Portland 1970: ‘Suave schlock, bunkers, bomb sites’

Civic Affairs
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The ongoing discussion about how to grow Portland to handle a variety of influences and realities has been going on for at least a half-century.

On June 19, 1970, Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural writer Ada Louise Huxtable wrote a story for the New York Times that brought an outsider’s view to the Rose City, one that was not initially welcomed by citizens but was eventually embraced by city leaders.

KOIN 6 News anchor Jeff Gianola and architecture journalist Brian Libby chatted in a Facebook Live discussion about Portland’s growth.

Her headline: “In Portland Ore., Urban Decay is Masked by Natural Splendor.”

In a 2013 story about Huxtable’s passing, Portland Architecture reviewed her prescient piece from 2 generations before. Among the nuggets from their story:

Portland had “a curious apathy,” Huxtable argued, to problems whose symptoms were obvious.
“The scattered bomb-site look of downtown parking lots made by demolishing older buildings that pay less than metered asphalt and the blocks given over totally to parking garages or a combination of open lot and garage, are destroying the cohesive character of the city as decisively as a charge of dynamite wherever they occur. Sixty percent of city ground is now covered by automobiles.”
“Inadequate public transportation was accompanied by rising fares. Suburban shopping centers demagnetized downtown.”
“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.”
“The new Portland then, consists largely of towers, bunkers and bomb sites,” she wrote. “And the mathematics have not yet been devised that will dispose of all the cars that the working population of each new skyscraper brings.”
“Some day, some American city will discover the Malthusian truth that the greater number of automobiles, the less the city can accommodate them without destroying itself. The downtown that turns itself into a parking lot is spreading its own dissolution. The price for Portland is already alarmingly high. But there are no easy answers, or no American city would be in trouble.”


Two years later, Portland’s Downtown Plan of 1972 would be released. With its emphasis on transit, density, lively street level activity and preservation, it addressed many of the ills that Huxtable enumerated.

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This article from Portland Architecture was provided by Brian Libby.

He is a Portland-based architecture journalist and critic who has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, Dwell, The Atlantic Monthly and CityLab, among others. He is also the founder and lead writer for Portland Architecture, the city’s leading online source for local design. A native Oregonian and a graduate of New York University, Brian is also an accomplished photographer who takes pictures for many of his own stories, and award-winning filmmaker whose short videos have been screened around the world.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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