Memorial Coliseum - Portland, Oregon
"We were thinking, you've got this oval bowl that is going to sit in a glass box," he continues. "When you're in the bowl looking at something happening, you can either have light or not with the control of the curtain. To get out of there, instead of being in some blind corridor, you come out and you've got glass and you can see the city. You know where you are, and whether it's day or night. That was the whole point of the design, to keep it clear or open."
"I think whether they notice it consciously or not, it works on everybody," Rouzie adds. "You never feel lost there. And I can get lost in some of the buildings I've even designed."
On April 14, 2009, Portland Mayor Sam Adams hosted an open house at Portland's historic Leftbank building to introduce a new redevelopment plan for the Rose Quarter across the street.
The mayor explained to a packed crowd of hundreds including architects, veterans, and local sports fans that to support the transition of the Portland Timbers soccer team into a Major League Soccer franchise in 2011, the team's stadium, PGE Park, would be converted to a soccer-only facility, as per league stipulation — leaving the Portland Beavers minor league baseball team without a home.
Adams explained that he had negotiated a deal with Merritt Paulson, owner of both teams, to build a new baseball stadium in the Rose Quarter, on the site of Memorial Coliseum — a plan that would require the 1960 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill arena to be demolished.
Expecting a positive reaction as he personally walked through the room with a microphone in hand, Adams instead heard one plea after another for the Coliseum to be preserved.
The next morning at City Hall, the impromptu campaign continued as scores of people testified in support of Memorial Coliseum's preservation, including former Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh. In fair disclosure, I testified that day in favor of preservation, and have been active in efforts to save the building.
"We got pushback," said the mayor at a press conference the next week.
Constructed between 1958 and 1960, Memorial Coliseum was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, during a span of decades in which Gordon Bunshaft and other designers led the production of masterworks such as the Weyerhaeuser Headquarters near Tacoma, Washington, the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Sears and John Hancock towers in Chicago, and the seminal Lever House on New York City's Park Avenue. Today the firm continues to secure high-profile projects, such as the planned Freedom Tower (on the site of the World Trade Center) and Moynihan Station (a replacement for Pennsylvania Station) in New York City.
Bunshaft was involved early on in Memorial Coliseum's creation. The pureness of the design — a freestanding concrete seating bowl within a glass box — came in part from his idealistic desires and force of personality.
The powerful Oregon timber industry of the 1950s helped create significant pressure for SOM to design a wood-framed building. One local timber group even came up with its own design for the building, with a wood dome (such the dome built in Tacoma, Washington, now also subject of a preservation struggle).
But the firm fought for and won the right to create the much lighter steel-and-glass structure that endures today, on the eve of its 50th anniversary. A compromise was a strip of white-painted wood at the building’s top, rather than the all-glass box Bunshaft preferred.
Saucer in a Glass Box
Memorial Coliseum in 1960 joined a small, refined class of iconic, functional works of High Modernism.
In Portland, the sheer glass skin of the Coliseum was presaged by the precocious purity of Pietro Belluschi's groundbreaking Equitable Building, 1944 to 1948 (timeline).
As a constructed work, in a worldwide context the Coliseum predates what is often considered the prime model of a broad cantilevering roof spanning over a few tall columns: the New National Gallery in Berlin, realized with great authority by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the years 1962 to 1968.
McCormick Place in Chicago, a recognized great building designed by the Mies-influenced firm C. F. Murphy Associates and built from 1968 to 1971, draws the cantilevering steel truss roof on minimal underpinings at an epic scale on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The two Miesian examples tell their structural story more overtly, with their glass perimeter walls held inside the columns, creating a wraparound outdoor area sheltered by the projecting roof. In the Memorial Coliseum variation of the diagram, the glass hangs at the edge of the roof projection, and the enclosed space is used as indoor lobby and concourse, wrapping around the nested seating bowl.
"The beauty and sculptural power of Memorial Coliseum derive from its simplicity," architect Stuart Emmons wrote in an editorial for the Oregonian newspaper. "Complex problems of function and structure have been culled down to the most basic, minimal expression through an amazing level of rigor, engineering and passion: a huge, magnificently simple, beautifully proportioned, exquisitely detailed glass box encasing a gracefully curved form. It is this contrast between the geometric and the organic forms that gives 'the saucer in the box' its true power and brilliance."
Razing Cultural History
For many cities, the construction of a new sports arena means that an existing facility, made obsolete, will eventually face the wrecking ball. This happened recently in Philadelphia, where the Spectrum, longtime home of the Philadelphia 76ers, was razed. The Chicago Stadium in Chicago, the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, and the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, among many others, have also been torn down.
Like those arenas, Memorial Coliseum has a vibrant history, hosting a wide range events — particularly as home to the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team from 1970 until 1995 (when the Rose Garden arena was completed on its adjacent site).
Memorial Coliseum hosted the Blazers' NBA championship win in 1977. Thirteen years later, the Detroit Pistons defeated Portland on the Coliseum floor to win another basketball title. In 1965 Memorial Coliseum hosted the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament.
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