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Sunday, October 14, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sidestepping Convention -- Portland's Meeting Place Makes A Point Of Being Seen

CUTLINE: THE TOWERS ARE TALL SKYLIGHTS LETTING LOTS OF LIGHT INSIDE. THE CURVED BALCONY OVERLOOKS ONE SUCH AREA; A TAIWANESE DRAGON BOAT FROM PORTLAND'S SISTER CITY DECORATES THE SPACE. TO THE LEFT IS THE ENTRANCE TO THE EXHIBITION HALL.

CUTLINE: THE 250-FOOT-TALL TWIN SPIRES OF THE CONVENTION CENTER ARE EASILY SEEN FROM PORTLAND'S DOWNTOWN PARK ON THE WILLAMETTE RIVER.

Part of the charm of Portland is what architect Robert Frasca calls its Lilliputian nature. Its streets are so narrow it seems the shops are leaning over them, the compact brick buildings neatly fill their own small square blocks, and through it all runs a river crossed by a row of parallel bridges close enough to look like railroad ties holding together the shores of the Willamette.

Plop a convention center into the core of this model-train-set city? They wouldn't dare.

``Putting a convention center there would have destroyed the urban fabric,'' says Frasca, principal designer of Portland's new Oregon Convention Center and partner in Zimmer Gunsel Frasca architectural firm.

The convention center is instead located more than a stone's throw from downtown, east across the Willamette River. At a time when cities have gone to such extreme lengths as bridging a freeway to site a convention center downtown, Portland's on-the-edge location presented a challenge to Frasca: how to make a building across the river feel like it belongs with the rest of downtown. To do that Frasca designed a building with two steel-and-glass spires reaching 250 feet into the sky, glowing at night with a green, ethereal light. From the waterfront park, from the city's increasingly tall high-rises, from its bridges, the spires are so visible they permeate the city, demanding that it direct attention eastward.

The Oregon Convention Center opened with conventional hoopla last month. The $90 million building includes 150,000 square feet of exhibit space in five nodules, a glitzy ballroom for evening convention parties, lobbies, greeting and meeting spaces and a rich collection of Northwest artwork. And, of course, the spires, also variously referred to as pylons, towers or points (never twin peaks).

The tall twins of elongated pyramids are like nothing Portland has seen before in architectural forms. For some reason, everyone you meet on the street will happily tell you the spires have no practical function. They are skylights for the prefunction areas, but their real purpose is simply to be visible.

``The architecture had to be symbolic to bridge the river,'' Frasca says.

Portland has been trying to draw the two sides of the city together, and by extending its MAX light-rail line to the east side and placing the convention center there, the city powers-that-be hope to reduce the psychological distance the river creates. Conventioneers can ride the MAX between downtown Portland and the new center.

``People are beginning to realize it's just a block across the river,'' says Harriet Sherburne, member of the advisory committee overseeing the convention center design and former Seattle planner involved in both Pike Place Market development and Cornerstone projects.

The towers function the same way the spire on a cathedral used to, Sherburne adds, ``so the community knows where it is.''

There was one other incentive to siting the center there: Developers of Lloyd Center (the office and retail complex) donated six blocks to attract the center to the east side, a commercial area that had been deteriorating. The convention center has acted as a catalyst; Lloyd Center is undergoing a major renovation (complete with a flashy remodeled Nordstrom store). A new major hotel is planned in the next 5 to 8 years across the street

from the convention building. There are already some smaller hotels in the area.

Convention centers in the past have been thought of as large black boxes on a huge plot of land, but Sherburne said the design committee was not satisfied to have a ``flat plate on 17 acres. We had the notion of some rising from the roof.''

In the past 10 years, says George Loschky of Loschky Marquardt Nesholm architects in Seattle, cities have become conscious of the need for a convention center to be more than a big meeting room. Not only does a center need to be a good neighbor, but it has to bring in revenue in an increasingly competitive market.

``There is more emphasis on the context of buildings,'' explains Loschky, whose firm has designed centers is such places as San Diego, Minneapolis, Denver and Dallas, ``but each city is looking for an edge on marketing, too.'' For that reason, lobbies are no longer barn space, but have character and personality. Ballrooms, Loschky says, used to be ``meat and potato'' spaces, but now look like hotel lobbies. Amenities in the form of loading docks and electronics to fire up trade show booths are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and even such elements as the accessibility to restrooms can be a selling point.

