February 17, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

                            WHAT THE HECK IS THAT? : FINAL VERSION

This week I'd like to discuss the value of taking a deep dive into a subject, especially one that presents itself as a complete surprise. It's a lot of fun to come upon a photographic opportunity without warning, and I encourage you to explore the possibilities, at least until your companion shows signs of complete boredom. As I always tell my students, when the person standing next to you starts to wonder what the hell you are showing interest in, you have achieved a certain amount of personal vision - something other artists can take a lifetime to achieve. The artistic problem you then face is how to communicate your enthusiasm to others, but at least you have something unique to say.

I didn't realize that my most recent blog post was my 100th essay, and it is with a lot of gratitude that your collective interest has encouraged me to continue to share these photographic musings each week. I look forward to more essays, and hope to introduce a way to allow you to purchase the images in each post at a discount on my revised website. I hope you will explore it, and would love it you contacted me with your thoughts on how I'm doing.

                            A MINIMALIST PRELUDE : FINAL VERSION

I just thought I would throw this one in, mostly because I'm constantly confused and bemused by all of the minimalist images of architecture that somehow include light posts. This is taken outside of the Portland Opera offices at the East end of Tilikum Crossing. While I applaud the brickwork stripes and the carefully detailed awnings, I wished that they had somehow ensured that the requisite light pole could actually be straight!

Last week I showed some images taken on a stroll across the Tilikum Crossing, the newest bridge in Portland. This week I will show some details I discovered in the new neighborhood that has emerged across the river on the west side of the bridge. This collection of towers by the river still goes by the rather uninspiring name of "South Waterfront", and arose as a way to expand the city's main hospital complex. Note to urban planners - avoid putting a hospital complex on the top of a mountain. As the hospital expanded over the last century, its future as a growing concern was threatened by the fact that no matter how ingeniously architects piled new buildings next to, around, and on top of each other, there was just no more room on Pill Hill. When the hospital started to make some some self-serving noises about moving to the suburbs, something needed to be done. The abandoned industrial waterfront below the hill, across an actual neighborhood and at least two major streets and a highway, was deemed the site for future expansion. With much fanfare and major political controversy, a 57-million dollar "aerial tram" replaced  a fleet of 37 buses that had continuously ran up the hill. This rather remarkable urban ski lift now connected Pill Hill to the neighborhood to be down by the riverfront.

                                                       EMERGENCY STAIR : FINAL VERSION

To my eye the first few hospital buildings are really pretty boring. While this emergency stair is certainly well detailed, it is the only architectural element that enlivens the entire facade

South Waterfront has now come along very nicely, with an entire host of both high-priced condo towers, and subsidized affordable housing at their feet that adjoins a number of hospital buildings that have joined the originals at the foot of the tram. There is no denying the waterfront views available to the condo residents, and over the years the incipient neighborhood has been further tied into the city. Yet it still exists in a state of unreality, with a real lack of neighborhood services that belie it's socioeconomic status. Covid certainly hasn't helped community development, since we still can't fill abandoned commercial spaces in our most established neighborhoods, much less new ones. The neighborhood finally has a better auto connection from the north, stops on the trolley line, and a pedestrian bridge over the highway underneath the tram - yet it still feels suburban at best, disconnected from the city that it adjoins. The old joke among urban planners was that the city had built two new neighborhoods for empty nesters downsizing from their suburban McMansions. Our fake SOHO north of Downtown, the Pearl District, would have enough pseudo urban energy to appeal to Democrats. The Republicans would find the suburban energy of South Waterfront more to their liking. While I don't know if this political division has really come to pass, and the price of admission to both neighborhoods is sky-high, South Waterfront is still undeveloped compared to the Pearl. While people like me realize that the Pearl will never be a real Portland neighborhood without it's own elementary school, South Waterfront still doesn't even have a real grocery store!


But it is near the west end of the Tilikum Crossing, only few blocks from the north end of South Waterfront. Once three or four other towers are built on the industrial wasteland south of the bridgehead, this connection will be complete. So my friend Al and I walked south of the bridge to see how the neighborhood was doing. It is still very much a work in progress, with contradictions galore. The waterside path is still very underdone, even though the waterfront site is one of the main points of the entire neighborhood. And the actual streets of the neighborhood seem more than a little illusionary, since even the mass transit connections are still mostly oriented to the hospital buildings. Yet there is a certain amount of energy at the tram station, which even has what might be the most developed bicycle parking lot in the country. We talked with a bicycle commuter, a woman of a certain age, who told us that the hospital workers are paid a buck or so each day that they ride their bikes to work, and get to park them in a monitored lot so secure that they can even keep their full bags on their bikes all day!

                            MYSTERIOUS FOLDED PANELS : FINAL VERSION

The thing about South Waterfront is that while I can keep abreast of the neighborhood while driving across the Ross Island Bridge, keeping track of this or that new tower, I have no idea of what is happening on the ground, four or five stories below the level of the bridge. So I discovered the subject of most of the images in this essay only on the street. The facade that is explored here is the first few stories of what is probably an office building that I know as the "Yellow Building" since the window surrounds on the upper stories are a very bright yellow.


It is only on the street that I found this interesting sculptural facade that covered the lower stories. It turned out that these folded metal panels were in fact dressing up the parking garage at the base of this building. Leave aside the larger question of why you need a four-story parking garage next to a mass transit hub in a neighborhood which itself is built on a series of underground garages - at least the architects made the effort to decorate this particular box for cars.

                            A SIMPLE FOLDED SQUARE : FINAL VERSION

I hope that this series can show how a brief exploration can yield a number of images that reveal different facets of one particular architectural detail. As I approached the facade from different angles, I began to see its simple logic - to provide light into the garage while obscuring its contents. In fact, even a retired architect could only realize that these weren't even windows until a certain angle was inspected. It was similar to the need for five different camera angles for the referees to determine pass interference.


Now you might wonder why all this attention to a parking garage facade, and that is your right. But I would encourage you to explore these images as an exercise in graphic design, divorced from their apparent subject. I try to ignore the "subject" through tight square crops, and heightened contrast that hopefully focuses on the issues that I care about. I hope that you have enjoyed this series of images enough that you also don't care anymore about their pedestrian origins. Architectural details shouldn't only be for architects - have fun looking around.

                            AS GRAPHIC AS THEY COME : FINAL VERSION