Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts


A mixture of uses, if it is to be sufficiently complex to sustain city safety, public contact and cross-use, needs an enormous diversity of ingredients. So the first question—and I think by far the most important question—about planning cities is this: How can cities generate enough mixture among uses—enough diversity—throughout enough of their territories, to sustain their own civilization?

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities


The Central Hotel in St. Johns used to be, in fact, a three-story hotel, constructed around the end of the 1800s. A fire in the 1920s destroyed the upper floors, and the building has undergone a series of renovations and uses over the years resulting in its current form. The style grows on you.

St. Johns was once a separate city, incorporated into Portland a century ago, and the neighborhood still looks like and functions as a small town, with considerable diversity of small commercial concerns. The Central Hotel is located in its heart, on the corner of Lombard, the neighborhood’s main street, and Philadelphia, which leads a few blocks away to the St. Johns Bridge. There is a sizable plaza surrounding, and over the years the site has provided the locus of much activity. The St. Johns Parade has passed by for over half a century, and festivals and an open air market have their home there. Bobby Kennedy once spoke before one of the hotel’s incarnations to a crowd in the 1968 presidential campaign.

The intersection is a central place, and a building there could be a point of focus, of gathering, of identity and definition, one that reflects and interacts with the rest of the neighborhood. Now, however, the Central Hotel lies vacant and represents only indecision and decay.

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Centering a Town: 17th. Effort/Time II, IIa

Two more versions on the theme of time. A clock can do so much to call attention to a building and have it command public space, as well as lend it significance and suggest meanings.

I like the ideas in the previous version but its design is rough and needs work—I haven’t decided how yet. These present orderly buildings, closer to our common connotations of time. The risk is regimentation, which I try to offset with accents, the standing mass of the clocked brick columns, some asymmetry, and the deep, expressive indentation of the windows.

This indentation presents a challenge at the corners. That space can be filled in with columns or the intersection could be an open “L.” Or the horizontal beams can be extended at each level, creating a figure of intersection, as I have done in the first version.

Or the brick columns can be moved to the corners and cover that space.

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Centering a Town: 15th. Effort/Spiral

Spiral because of the spiral staircase at the corner. This is an improved version of my first two efforts. Program is similar, though it has no black box theater. And it is a reserved yet informal design that fits in with the character of other buildings in downtown St. Johns. It picks up the brick in the courthouse and library, and the green details repeat the color of the St. Johns Bridge as well as suggest its structure of suspension.

As always, some imagination is needed to see my models. Details—refined brickwork, window frames—are everything in a simple building like this, which I can’t reproduce. I’d also like a more involved and delicate grid for the corner windows enclosing the staircase. The stairs themselves, of course, are not the correct scale. Also I cannot do interiors. The white elements inside provide an armature to support the roof.

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Centering a Town: 14th. Effort/Time

We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.


The theme for this design is time because, obviously, the building has a clock, or several clocks.

The site, in fact, has a clock standing at the corner of the plaza. Last I checked, it didn’t work. The Central Hotel has since been demolished, over a year ago. A mixed-use project is planned, but it has been put on hold and the plot remains vacant, waiting.

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Centering a Town: 13th. Effort/Suspension II

See Centering a Town: 6th. Effort/Suspension for another variation of this theme. Again, the desire is to complement the St. Johns Bridge, the defining landmark for St. Johns, with analogous construction. Two piers are bent around the building to support a narrow band and the grid that contains the upper floors.

From the rear of the upper floors there will be an excellent view of the bridge, only a block away.

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Tschumi: folie n1 (time)

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

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Centering a Town: 12th. Effort/Palazzo

Donato Bramante, Palazzo Caprini (Palazzo di Raffaello), c. 1510

These buildings are in a class of their own and represent a climax of the High Renaissance palace between 1515 and 1520. Their functional differentiation of a rusticated ground-floor and smooth piano nobile, their majestic sequence of double half-columns, their use of few great forms, and their economy of detail, the organic separation of one member from another (e.g. balconies and bases of columns), the compact filling of the wall and the energetic projection of mass—all this, though unprecedented in ancient as well as modern times, gave these places the stamp of truly imperial grandeur. They had something of the serene and grave quality of ancient Roman buildings, and it was palazzo type that, fused with Venetian elements first by Sanmicheli (Palazzo Pompeii, Verona) and then by Palladio, was constantly imitated and varied all over Europe by architects with a classical bias.

Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, on buildings influenced by Bramante palazzos.

The style of palazzos—Italian palaces for nobles and the wealthy—may seem an odd choice for this project. They housed, however, several functions, and the ground floor was often used for commerce. Later revivals of the style served all manner of purposes. What the style succeeds in doing is defining an urban presence, assertive, conscious of itself, yet also mindful of the need to respect a town’s grid and fabric. The palazzo faces the town streets and lies close, maintaining its reserve without withdrawing to isolation and exclusivity, at least in appearance.

That was my interest, a unified design for a building with many functions, one that distinguishes the building and elevates the importance of the activities inside yet still fits in. Its location—in the center of the downtown area, before the plaza it commands—calls for such presence. I also wanted a design that might reach back into the past and give it present relevance and connection.

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Centering a Town: 11th. Effort/Memory

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

T. S. Eliot/Burnt Norton/Four Quartets

All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.

Didion/Notes from a Native Daughter/
Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Architecture built today necessarily, inevitably, is focused on the present, using current materials and technologies, and contemporary idioms and styles and trends. Much is simple and merely functional, bowing to the economic demands of costs of land, material, and labor, to the desire to maximize profits in a world that has lost touch with its base.

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Centering a Town: 10th. Effort/Complexity


I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.

Robert Venturi


This effort was influenced by Peter Eisenman’s House II:

of which I have made a model that can be found here, with discussion.

In both we start with a regular cubic grid, then submit it to a series of shifts and other adjustments. My design is much quieter, however, and where Eisenman rethinks structure and form of the total space, inside to out, my changes are largely surface, on the exterior.

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Centering a Town: 9th. Effort (folly)

In this design I wanted to add a tower—the folly—to distinguish the building, giving it a point of focus and identifying its location and function as a center. I’ve gone out into the plaza, though I’ve also added to its space. The extra area isolates and thus highlights the tower, though I’m skeptical the space would be used and can think of several reasons why it might not be a good idea.

I had two designs in mind, the Urbino Ideal City:

and Bernard Tschumi’s folies for the Parc de la Villette, Paris:

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Tschumi folie r4 (bridal)

Tschumi’s folies in the Parc de la Villette begin with a basic cube, 10.8 x 10.8 x 10.8 meters, itself divided into 27 equal cubes within, 3 to the third power. The cube in each folie undergoes various transformations—additions, subtractions, combinations—marginally related to its program, if at all, if it has one, sometimes subverting structural function within or leaving support stranded without.

Here R4, where the cube rests on gray columns, beneath which descend stairs in one direction, continuing in descent one path; through which passes another path perpendicular, bridged, gracefully curving. The two paths do not intersect and the folie serves no purpose whatsoever other than to mark this crossing. We want to believe this treatment gives the intersection meaning. Just as much, we realize we are at a loss for anything to say. Still, it holds our attention and perhaps makes us think about movement, about direction, about crossing, and about containment, but also non-intersection. It asks us to linger, it pushes us to move on. Any further discussion leaves us where we started, with questions.

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Centering a Town: 8th. Effort/Open

This may be my most successful design for the site. It is modest and informal, thus fits in with the character of the buildings surrounding. The proportions are good—and proportions and dimensions are always approximate in my models. I have to build what the plastic pieces allow. The design as is, however, is an orchestration of imperfect squares, which keeps it from monotony and forced regularity as well as lends the building individuality and subtle energy. Also there is a contrast of scale for hierarchy, with the large scale of the atrium windows set against the smaller, calling attention to a vital point, the center of downtown St. Johns.

Details and surface give the building distinction. The walls are made of brick, which ages well and references other brick buildings in the neighborhood. All windows are framed in dark green—I can’t represent this well—and smaller panes are used for the atrium windows held by a green grid, adding another degree of complexity and variation in scale.

What the design does is place a prominent open cube in the middle of town and symbolically define it as center. It is an open structure calling for fulfillment. Not only does the cube attract attention to itself and the building, it also makes visible what goes on inside. Users are made aware of their presence in the town, among the passersby. Function and site, users and residents, are visually brought together, inviting relationships and understanding.

The L arrangement of rooms around a corner atrium recalls Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation Headquarters, an influence. His building offers a haven in the midst of urban New York without losing sight of its presence.

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