Gresham’s New Library Could Be Our Starchitect Moment

Seattle has the Frank Gehry designed MoPop, a shimmer of color and curves, and Rem Koolhaus’ sinuous, blinding downtown central library. A Renzo Piano skyscraper towers over San Francisco’s SoMa district and his California Academy of Sciences building anchors the museum district in Golden Gate Park. And there’s Gehry again in downtown LA for the Disney Concert Hall. 

Portland, by contrast, is not much of a starchitecture town, leaning heavily on homegrown heroes for its biggest design moments, from Skylab’s futuristic design for the latest Nike campus building, which debuted earlier this year, to GBD Architects’ rising Ritz-Carlton in downtown’s West End to ZGF’s roof-raising reimagining of the Portland International Airport.  The last time a truly internationally renowned architect came to town and completed a building, it was 1982, when Michael Graves was commissioned to build the still-polarizing Portland Building downtown, widely considered a retort to the then-iron-clad dominance of modernist architectural influences.  

But forty years later, another globally known architecture firm is poised for a big local design moment: Adjaye Associates, led by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, (the Sir in his title comes courtesy of his Order of the British Empire, bestowed upon him by Prince William in 2017)  best known in the US for the regal Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. 

Adjaye is teaming with local firm Holst Architecture, which has carved out a real niche in recent years in innovative affordable housing projectsTogether they will design a new 95,000 square foot flagship library in Gresham. If all goes well, the new library will be open to the public by 2025.  

But first, the library system needs sign-off from TriMet on its hoped-for location, at the Gresham City Hall Park and Ride. Zeroing in on the  right spot has taken months and months, Multnomah County Library executive director Vailey Oehlke says, because library officials wanted to be particularly intentional about a central location, close to public transit, that could be easily accessed by East County’s growing and diverse population. Funding comes via a 2020 bond, which raised nearly $400 million for library construction projects. 

The chance to design an iconic public building like this in your own backyard doesn’t come along every day, and a handful of Portland’s best-known architectural firms had thrown their hats into the proverbial ring, including Bora Architects, the firm behind the new Lincoln High School, which teamed with another global powerhouse, Oslo-based Snøhetta, and Opsis Architecture, well known locally for the new Reser Center for the Performing Arts in Beaverton, which paired with Minneapolis-based MSR Design.  

Oehlke says that ultimately, the Holst/Adjaye Associates team — who will also work with MultiCultural Collaborative on community engagement around the new buildings—was tapped for its sense of place. Holst, she points out, had designed the nearby Rockwood Youth Campus; the firm understood East County and its fast-changing demographics, and what residents there might need from their library. 

After all, Oehlke says, most of the library system’s venerable branches were designed in a pre-Internet age to hold shelves and shelves and shelves of books, but today’s library calls for a more flexible use of space, particularly in a world where libraries and parks are among the last bastions of free, fully accessible public spaces. (The library system has been slow to gear back up after pandemic disruptions; Oehlke says plans are underway for a return to a full slate of future programming.) 

The new Gresham flagship might include an auditorium, she says, and a community kitchen for cooking demonstrations and classes; it will certainly include plenty of flexible space for technology—imagine a recording studio, or a makerspace with state-of-the-art 3D printing capabilities. 

Design plans aren’t even close to ready yet for the big reveal, though Holst principal Dave Otte says an aspirational goal is to use Oregon timber as a key material. But if design inspirations are any indication, the new library will be a genuine departure from any other building in the Multnomah County system. 

 Oehlke says all of her travels are busman’s holidays and include library visits; she cites modern, statement libraries in Calgary, Aarhus, and Helsinki as inspirations for their community mindedness. (In the Aarhus library lobby in Denmark, a giant gong rings every time a family has a baby at a local hospital and the parents choose to press a button that triggers the sound, a subtle announcement that a new community member is joining the fold.) Otte adds libraries in Christchurch, New Zealand and Washington DC as further inspirations. 

“You get drawn into these beacons, these welcoming places,” Otte says, of some of his favorites. “We want to create the kind of place that you want to spend time in, a place that belongs to this region, where everyone feels welcome and inspired and connected. Libraries are so much more than a place for information and books. The investments we make in public buildings, like libraries, are investments in ourselves. We are stewards of something that will be used for generations.” 

 

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