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Memorial Coliseum spared (for now) Friday, May 08, 2009

Mayor Sam Adams announced Wednesday that Memorial Coliseum site is off the table as an option for the Portland Beavers new baseball stadium.

Shortly after the Rose City was awarded a MLS expansion franchise in March, the City revealed plans to raze the Trail Blazers' old home to make space for a new baseball stadium. Since the Beavers' current home, PGE Park, must be refitted as a soccer-only facility in time for the new team to start play in 2011, the plan was put on the fast track. (See my earlier post on the subject.)

However, numerous groups objected to the Mayor's vision on a variety of grounds—veterans objected to the demolition of the war memorial; environmentalists thought it wasteful to raze a functional structure, and architects were opposed to the destruction of a unique 49-year-old modernist design. (Many other Portlanders feel the whole deal to bring Major League Soccer to Portland is a poor use of taxpayer money, but that voice doesn't seem to be carrying much weight.)

It seems that the Mayor has reconsidered, and has moved the focus of the new stadium plans back to Lents Park in SE Portland, the site of the original proposal. Meanwhile, the City and the Trail Blazers are developing a plan to redevelop the Rose Quarter in a more measured process, with time for public input.

But that doesn't mean that the architectural gem will truly survive: as quoted in the Oregonian, Adams said "our goal is to keep it, at least the skin." The Blazers want to turn the area into a year-round entertainment district with restaurants and nightclubs. Others have talked of using the coliseum as a public market or indoor recreation area.

It seems to me that the beauty of the coliseum's design isn't the glass box itself: the stroke of genius was to put the arena bowl totally encased—but separate from—a glass curtain that lets in the light while keeping out the elements. Stripped to its bare essentials, the design is strikinglysimple: a bowl within a glass cube.

Technically the design is equally impressive. The
concrete bowl is straightforward enough, but the entire roof and glass curtain is suspended from four pillars completely detached from the bowl.

However, most Portlanders haven't seen the beauty of this building for two reasons. First and foremost, the black curtains that separate the bowl from the exterior of the building haven't been opened in years. I suspect that most people around here aren't even aware that they can open. No wonder some people think it's an eyesore—its most unique feature is never shown.

The second reason is that, since the Trail Blazers moved into the Rose Garden in 1995, there aren't many events in the coliseum. Apparently the agreement between the City (which owns the facility) and Oregon Arena Corporation (the Blazers' subsidiary that manages it) provides a disincentive for OAC to generate profit from events at the coliseum. Consequently, just enough events are held there to break even. And the place is allowed to slide slowly into disrepair.

It sounds like the cadre of architects who strenuously objected to the Mayor's plan to demolish the coliseum got about half the message through: he's decided not to demolish the building but if the glass cube is gutted, was it really saved?

If renovations for the coliseum were to save the skin but eviscerate its contents, it would undoubtedly be different. A loss, for sure. But if it were done creatively, it might be a net gain. I'm not an architect, but it seems to me that the point of good design is to marry function and style to meet the needs of the customer within the available space, time and budget. It rises to the level of excellence when it meets those goals and also produces something of aesthetic value.

The original coliseum design (by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) was excellent. But does the city need two large arenas right next to each other? Some have argued that this gives Portland a competitive advantage in booking some events because very few cities have comparable facilities in such proximity. I wonder, though, whether that's because it is rarely (if ever) necessary. Memorial Coliseum is not large enough for any major league sports (basketball, hockey). Sure, there are some less popular events that benefit from the smaller confines of the coliseum, and occasionally they are both booked on the same night. But most of the time one or the other (or both) is empty.

My hope is that some creative architect can come up with a design that takes the glass cube and SOM's ideas (natural light, transparency, simplicity), and adapts them to some use that Portlanders actually need and will use. Done right, it could be even better than before.