Centering a Town: 8th. Effort/Open

This may be my most successful design for the site. It is modest and informal, thus fits in with the character of the buildings surrounding. The proportions are good—and proportions and dimensions are always approximate in my models. I have to build what the plastic pieces allow. The design as is, however, is an orchestration of imperfect squares, which keeps it from monotony and forced regularity as well as lends the building individuality and subtle energy. Also there is a contrast of scale for hierarchy, with the large scale of the atrium windows set against the smaller, calling attention to a vital point, the center of downtown St. Johns.

Details and surface give the building distinction. The walls are made of brick, which ages well and references other brick buildings in the neighborhood. All windows are framed in dark green—I can’t represent this well—and smaller panes are used for the atrium windows held by a green grid, adding another degree of complexity and variation in scale.

What the design does is place a prominent open cube in the middle of town and symbolically define it as center. It is an open structure calling for fulfillment. Not only does the cube attract attention to itself and the building, it also makes visible what goes on inside. Users are made aware of their presence in the town, among the passersby. Function and site, users and residents, are visually brought together, inviting relationships and understanding.

The L arrangement of rooms around a corner atrium recalls Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation Headquarters, an influence. His building offers a haven in the midst of urban New York without losing sight of its presence.

The site—labeled Community Merchant Services, now a vacant lot—presents several design challenges. Growth is assumed and I understand the area is zoned for four stories, so the side wall has to be solid, which means internal rooms can’t have windows, a priority. Also there has to be a view block of at least one story in half the rear to account for Burgerville. But the view from the upper rear rooms should be quite good—the columned former courthouse now police station, the St. Johns Bridge, the Willamette River, and, across, the hills of Forest Park.

What gives the site potential is the plaza, which needs to be engaged, and the pedestrian friendly layout of two-lane streets, usually not crowded, both of which invite concourse. And the building, if designed well, could have symbolic importance in a neighborhood with a past.

In the contemporary world, where our environments are over­whelmingly built environments. . . the buildings, landscapes, and urban areas we inhabit are central to the constitution of our autobiographical memories, and therefore to our sense of identity.

Goldhagen/How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives

The building is squarish, roughly 90 x 90 feet, and larger than the 75 x 90 base of the former Central Hotel. Either the Thai Cottage restaurant is acquired to accommodate the extra space or the building moves out into the plaza about 15 feet, if PBOT allows. A narrower version is possible by removing the side rooms and resizing the back, but less desirable.

The plan shows floors 2 through 4, with the classrooms in an L, accessed by walkways. Nine medium size rooms, 32 x 28 feet, are at the back, which should be large enough for 20-25 students. Classrooms in my previous designs have been smaller, really too tight. On the side, six seminar rooms, 20 x 24, that should easily manage 15 or so. All rooms could be used for meetings of whatever sort.

The middle three seminar rooms have no windows. They could, however, have windows on the interior wall, which would give a view of the atrium and the plaza and trees outside. As in the Ford Foundation Headquarters, all rooms could have interior windows with similar views. This arrangement shouldn’t be distracting, as there will only be traffic along those walls from the adjoining room, and none at all if class schedules coincide.

There are many possibilities for the first floor, beyond education, whose layout can be flexible.

rear view

rear corner, visible from those exiting the St. Johns Bridge

side view, along Philadelphia

front corner, giving out on the plaza

front view, along Lombard


The main function would be a satellite college for Portland State, as I discussed before. Students develop basic competence and take core courses in preparation for later work at the school. There are other possible uses—continuing education, and so on, whatever instruction might benefit the area. Perhaps some kind of small business center—there is much commercial space in the area, much of which remains unlet—that offers support and classes.

I decided on a place of higher education because it is one function St. Johns lacks, but most because if in demand it would bring a steady stream of people to the commercial district. But also consider what higher education represents: a bridge between knowledge and the world, between individual and community, between dependence and independence, authority. A school adds critical awareness and cultural depth to a community. The school will advertise itself and set the tone with its constant activity, visible in the cube, with the conversations it brings to the neighborhood.

Having the school in the neighborhood makes it accessible and places it in a familiar and supporting environment. The school itself benefits from close exposure to the world, where students return, who might reform it. It could be an outpost for Portland State, an extension of its mission. It could coordinate studies there, for example work with homeless and pre-college education. The Water Pollution Control Laboratory is nearby.

I also hope a small school could provide an academic community for students and educators alike, too often lost in large schools, and that it might encourage cross discipline communication and coordination.

The first floor is where I want to bring in the town. The space along the solid side wall could be used for exhibition, especially the neighborhood’s history, and announcement. There could also be coordination with other cultural centers and museums in Portland via rotating exhibitions.

Neighborhood organizations, such as the St. Johns Neighborhood Association and the St. Johns Center for Opportunity could have offices there. They would benefit from the attention, perhaps be influenced by the school activity, even have input and assistance from Portland State, as well as have direct exposure to the people they serve, encouraging responsiveness and accountability.

At full capacity, the classrooms hold about 300, which might well be more space than needed. The second floor could be devoted to town functions and the school take the top two floors. The first floor could be open for exhibition, as well as have an administrative office of some sort.


The atrium is sizable, about 60 x 70 feet. Open steel stairs and railings, their color matching exterior details, add design interest.

It seems like a lot of wasted space, but really the building has plenty and needs some kind of relief. Again, the cube solves view problems as well as adds a symbolic dimension.

There are many possibilities. The area could be divided into sections, with partitions, plants, tables, and seating, each a place for privacy or small meetings, say with faculty, or to study and wait for class. There is space for exhibition and announcement. If everything is moveable and seats can be found, it could be a place for performance and larger meetings.

I would also like it to be a place that the other functions and the town residents use for informal meetings. Or it could be a quiet place to sit on a rainy day. This needs to be figured out. I know how students can take over and, when together, raise a racket. They will always have the cafes and restaurants nearby to hang out.


Ideas that sound good don’t work out because essential concerns aren’t factored in or because they weren’t good ideas in the first place. There is much that needs to be debated and researched. One thing I know, after thirty years of college teaching, is that bringing faculty in close contact does not bring harmony and communication. Then again, no school where I taught had such a place to go. Nor does having an inviting spot bring people. They need a push, a motive.

One concern is ventilation and temperature control. Comfort is the highest priority, and I’ve taught in too many schools where it has been ignored. I just don’t know much here. The cube is essentially a greenhouse, however, and heat will rise to the top floors. I’m assuming there is a passive solution. The trees on the plaza provide shade in summer months. Leafless in winter, they allow sunlight—in Portland when there is any.

Noise is another concern, which I assume can be managed by policy.

Then there are all the things I haven’t thought about, that, overlooked, can lead to complications, even failure. This proposal is a preliminary concept.

Background and Previous Designs

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

Leave a Reply