Friday, January 4, 2008

The Grid and the River

Just got wind of a new hotel renovation project along Naito Parkway in downtown Portland today, and one of the forum posters brought up an interesting question: why does Naito, which fronts one of the best urban parks in the world, suck so much? There is practically no active street frontage (shops, doorways, etc) in use, and in fact hosts a lot of "backsides" to buildings, as well as parking garages and bridge on-ramps.

Well, then it hit me... this is not just an isolated phenomenon in Portland; in fact, it is so typical of Portland architecture. Our built environment largely consists of historic houses of an imported style, and places like South Waterfront was gridded off like the rest of the city, instead of actually responding to the water. Result? Cool urban environment, nice parks, but little interconnectivity between the two. "City in a bottle" or "oasis park in a city" are true descriptors, and unfortunately there is hardly any blurring of the edges.

In a way, it reminds me of Amsterdam... except that their little islands are already man-made and have a very artificial feeling to them, whereas we find a lot of soft-edged natural places still within the city limits - Forest Park and Ross Island come to mind (Swan Island, on the other hand, has totally given way to artificiality).

SoWa was a totally lost opportunity to finally break the grid and try something new - it would have offered developers a more flexible site to deal with, as well as architecture that could respond to the river more (say, a long and thing building). As it is, they're stuck with the same blocky 200' x 200' blocks like anywhere else in Portland. Where's the uniqueness? Just having a view doesn't make it all that special - even houses in "South Portland" and the West Hills have views.

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