Centering a Town: 4th. Effort/Building to Endure

Brutalism meets industrial revolution grace—another design for a community center to replace the Central Hotel in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland. This version has the same program as my previous designs, a black box theater and museum/art exhibition space on the the first floor and classrooms on the second and third. See my previous post Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts for background, site, plans, and concept, along with links to resources and my other rough designs. As always with my models, adjust proportions and imagine detailing, especially in the windows.

The raw concrete, in its massing and structural frankness, suggests Brutalism. The New Brutalists reacted against modernist purities and showed sympathy for working class grit, perhaps replacing one kind of sentimentality with another. But I am sympathetic myself. Above the concrete rest patterned brick and window sections that recall the formality and monumentality of brick factories and textile mills of over a century ago. Despite the exploitation and hazards there, the factories were a starting place, a better option than the alternatives, for many their only one. W. J. Cash, in The Mind of the South, argues that Southern mills were influenced as much by civic mindedness as economic motives, a way to rescue struggling cotton farmers imperiled by a collapsing cotton market—white farmers. These buildings have a simple but dignified character. Many have endured and have been repurposed today into studio and loft space.

Picture via the Glendale, South Carolina site. Go to this page for reminiscence.

I regret there is not already a building at the Lombard site that could be repurposed, such as the Portland firehouse, built 1910, now the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. This is a solid and engaging building. Note the green trim, about the same color as the St. Johns Bridge. Similar accent could be used for my design. Picture via Wikipedia, photographer Steve Morgan.

I also had in mind Lina Bo Bardi’s Centro de Lazer Fábrica da Pompéia, a working class community center in São Paulo, Brazil, according to Marcelo Ferraz in The Making of SESC Pompéia “an oasis amidst the barbaric urban discomfort of our long-suffering São Paulo.” It is, in fact, a combination of brick and concrete units, a repurposed factory with the raw concrete structures added for sports. Picture via blog da arquitetura via SESC SP.

I want an unrefined toughness topped with order and ceremony, a building that will take a beating and endure. It will be a factory of sorts, not for material production but the maintenance of culture and community. The building recalls context, the older brick buildings in St. Johns, and reflects a spirit. Many of us, and not just in St. Johns, have a blue collar mentality now, if not by profession then by outlook and income. We need to rein in and be tough. There is virtue here.

The concrete first floor, street level, can stand up to the grind of the day-to-day. The concrete masses also serve a purpose: they will be plastered with notices about neighborhood events, here posters for the theater’s first production, Richard Burton in Hamlet. The large windows will reveal to passersby the museum exhibitions within, tying past to present.

Front view on Lombard. As in my other designs, emphasis is on the corner, where there is entry, which overlooks the plaza.

Rear view. As in the third version I’ve moved the black box theater to the rear to take advantage of the side common wall and block view of the alley and burger place behind.


I’m not being high-minded or idealistic in proposing college classrooms but rather practical. A college degree is a basic requirement for so many jobs, a commodity with a significant rate of exchange in terms of income. The classes will need the imprimatur and support of a local school—I suggested Portland State. As leery as I am of institutions, they can guarantee the value of a completed class and fit it into a degree system.

If there is demand, the classes will also give exposure to the center’s other functions, as well as feed the many restaurants and cafes and bars nearby, all within an easy walk. Ten classrooms will draw some 200 students every two hours or so. In a single day that could mean over a thousand.

I especially am thinking about older adult students, and I base my proposal on my own experience teaching night classes in the San Jose area where, despite the late hours and commute, my classes overfilled. If there is demand in St. Johns, these classes will be close by, for many within walking distance from their neighborhoods.

My suspicion of institutions is not without foundation. So many schools are too large and impersonal. They have lost control of their requirements and integration of their coursework, and it is taking students too long to complete a degree. Transfer requirements are a byzantine nightmare. According to the NSC Research Center, in their 2016 report Time to Degree, it is taking students over three years to get a two-year AA degree, over five for a four-year Bachelors. The schools are delaying entry into society and the workplace. Schools can consolidate and streamline their courses without diminution of quality or development. My thought is to create a satellite at this site that does just that, provides an integrated program of core courses in a more intimate setting that moves students more quickly, but more meaningfully, to completion of basic requirements for a four-year degree, or to a two-year degree and transfer.

But I can be idealistic. If I had to make just two changes to improve the quality of education, I would reduce class size—I’m holding the ceiling at twenty in my center—and bring in more older students. They help maintain respect for the physical structure and the business of a class. They also provide great support and have much to contribute from their collective experience. In my case, people who had families and worked all day looked forward to class and fed its energy well into the night.

And more is at stake than degrees and the workplace. In my classes—I taught English—students examined our world in many aspects, were encouraged to read and write about it, doubt and assert, most to think critically, for themselves, to speak up. These practices, this knowledge, these skills are what our society needs, but also my students simply were engaged by their work and enjoyed their time together. I can’t think of another place where all of this can happen.

