a.k.a Portland's Living Room, 1984
Architect: Willard Martin (Martin/Soderstrom/Matteson).
Additional design elements by Douglas Macy (landscape architect), Robert Reynolds (designer/artist), Lee Kelly (sculptor), Terence O'Donnell (historian), Spencer Gill (writer)
It may seem strange to begin a guide to architecture with an "empty" space. But Pioneer Courthouse Square interacts with the public more successfully than any other spot in the city, while reflecting the architectural themes found around it in a myriad of ways.
Easily dizzied people sometimes report feeling mild vertigo on their first visit here. This is caused by their effort to find a point of orientation or horizontal line of composition to anchor their sightline. Each downtown site has a downward slope to the Willamette River and architect Willard Martin dealt with this site's slope by incorporating it into a variety of shapes and lines that fit in creatively with the surrounding buildings. This resulting area combines elements of the unstructured Greek agora and the formal Roman forum in its open-air setting and creative seating arrangements. The square is designed to facilitate both small-group interactions and central viewing of the square itself.
In 2004, the Project for Public Spaces listed Pioneer Courthouse Square as one of the six best public squares in the world.
This site was originally part of William Overton's land claim; in 1849, a boot maker named Elijah Hill bought the land this block is on for $24 and a pair of boots. In 1856 this parcel was sold to the city of Portland for $1,000, a nice appreciation in value. This site was first developed by the man who built the first transcontinental railroad line into Portland: Bavaria-native Henry Villard (1835-1900). Villard hired the prestigious New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White to design the Portland Hotel here. Construction began in 1882, but Villard's fortunes crumbled shortly afterwards, and construction was abandoned for five years, with only the foundation completed. The site, at the time, was nicknamed "Villard's Ruins," and two victims of violent murder were found here. (Material from the hotel's foundation is beneath the fountain on the west side of the square.)1
Financiers completed the magnificent Portland Hotel, and it resided here from 1889 to 1951. The construction of this huge Queen Anne structure effectively moved downtown's social center westward, leaving Old Town and the Yamhill District to molder for decades. Yet despite its unique splendor, the Portland Hotel met a common fate: it was ultimately demolished and this block became a parking lot for thirty years.
In 1980, Portland announced a worldwide design competition for a city square that would encourage year-round, day and evening patronage, and take advantage of the city's new light rail system. One of the announced specifications was that the square should not kowtow to a particular school of architectural philosophy, but rather be varied in its approach and mindful of the city's historicity.
Although Portland architect Willard Martin's design won out over more than 160 others, there were expressions of disapproval of his proposed open-air public square (as opposed to an enclosed space) from the city mayor and many businesspeople. People were afraid that it would attract vagrants, and Mayor Frank Ivancie "killed" the project in 1981. A groundswell of support for the square managed to resurrect it, and after much political heat was expended, construction began.
* At a city council meeting, Frank Ivancie once said, "You buttered your bread, now lie in it."
The square's terra-cotta-covered columns refer to the extensive terra-cotta sheathing of buildings near the square, and the capitals of the columns reflect the floor lines of the Jackson Tower (to the south) and the American Bank Building (to the north). The "fallen" column in the northwest corner of the square has broken apart much as a column actually would, although this one, being made of concrete, bears no mason's marks.
* Near the fallen column is a small round amphitheater, which serves as a remarkably effective echo chamber. Stand in the round marble stone in its center and speak while facing the steps.
The use of red bricks is an obvious linkage to Portland's many downtown brick structures. Nearly seventy thousand of the bricks are personalized with names given by donors to the project. These include Bertha D. Blues, God, Frodo Baggins, and Mr. Spock. If you find any you don't like, be patient; all these names should wear off in a century or so.
Homage is paid to Portland's cast-iron architecture by the inclusion of the Portland Hotel's wrought-iron gate in its original location and by the cast bronze posts and beams (called a pergola), which also emulate the style of cast-iron columns in the Yamhill District, on the northwest side.
Because of its "context-sensitive" approach, there have been complaints that this square is overly referential, or that it is a vulgar hodge-podge of styles. But because of its spirited and clever execution, and the obvious pleasure the public takes in interacting with it, these charges flow away like water off a brick.
* Willard K. Martin (1985) began working as an architect in Portland in 1963. Martin and his son, Eric, perished when an antique plane Martin had restored crashed in the Grand Canyon. An accomplished painter, Martin was known for his controversial work and his sense of humor; an early design of Pioneer Courthouse Square apparently showed a couple in flagrante delicto through one of a nearby building's windows.Less Text