Combine the practical considerations with the desire of cities to have a landmark akin to Sydney's opera house and you have what architectural firms consider a plum design commission.

Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership was commissioned to design Portland's center by the Metropolitan Service District, a three-county organization usually called Metro, in association with Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall of California. ZGF has offices in Portland and in Seattle - it's designing the new Fred Hutchinson Research Center on Eastlake Avenue, a Wright Runstad office building at Second Avenue and Seneca Street in downtown Seattle and a building on the Eastside in the Interstate 90 project. But as Oregon's largest architectural firm, it's considered the home team in Portland.

The two spires are the center's most ostentatious elements, but the overall design of the center was, in fact, driven by the practical motives, Frasca says. Convention programmers warned that it would be rare for Portland to entice a large enough convention to fill the entire center, so he designed a binodal building to enable more than one convention to meet at a time. There are two main entrances, two lobbies and two prefunction spaces, all connected but able to be separated.

The Portland center is targeting mid-sized groups from 2,000 to 10,000 people, like the Duncan family reunion with 4,500 relatives. But it can accommodate larger groups like the 20,000 members of the Elk Foundation.

Visitors enter the building by way of a plaza, close to a new light-rail station, that incorporates a sound garden of oriental bells. The building is not stacked, as some centers are, but has a split-level entry: Conventioneers go from the lobbies either up to the ballroom area or down to the exhibit and meeting spaces. The flow pattern is simple; from each of the two ``nodes'' the other is visible.

``Clarity of the plan is important. After all, I'm a person who gets lost,'' Frasca says.

The entire yellow brick face of the building is curved. Frasca was interested in juxtaposing the two geometries of the pyramidal towers and the circles in the entryway and in exploring the ``conflict of the two forms together.''

The lobby is paneled with a South American ``anege'' wood and mahogany for a warm Northwest feel, but stainless steel, as in the main entrance doorways, gives the convention center some glitter. Frasca maintains that conventions are really about having parties, and for that reason he put festive touches in such rooms as the ballroom, with its circles of small lights and facilities for light shows.

From the lobbies, steps lead to the two prefunction areas, where artwork takes over. In one hangs a 40-foot dragon boat donated by the Portland-Kaohsiung (Taiwan) Sister City Association; in the other is a huge pendulum created by artists Kristin Jones and Andrew Gunsul. The pendulum marks time by swinging with the earth's gravity (possibly reminding conventioneers how far the earth has moved while they've been sitting in meetings). When viewed from the balconies above, the pendulum gives a fish-eye view of the room.

Metro received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the architects collaborated with artists throughout the design phase. Two murals, one by Lucinda Parker incorporating the names of all the Oregon rivers and another by Seattle artist Bill Hoppe that is an abstract of Northwest scenes, brighten the entrance lobbies. Hand-blown glass sconces on the lobby's curved walls are by Walter White of Seattle, and illustrated poems on Oregon themes are scattered on plaques throughout the center. More artwork decorates both outside and inside spaces - including the ballroom restrooms.

The exhibit space, the nuts and bolts of the whole operation, is W-shaped, with $2 million worth of flexible partitions able to separate the space into five modules on each leg of the W. The room can accommodate some 650 10-foot-by-10-foot exhibit booths. There are 11 covered loading docks at the back of the building and trucks can drive directly onto the floor of the exhibit hall - an important element in an area where such things as logging-rig trade shows are probable.

For all that, when people in Portland refer to the convention center, it's to the towers they point. There's the perennial question of how they're ever going to wash those windows (a scaffolding consultant is designing a special system), and the ever-present critics who say the towers look like one more bridge.

Then there are the myriad proposals for things that could be hung between the towers; there's even been talk of laser lights moving between the towers, and Frasca is all for it.

``It's not a dead building, and that was exactly the design motive,'' the architect says, ``This is a building of festivals.''

THERESA MORROW IS A SEATTLE FREE-LANCE WRITER. GREG GILBERT IS A TIMES STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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