Tag Archives: Randy Gragg

The city and the Rose Quarter: First, do no harm

Le Malade Imaginaire, Honore Daumier

“Government should practice the same principle as doctors,” President Obama said the other day. “First, do no harm.”

He was responding to critics who say he’s been too timid on the banks, shying away from the get-tough part of the takeover business. Going too far, Obama argued, could make things worse instead of better.

Whatever you think of Obama’s tactics in this particular case, “First, do no harm” isn’t a bad principle for government, even — and maybe especially — when government decides it’s time to be bold. Be bold, yes. But also be sure. Before you do something radical, make sure it’s actually going to make things better rather than worse. That isn’t a conservative or a liberal stance. It’s just a sensible one.

It’s a principle that Portland Mayor Sam Adams seems to be ignoring in his rush to tear down Memorial Coliseum — one of the city’s best-designed buildings — and replace it with a $55 million minor-league baseball park as part of a complicated package to free PGE Park for exclusive use by a new major-league soccer team, push through a government-funded $200 million convention center hotel, and synergize with a Portland Trail Blazers plan to transform the Rose Quarter into an entertainment district that would seem to be more at home along a suburban shopping thoroughfare than in a vital corner of the central city.

Whoa, Nellie. What’s that choking sound? It’s the gurglings of architects, preservationists, planners, veterans groups, North/Northeast Portland residents and economic analysts reacting to having something shoved down their throats. In a word, ouch.

Fellow Scatterer Barry Johnson, in a post headed Demolishing Memorial Coliseum — a bad idea inside a bad plan, has an excellent analysis on his Oregonian/Oregon Live blog, Portland Arts Watch; read it here. Oregonian reporter Mark Larabee filed a good report on gathering opposition to the Rose Quarter steamroller here; and The Oregonian’s Ryan Frank reports here on Adams’ effort to push for the 600-room convention center hotel, a plan that so far is opposed by Multnomah County exec Ted Wheeler, whose support is necessary if the thing is going to get built. In addition, architecture and design writer Brian Libby has been weighing in frequently (and critically) at his Web site Portland Architecture, and Tim DuRoche has this sharply worded argument on his blog for Portland Spaces magazine.

I don’t want to turn this into a diatribe about public spending on sports. I happen to be a lifelong baseball nut, and although soccer isn’t my game, I know it has a big following here. A couple of points: Despite the argument that PGE Park is a bad space for Triple-A baseball, in fact it’s a terrific place to watch a ballgame, a little gem along the lines of Seattle’s old Sicks Stadium or even Boston’s Fenway Park. Sure, it usually has far more empty seats than filled ones — but that’s because baseball destroyed its minor-league system decades ago in terms of audience allegiance (how do you follow a team when the players shift week to week?). And this: Fifty-five million dollars for a 9,000-seat minor-league park? Does it get torn down in turn if and when the city lands a major-league franchise?

As for Memorial Coliseum, yes, it’s been allowed to get shabby. But that’s fixable. And a little imagination could turn it into a genuine attractor (and economic kick-starter) for the area. A few years ago, when he was The Oregonian’s architecture and planning writer, Portland Spaces editor Randy Gragg championed a plan that would turn the Coliseum into a first-rate community athletic center, with Olympic pool, indoor track facilities and other active-participant draws. I thought it was a great idea then, and I still do — something to attract people to the area all year long. I’m sure there are other good ideas much better than tearing the old girl down. Can we seriously consider them, please?

Most of us laugh wryly now and again at Portland’s penchant to talk anything and everything to death before taking action. But while it may have cost us here and there, that earnest inclusionary tendency is also an essential part of what makes the city work. We don’t mind haste when haste is necessary, but we want deliberate haste — haste that pauses long enough to make sure that the issues are clear and the stakeholders have been heard. Around here, rushing things unduly is a hell of a way to run a railroad — and right now, what’s going on at city hall feels exacly like a railroad job. Is there a doctor in the caboose?

A scatter: Museums, bridges, noses, money

Some things just must be cleared up by the New Year, yes? Like what’s happening at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which threw up its hands last month and cried out for help as its financial position (or at least its endowment) withered away to next to nothing (well, $7 million or so).

The New York Times’ Edward Wyatt reports that the MoCA board will decide today whether it will merge with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or go it alone with “help” from Eli Broad, who has offered MoCA what amounts to a $15 million matching grant to rebuild its endowment and funding for five years of exhibitions (at $3 million per year).
Continue reading A scatter: Museums, bridges, noses, money

More thoughts on the edge (with a little gloom attached)

The comment thread on the On the edge (of cities) post right below shows there is a lot of passionate interest in the topic — Thomas Sieverts’ idea that architects need to lift their eyes from the city core and regard the outer limits of the city with the same intensity and, well, we’ll say it, love that they have for the traditional European city center. Whether that interest is also broad we’ll test with another post on the matter, this one arising from two Monday night events: Metro president David Bragdon speaking with Portland Spaces editor Randy Gragg at Jimmy Mak’s; and a big-name concluding panel at PNCA that featured Sieverts, architect Brad Cloepfil, Reed Kroloff (who runs Cranbrook Academy, supervised our tram design competition and who was dean of architecture at Tulane when Katrina hit), and Matthew Stadler as moderator.

