have these tautological tools now that allow us to create vast amounts of information. The problem then becomes processing that information.
And then there is making sure that each project
draws three blocks in every direction.
When people look at things in this way,
they find themselves discovering new things they haven’t noticed before.
Tripp: What do you do if someone proposes an idea? How does it get discussed? How does it get published? Imagine a kind of room or a kind of space where we can have a more permanent conversation, with monthly exhibits. Not as the kind of event that happens every few months, and not as an event where someone has a great idea, and then it hits the newspapers and is gone.
Potestio: We tend to think of our streets as places that carry us to other places. These streets should really be offering us a very high degree of connectivity”.
Tripp: You don’t prune a tree for the shape. You prune a tree because you know that the part that you prune will turn into a branch. You prune in advance of where it’s going to grow. It is the same in planning a city. We’re all designing a city that we’re never going to see. If you have a clear picture about the future of your city, then it evolves, and it’s not a big deal. It’s not a catastrophe.
The city’s going to grow, no matter if we prune it or not. that’s why the analogy of the fruit tree is wonderful. There are existing patterns that are just going to grow. If you don’t prune a fruit tree, it’s still going to grow.
Thanks to all of the speakers and sponsors who made this event possible, especially PNCA, GBD Architects and Design within Reach.
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Jaime Lerner was elected as mayor of Curitiba three times, and then was elected as govoner of Parana two times. A five-time period of public service, and yet he was an architect and urban planner.