No. 434 . 08 July 2009 
ArchitectureWeek
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Memorial Coliseum - Portland, Oregon

by Brian Libby

The perimeter of Memorial Coliseum bounds the equivalent area of four city blocks in Portland, Oregon, yet the entire envelope of the building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, stands on just four columns.

In a 1958 or '59 photograph of the building under construction, when just the four columns and great cantilevering roof truss had been erected, the structure appears as one massive blend of sculpture and engineering, a proud, dramatic emblem of 20th-century optimism and industry.

Yet it's the relationship between the curving concrete seating bowl and the perimeter glass curtain wall — local architects refer to it as the saucer (or teacup) in the glass box — that gives Memorial Coliseum its particular grace: a counterpoise of organic and rectilinear forms.

The seating bowl stands free within its glass box, detached even from the four columns. "There's one point where they come close together but they don't touch," says William Rouzie, a now-retired Portland architect who was part of the Memorial Coliseum design team at SOM, along with colleagues David Pugh, Edward Kirschbaum, Joachim Grube, and others.

Transparent Building

With the large two-way truss spanning the top of the building on just four columns, the interior remains one large open space.

The seating bowl does not reach to the top of the structure, so a black-out curtain is used to separate the arena from the surrounding concourse and glazed perimeter. When the curtain is open, natural light pours across the interior space.

"When that perimeter curtain goes into the back edge of the seating form, that building is marvelous," Rouzie says. "I was there shortly after the building was finished. The sunlight was streaming through. Everybody was skating on the ice in costumes. It was just a beautiful sight."   >>>

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