Oregon Sustainability Center

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Keeping Urban Design Wild


Meandering streams, a canopy of trees, dappled light dancing across a ground cover of native grasses and shrubs…and then the streetcar rolls through. Hang on…where are we?

We could be at the entrance to the OSC.

Since last week’s critique, the team has been tinkering with the project’s urban design – looking at how the OSC will integrate with its greater place. Two key factors influence this: the site’s drainage, and its context.


Site analysis, with an eye for its natural drainage and relationship to surrounding blocks.

The first bit’s simple: water flows across the site from its highest point at SW 5th and Harrison, to the north and west, funneling into Montgomery, and eventually to the Willamette River.

The second bit – looking at the site within its greater context, at the edge of an urban campus, surrounded by a bustling commercial and residential district – is inspiring.

For the OSC, the projects that have most directly informed early designs are PSU’s Urban Plaza, to the northwest, and the Halprin sequence, a series of linked open spaces to the east that were designed by the office of Lawrence Halprin in the 1960s. A quick look at each reveals that many principles for this new project’s urban design have been in place for years, the OSC offering the next evolution.


A study of the “ecology of form” by Lawrence Halprin. Courtesy HLC.

Taking cues from the topography of the Cascades, Halprin’s eight-block series of parks and plazas (Portland’s first “green street”) starts with a Source Fountain at its southernmost tip, moves to the Lovejoy Fountain (high desert), passes through Pettygrove Park (the foothills, meadows, streams), and culminates at the Ira Keller Forecourt Fountain, which, with its dramatic water features and vegetation, are a nod to the northwest’s alpine landscape.

As Halprin wrote in 1981, “The space is choreographed for movement with nodes for quiet & contemplation, action & inaction, hard & soft, YIN & Yang.”


The Urban Plaza, currently under construction to make way for the new Rec Center.

By contrast, the PSU Urban Plaza, completed in 2000, is an eastern gateway to the urban university campus, an important throughway at SW 5th and Montgomery for the streetcar, MAX, and thousands of pedestrians who either pass through in a hurry, or who stop, sit on steps, eat lunch, and bask in the sun. Fittingly, its open-air design takes a classical approach; it is a piazza, a rectangular room with classically defined edges, semicircular features, and hard surfaces that combined reflect the ethos of the studies taking place in the building on its site, the College of Urban & Public Affairs.

From an ecological perspective, having such divergent landscapes flanking its site begs the OSC to serve as a transitional zone, and the design team is moving forward with this in mind.


Studying the yin and yang of the OSC and the Urban Plaza.

Taking Halprin’s idea of complementary opposites very much to heart, Kurt Schultz of SERA saw the OSC’s own urban design as the Yin to the PSU Urban Plaza’s Yang. He also saw an opportunity to add a new tributary to the Halprin sequence, one that is a Cascadian forest floor, a natural transition from the harder landscape of the Urban Plaza, to the west, to the softer, greener Halprin “river”, to the east.

ground floor-landscape

Landscape plan for the OSC site.

The transition will be dramatic. Working with landscape architects from Nevue Ngan and Associates, the team envisions the OSC’s ground level experience as akin to a walk through our native forests. Photovoltaic panels that are soaring overhead – integral to the building’s energy strategy – will be translucent, creating dappled light rather than total shade, and large wooden columns will hold the panels in place.  Walking through the plaza, one is immersed in an understory of trees, a quiet, sheltered space that is in stark contrast to the bustling open Urban Plaza across the street.


Design inspiration: a raised boardwalk is one way to further soften a site. (photo courtesy GBD)

Softer surfaces such as raised wooden boardwalks reinforce the forest experience, as they cross over meandering streams, small open runnels that are carrying stormwater from the building and the site down to the Montgomery green street, the district’s major “river”.

grassy-railway-4-THE HAGUE

Grassy tracks in The Hague. (photo courtesy GBD)

The streetcar tracks, which cut diagonally across the site, will not interrupt this forest, but will instead be enveloped. While not unprecedented – grassy tracks have cropped up throughout much of Europe – the grasses and trees between and around the streetcar at the OSC will be native.

Continuing this theme into the building itself, the team is looking into wooden finishes for the ground-floor ceiling, so that as visitors pass from the outside in, the distinction between the natural and built environment remains blurred. This also introduces wood, at an early stage, as a material that will be used repeatedly throughout the building.


The OSC, lower right, can be approached from all sides, leaving its primary entrance ambiguous.

Equally unclear – in a good way – is the location of the building’s front door. As is characteristic of many university buildings, visitors will be entering and exiting the OSC from all sides. Students will access classrooms and the conference center from a grand staircase that starts from the direction of the Urban Plaza, climbs over the streetcar and enters the building on the second floor. Other visitors, perhaps wholly unaware of the university across the street, will come in from Montgomery, lured into the building by its uninterrupted flow of greenery from the street to the building’s rising green wall.

Once inside and on the upper floors, the building’s torque – the four degree rotation that occurs on each floor – is directed back toward PSU’s Urban Plaza, the OSC’s curved edges reaching out and across to the Urban Center’s straighter lines. The yin and yang dynamic emerges once again.


Sketch of the Portland sequence by Lawrence Halprin. Courtesy HLC.

When further describing his Portland project, Halprin wrote in 1981, “The…approach was to bring into the heart of downtown activities which related in a very real way to the environment of the Portland area – the Columbia river, the Cascade mountains, the streams, rivers & mountain meadows. These symbolic elements are very much a part of Portlanders’ psyche – they glory in their natural environment & escape to it as often as possible.”

The urban oasis, a great escape, without ever leaving the city. While Halprin wasn’t the first to provide this for Portland (think Park Blocks, Forest Park), he certainly set the tone for this SW Portland neighborhood, and in its wildness and reverence for the ecologies of our region, it is a tone the OSC intends to keep.


Filed under: Design Progress, Project History

3 Responses

  1. […] After all energy conservation measures have been included, the nearly final push for the building’s net zero strategy will be the incorporation of photovoltaics (PVs). For the building’s energy model, PVs were analyzed using the most efficient panel on the market today – the Sanyo HIT 205. Bifacial PVs are also being considered, for the soaring canopy panels described in our previous discussion of the ground floor design. […]

  2. […] zero water, the building will collect rainwater for potable uses from the rooftops. As described in earlier posts, a 6,200 square foot bifacial photovoltaic (PV) array on the 4th floor of the building, and a 3,000 […]

  3. Justin Cloyd says:

    After looking at the ground floor plan at the open house last night, I have one small design consideration to add to an otherwise great project. The bike storage entry stair has ramps so that people can walk their bikes down, but it seemed that the stairs were very wide and the ramps for bikes were narrow. I know there are code requirements to follow, but I would think that the ramp section would need to be wider in the final design. There should at least be enough space for a bike path in each direction.

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