Ada Louise Huxtable to Portland: “Lose the ‘Anywhere USA’ towers and bunkers”

Tough words from 48 years ago – and sadly becoming all too relevant again.

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.” Taller building heights in the new Central City 2035 plan will block a number of iconic views, including this one from Vista Bridge — part of the Portlandia TV show opening sequence, and part of Portland’s urban commons. Who benefits from the privatization of our common urban assets?

In 1970, the famous New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable came to Portland, and she didn’t like what she saw. Writing in the Times, she heaped scorn on the Rose City for accepting a generation of bland corporate “towers and bunkers” that spoiled the unique natural and built heritage of the city.

Portland, she said, had “a better-than-average assortment of Anywhere U.S.A. products, with their interchangeable towers and plazas multiplying a slick, redundant formula… In style, scale and impact it will be alien corn, in every sense of the word.”

She also reminded us of what we do have, and need to protect, including “small scaled, comfortably pedestrian streets.” The trouble is, she warned, “this is a dreamworld urbanism; a city blessed by nature and by man. It is so lovely that Portlanders are lulled into a kind of false security about its urban health.”

Aren’t we ever.

About the big new buildings of that age she said, “No one has stopped looking at the tops of these buildings long enough to see what is happening on the ground. Each one is contributing to the devitalization of the city.”

Two years later, Portland adopted the landmark 1972 Plan, and the city committed to preserving and building on its walkable urban heritage. In that era of reforms, we got the preservation of the Skidmore Fountain area, the new Pioneer Square, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and the revival of many other great old neighborhoods — often under the threat of demolition. Many of those successes came only after long fights by neighborhood activists.

How ironic that we now seem to be sliding back into the same bland, ugly formulas, driven by questionable logic and faulty reasoning – and attacks on the same neighborhood activism that helped trigger our urban renaissance.  Now they’re not grassroots champions, but “NIMBYs,” “racists,” “opponents of affordability,” and more.

Sheer nonsense.

What is also nonsense is the idea that expensive high rises are the ticket to affordability, that demolition of existing affordable housing stock is somehow the path to promoting diversity, and that we save farmland by building a few hundred more units atop tall buildings in the core.   No, we save farmland by building more walkable compact mixed use in the suburbs, where 80 percent of the region lives.  We keep the best of what we already have, including the best inner-city neighborhoods.  We become a better city by repairing and improving our worst places, not by destroying our best ones.

Perhaps the worst myth of all?  That Portland won’t be a “real city” until it joins all the other wannabe cities and builds a crop of shiny new towers.   That it’s time to put on our “big boy pants.”  (That statement — expressed by a senior member of the city planning hierarchy — is just as childish as it sounds.)

Thanks to that same hierarchy, just this month, Portland’s city council voted to approve building heights that will block many of Portland’s most iconic views, including the view of Mt. Hood from Vista Bridge (the image of innumerable post cards, and the opening shot of the Portlandia TV show).  In the wake of that decision, Ms. Huxtable’s words have special poignancy:

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.”

Read the article about Ada Louise Huxtable’s visit in Portland Architecture:

3 Replies to “Ada Louise Huxtable to Portland: “Lose the ‘Anywhere USA’ towers and bunkers””

  1. “We become a better city by repairing and improving our worst places, not by destroying our best ones.”
    Yes, yes, yes! As an Eastmoreland resident on the side of preserving our neighborhood with the designation of an historic district, I would love to see our city being serious about improving the areas that need improving. Let’s get to work doing t.h.i.s. instead of destroying our beautiful, established neighborhoods. Let’s insist developers use the already available build-able land within the UGB to create new and beautiful neighborhoods to accommodate our young people looking for permanent housing, for newcomers looking for a future and for homeless families looking for a fresh start.

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