Portland Trailblazers

American architects attempt a European-style piazza in the Pacific Northwest.


Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects

PROJECT: Simon and Helen Director Park

Portland, Oregon

Urban planners in Portland are fond of calling the West Coast metropolis “the best European city in America,” a phrase coined by the former commissioner Charlie Hales more than ten years ago in connection with the new streetcar line. Now the city’s latest public square, Simon and Helen Director Park, brings a continental sensibility to Portland’s open-space design. The 40,000-square-foot project also reveals the challenges facing U.S. architects as they seek to adopt fine-grained European planning motifs.

Director Park, which opened last summer, is part of a historic plan to create a string of continuous park blocks through the center of the city. Unlike the 18 existing parcels, however, the most recent entry is not a conventional expanse of green. Instead, Director Park resembles an elegant Italian piazza, with granite pavers, a full-service café, and a “curb-less street” shared by vehicles and pedestrians. “We didn’t want something soft and squishy,” says Laurie Olin, the principal of the Philadelphia-based Olin and the park’s lead landscape architect. “It seemed Portland could use a truly urban space.”

A collaboration between Olin, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, and Portland Parks & Recreation, Director Park features three distinct outdoor “rooms.” There is a bosk of American yellowwoods, a fountain with a pool, and a soaring glass-and-wood canopy that helps “define a place without imposing itself on you,” says Greg Baldwin, a ZGF partner.

Other elements are less subtle. The designers’ attempt to create a “shared street”—without sidewalks or road markings delineating separate spaces for cars and pedestrians—was muddled by the need to conform to U.S. code. In keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, the project team installed bright-yellow “detectable warning surfaces” at park corners. Steel bollards were added to indicate plaza segments accessible to automobiles. At the fountain, ungainly “Do Not Drink This Water!” signs interrupt the plaza’s sophisticated aesthetic. More successful is the on-site café—a ubiquitous feature in European parks that nevertheless encountered opposition during Director Park’s community-design process. “Some people thought it was commercial space taking over public space,” Olin says.

Today, the pedestrians who enjoy the plaza (as many as 500 a day) don’t seem to mind the intrusion. Despite the compromises, Director Park demonstrates that public places can embrace the buildings and activities around them—and thus encourage a seamless mixing of people and uses. But, Olin argues, this kind of mixed-use planning requires some open-mindedness on the part of local policy-makers and community members. “As American cities become more urban,” he says, “we need to learn how to be good urban citizens.”

Recent Programs