Great Buildings vs. Great Places

February 22, 2010

This evening I attended a very interesting program that was part of the “New Oregon” interview series. The program featured architecture/design critic Randy Gragg, architect Brad Cloepfil and Mayor Sam Adams.

A major thread of the discussion was about whether Portland aspires to good design – or if we settle for less-than-stellar design.

Now I’m a big fan of good design, I think it’s essential to doing infill and density in a livable way.

But several times during the discussion the phrase “important building” was used, and the lack of them in Portland was lamented. This struck me as somewhat off-key.

I don’t think that Portland aspires to have important buildings. What I think we do aspire to is having great places. And if great architecture for a building can contribute to a great place, I’m all for it.

But I get more excited about things like last year’s Courtyard Housing Design Competition, which can potentially result in a lot of great places all around the City.

Am I wrong in my reading of Portland’s collective appetite? Do we in fact value great places more than great buildings?



  1. Well, the way I see it, a great building and a great place are kind of inextricably intertwined, but a great building doesn’t have to mean a building like the Empire State or anything – it just has to fit the space and the requirements well, fit the aesthetics of the place it is being built in, and help to create a space that people enjoy being in – both inside and outside the building. In that sense, I think Portland does have a lot of great buildings, just not grand, glorious buildings. That’s ok though, Portland has a charm that is different than NYC or even Seattle or SF.

  2. I hate to see the two put up against each other as competitors like that. I don’t really see a lot of ways that there’s any material opportunity cost. But that having been said, I think that Portland could, in fact, gain significantly from a few more genuinely distinctive and striking large buildings.

    The Portland Building? Ew! The twin points of the OCC are nice in a mild sort of way and it’s nice that they echo the peaks in our (on less foggy days) background.

    I look at our skyline at least three or four times a week and wish that it had some more flair, some more richness to it.

    Fwiw, if the plan to blanket the federal building in vegetated cantilevers gets approved and funded, that would go some way towards that, at least from some views.

  3. I agree that it’s perhaps a false choice to pit them against each other, so let me try the question another way.

    Are we going to get the Portland we want by pursuing great places as a strategy (and great buildings may be an element required by that strategy in some places), or do we get the Portland we want by pursuing great buidlings?

    Or one more way to ask the question: do we need to call out great buildings in the Portland Plan strategy to get the outcomes we want?

  4. I believe that we will get the Portland we hope for by pursuing great places as the primary strategy—and doing all that we can to encourage superior architectural design that contributes to the vitality of the public realm and the vibrancy of the city as a whole.
    I’ve seen many fine buildings—even great buildings—that do little to contribute to a larger sense of place beyond their own site.

  5. I think the emphasis should be on great places – but that we should also be encouraging the creative application of architecture and high quality materials. It doesn’t even have to be on the scale of an entire building, but it does have to be on a large enough scale to be a focal point for a relatively large range of observation/view/sight lines.

    Large scale monuments and buildings are really more effective when you have a more homogeneous base to the building stock – for example Paris has the predominantly Haussmann era backdrop, which allows Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel tower to advance as markers. Similar structures would probably get lost in the landscape of Portland Buildings which, while usually unambitious, are really pretty diverse.

  6. A few potentially more constructive questions to ask are:

    What are the elements of a great place? Can the elements that make one place great be replicated in every place?

    How do you distinguish a place from its buildings? If you could build a great place using only nondescript buildings, what features would those buildings have, and what would it look like?

    What are the features of a great building? How do those features contribute to the place? Or, does a building contribute to the place in a narrow and superficial way, or in a variety of ways?

    It seems to me that the ways in which buildings are used, and by whom, and when, make a building great. A 36-story glass and steel building used exclusively by office workers from 7-7 is not a great building, and it contributes little to a sense of place. It could have great architectural design, sure, but architectural design is only one aspect of the building. Use overrides looks.

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