The topic of both the panel and the Bragdon-Gragg exchange went something like this: What can governments do to encourage good design? And it frequently kept to the question, though this “healthy” topic also generated a number of tasty digressions and frankly was never as dry as the question seemed to promise. And thanks to Stadler, the Sieverts analysis/prescription was always lurking in the background.

I know from the clock on the wall that I won’t be able to give a full account of what happened in this post (I know what you’re thinking: O sweet mother of the Titans, don’t tell me there’s a third post brewing; what is this, the Halprin fountains?), but I will get a few thoughts out there, and perhaps the Scatter regulars at the event can fill in some details.

Continue reading More thoughts on the edge (with a little gloom attached)

The Halprin fountain dance, one week later

I thought I was done with the Halprin fountain “event” or “happening” or “dance” — I still can’t quite name it — that ended the Time-Based Art Festival in Portland last Sunday (that would be Sept. 14). But I keep getting flashbacks of the performance, replaying little bits in my mind, thinking about some of the music I heard. You know what that’s like: Something more than random neurons firing.

I’ve had a couple of aids in this. The first is visual. Art Scatter received a very nice email from writer Brett Campbell, who was also very taken with the Halprin happening and said he was working on an essay of his own. When he completes it, we will link to it. This is right down his alley: He’s working on Lou Harrison book and Harrison was in the middle of the San Francisco milieu of Lawrence and Ana Halprin. But as a memory igniter, Brett’s wife, photographer CaroleZoom, was actually more important, because she sent us some images of the event. Quite beautiful ones, which explain the adulatory comments I heard about the first piece of the performance choreographed by Tere Mathern — which I was unable to see (I was late, it was too crowded). So, I’ve posted those here.

And there was the thread to the original post… Randy Gragg, one of the key organizers, responded a couple of times. Carolyn Altman, who was a Portland dancer/choreographer/writer, wrote in from Georgia, where she now lives, with memories of the fountains. Dance writer Martha Ullman West got things going and left us wanting more of her eye on the dances themselves.

And realizing that I missed Martha’s eye made me understand how inadequate the description of things in the original post was/is. If I could do it over, I would try to tell you how the dancers moved, more than simply saying it was “old-style” modern dance, carving space, attending to changes in topography and water flow, operating at scales tiny and grand, how they rolled and buckled and ran, the qualities in the momentary tableaux, the muscle groups engaged and relaxed, the dancers and the way their dance personalities emerged. The music would be harder for me — help us, Brett! — fleeting, sporadic, in search of original impulses to propel it, guide it, original impulses to communicate to us.
Continue reading The Halprin fountain dance, one week later

Deep Portland history: Lawrence Halprin and Ira Keller

Monday night, Randy Gragg and Portland Spaces magazine staged another of its Bright Light City Discussions; this one featured historian Carl Abbott and was part of the Time-Based Art Festival. We took notes! More importantly we learned a lot about Lawrence Halprin and a provocative piece of Portland history. There was lots of information, some of which we may have gotten wrong. Don’t hesitate to correct our record!

Before the start of the Randy Gragg and Carl Abbott presentation on the history of the old South Auditorium district and the Lawrence Halprin fountains and plazas that replaced it, I happened to sit across from Robert Perron. This was lucky. Perron taught landscape design at UC Berkeley in the early ’60s when Halprin was there and knows a lot about him and his aesthetic impulses. And his knowledge of Portland is deep, possibly because he’s worked on so much of it, including the Salmon Street Fountain, Terry Schrunk Park and the First Presbyterian Church garden park. Because of that he understands the accidents, unintended consequences and budget shortfalls that affect the design of our cities and therefore our lives.

Shrunk was the mayor and Ira Keller was the chairman of the newly formed Portland Development Commission (PDC) when the decision was made in the late ’50s to bulldoze the aging neighborhood south of downtown and replace it with a utopian Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) residential and commercial district with impressive towers surrounded by green space. And in the green space, Keller decided, there should be a series of plazas and fountains designed by Halprin.
Continue reading Deep Portland history: Lawrence Halprin and Ira Keller

Scatter while you wait

That clown post we were talking about? It’s going very slowly. To tide you over (and let’s face it, tiding you over is right at the heart of our business!) we have a few quick scatter hits.

1. Penguin reports (via Publishers Weekly) that its eBook sales the first four months of the year already equal its sales all last year. I honestly don’t understand this, primarily because you don’t seem to get a price break from Penguin on eBooks versus paperbacks and the number of available books is pretty small. And I know very few people who have Microsoft readers (or Kindles, for that matter, though I did see a fellow reading his Kindle in the park the other day, and he looked very contented). Shouldn’t the price be MUCH lower?