Bringing instructors to St. Johns might provide additional resources, their core knowledge, the special knowledge of their disciplines. They might be able to tailor their coursework to the neighborhood’s needs—courses in small business, community building, local history, relevant social and cultural issues, creative expression.


Education is about looking beyond present circumstance to higher purpose. That is what I did in my classrooms for some forty years. But I will speak up now. I taught in rooms that had little or no natural light from windows. They had carpet that tore and got dirty and smelled, suspended ceilings that got dingy, fluorescent lights that blared and flickered, paneled walls that could not be repaired or repainted. Sound insulation was poor, ventilation negligible. At one school we had air conditioning that scarcely worked or didn’t work at all yet still chugged on and made a racket next to several classrooms. Our solution was to open our doors while it was running. Some a/c units were also in the same buildings as restrooms. In the classrooms nearby we had the choice on hot days of closing the doors and enduring intolerable heat or opening them and suffering the noise and smell from the poorly maintained restrooms. I’d be curious how much waste there was in energy costs the decades of the school’s existence, an amount that would have to be huge. The school isn’t that old and considers itself modern.

And we had no individual control of the system, windows to open, thermostats to adjust. Rather the whole system was centralized, incapable of local adjustment, ignorant of our needs, that on the whole was inefficient and inadequate, too often oppressive in its results. Worse, the system is beyond correction because of design decisions made at the outset. The only way to change and improve would be to raze the campus and start over.

Most of the schools where I taught assumed commuting students. A president of one said a school should be built on freeways, decades ago. Run the clock, watch our cities and suburbs spread out—the result has been serious parking problems, traffic jams, more hours lost in frustration.

There’s a metaphor in all of this that can be extended throughout the educational system itself.

Light, air, and access are not only basic needs, they have symbolic meaning. They should be the first criteria of any classroom construction. Classrooms should be able to endure rough use yet still maintain their integrity and character and be capable of maintenance. As much as possible, they should be affordable and self-sufficient, built to endure. Technology is expensive and needs constant maintenance. Some kind of passive heating/cooling system is in order for this building, though temperature and ventilation for the the black box theater will be a challenge.

Technology/Future/Wonder (Briefly)

We developed a people-centric design for a smart interconnected city that brings people together not only through innovative technology but also through organising the public realm.

Christos Passas, project director at Zaha Hadid Architects, on a proposal to build a self-contained city district in Moscow. Picture via dezeen, rendering by Flying Architecture. Perhaps the most enduring quality about our technology is our ceaseless wonder, our flights to engineered salvation.

Information technology has the obvious capacity to concentrate political power, to create new forms of social obfuscation and domination. The less prepared we feel to question the uses to which it is put, the more certain we are to suffer those liabilities.

Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information 1986, 1994

The last classroom I had before retirement, recently refurbished, literally made my students and me sick. I don’t know if it was the fumes from the new plastic seats and desks or the glue that held down the carpet. There were other candidates. Several times, while at the board, I tripped on a thick cable that led from the wall to a computer console that every room had, which I never used.

Every public school where I taught was strapped for cash. Yet every one worshiped technology. My forty years of teaching is littered with its discarded junk. Technological supplements are expensive, difficult to maintain, and questionable in their value. So much technology has been designed for efficiency, not quality, online classes that distance students, PowerPoint presentations displayed on a screen that break knowledge down into simplistic bites, leading to standardized tests graded by machines. Technology is sending us back to Plato’s cave. What it denies is human closeness, the face-to-face interaction that keeps students and teachers engaged and honest.

My own taste runs to another image: that of teachers and students in one another’s face-to-face company, perhaps pondering a book, a work of art, even a crude scrawl on the blackboard. At the very least, that image reminds us of how marvelously simple, even primitive, education is. It is the unmediated encounter of two minds, one needing to learn, the other wanting to teach. The biological spontaneity of that encounter is a given fact of life; ideally it should be kept close to the flesh and blood, as uncluttered and supple as possible. Too much apparatus, like too much bureaucracy, only inhibits the natural flow. Free human dialogue, wandering wherever the agility of the mind allows, lies at the heart of education. If teachers do not have the time, the incentive, or the wit to provide that, if students are too demoralized, bored, or distracted to muster the attention their teachers need of them, then that is the educational problem which has to be solved—and solved from inside the experience of the teachers and the students. Defaulting to the computer is not a solution; it is surrender.

Theodore Roszak, Cult

There are valid uses—technology itself needs to be taught—and there’s a counterargument here, of course, that would take some time, but all arguments begin with first principles, which are being overlooked.

Update on Central Lofts

Meanwhile, demolition of the Central Hotel

has begun

and now is almost complete, behind schedule. The mixed-use Central Lofts, I assume, will follow.

Other Designs

Other designs for this project, along with background material and more photographs of site, can be found here and at these posts.





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