2. If you haven’t already, please take a look at Randy Gragg’s response to my earlier post on PNCA’s Idea Studio panel led by Metropolis editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy. I was hoping for more commentary about the notions expressed by the panel and to Randy’s rebuke of my contention that neither Tom McCall nor Neil Goldschmidt thought in the same full-throttled way about sustainability issues that our environmentalists do today. I wasn’t even nasty in my response: I am SO restrained. If i had been, the word “deification” might have slipped out. Oops. Anyway, these are important issues, and your thoughts would be appreciated.

3. I have absolutely nothing on my mind concerning the $7,290,000 that a Rufino Tamayo painting, Trovador, fetched at auction yesterday, part of Christie’s Latin American sale. I just liked the painting, above. I know there are worlds of painting about which I know nothing. For example, i have no idea who the best painters in Atlanta have been historically or even now, though a little research might generate some names (though not actual experiences). I know a few names of Latin American artists, the big ones, the Mexican muralists, Frida Kahlo (the Tamayo broke Kahlo’s auction price record), those working within the Western art tradition, at least to some extent, and embraced by the apparatus of that tradition, including its auction houses. Tamayo, for example, was a Zapotecan Indian who studied modern art at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and then created his own style from the collision. But enough, enjoy Trovador.

Working for the green, a panel discussion

Here at Art Scatter central, we’ve always thought of ourselves as environmental. Meaning simply that we believe that we share and shape a variety of environments — physical, cultural, political, literary, etc. You can carve them up as thinly as you want, but you also have to realize that they don’t stay sliced — they intrude on each other, for better or worse. Maybe connect is a more value-neutral word than intrude. Anyway, yes, environmental, and even literally so. We even have an “environment” category.

But we don’t talk about it in a specific way. Art Scatter doesn’t know solar cells. Art Scatter doesn’t have a platinum LEED rating. Despite Art Scatter’s best intentions, we are sure that we are using non-renewable energy sources as we type. One way or another. In fact, we are pretty sure that this laptop is going to be the very devil to recycle, when it blows its final gasket. (This is how technologically bereft Art Scatter is: We think our computer contains gaskets that might be blown.) So, even this construct, Art Scatter, which you would think we could manage sustainably, isn’t green.

Which is all just the preamble to the topic at hand — a report from Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Idea Studio on Friday morning at the Gerding Theatre at the Armory. The panel discussion, led by Susan S. Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis Magazine, wrenched me into thinking about the environment, the physical environment, in a much more concrete way. I’ll discard my one disappointment first: The panelists really didn’t answer the question in the title of the program, “How innovative is Portland in the quest for a sustainable city?” — which led me to think we were in for some thoughts about how to stimulate creative engagement with the problem of energy use/greenhouse gases/global warming/sustainable living/etc. This didn’t happen.

What we got instead, though, was interesting in its own right: Several intelligent people, each deeply involved in thinking about and employing sustainable practices in the world, contributed their thinking about the provocative questions posed by Szenasy, who in her opening salvo ordered them to be honest and forthright. I knew I was going to like this panel! For those who want the short-form version, here’s what the group agreed on: Portland is still a national leader in green practices; a lot of the reason for this is historical, not just our own initiative; at this point, we need to think much more boldly about making our future much more sustainable than we are now, and the panel was optimistic that the stars were starting to align politically to help make this happen (Sam Adams as mayor on the local level, a possible Barack Obama Presidency); at the same time, we have to be practical about what improvements we can make at any given time; don’t build an 8-lane I-5 bridge (it just encourages driving).

Continue reading Working for the green, a panel discussion

A little Brad Cloepfil wisdom coming your way

So Monday night I was jammed against a wall at Jimmy Mak’s, scribbling down words of wisdom from Portland’s reigning creative economy king, architect Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works. I got there a little late: Cloepfil had already been introduced by Randy Gragg, editor of Portland Spaces magazine, the sponsoring organization, and had begun a preparatory slide show of his recent work, most notably his remake of the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle in New York. And the room was completely filled; I was lucky to get my little piece of wall. But even in my scrunched state, I found it difficult to resist Cloepfil. He’s clear-headed, speaks directly, has a dry sense of humor, doesn’t conceal his real feelings (maybe the martinis had something to do with that) and most important, has an obvious passion for Portland, what it is and what it could become.
He was also comfortable with Gragg’s moderation, maybe because Gragg was a Cloepfil supporter during his years of writing architecture criticism for The Oregonian (full disclosure: where I edited him for several years). It’s hard to get the gist of 90 minutes of talk, so I’ll resort to picking out the most provocative quotes, roughly in the order in which they occurred Monday night.
Continue reading A little Brad Cloepfil wisdom coming your way