Thursday, April 2, 2009

Whilamut Passage Charrette

Below you a river / About to be crossed /
Around you a moment / Not to be lost

Every once in a while, we need to be reminded about how powerful the process of design is and how rich it can be when inspiration comes from many corners. As a participant in the recently completed I-5 Willamette River Bridge Design Workshops, I found an abundance of evidence that creative minds can do wonders when working together to confront the most daunting of design challenges.

The design of a new I-5 bridge to cross the Willamette River between Eugene and Springfield has not been without controversy. The manner by which the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) arrived at the “deck-arch” configuration last summer was roundly decried at the time and raised questions about the transparency of ODOT’s decision-making related to the design. ODOT was not insensitive to these concerns and believed that a redoubled effort to ensure that the new bridge would achieve “signature” stature was necessary. This was where AIA-SWO entered the picture.

ODOT and its bridge design team (led by OBEC Consulting Engineers with Jiri Strasky) asked our chapter to organize a charrette with the goal of identifying strategies that could help make the new bridge the memorable crossing it deserves to be. At the same time, ODOT was in discussions with Douglas Beauchamp, Executive Director for the Lane Arts Council, about how the work of local artists might also help in this regard. Then, as AIA-SWO Executive Director Don Kahle recounted in his February 20, 2009, column in the Register-Guard, “something unique happened.” ODOT saw the wisdom of synergy, of a combined undertaking that would result in a sum that is greater than what might have been produced by separate efforts. Architects and artists would work together, and so would landscape architects, engineers, naturalists, parks administrators, and historians. Representatives for the Kalapuya tribes – the original residents of the Willamette Valley – would also participate; so too would ODOT staff.

The AIA-SWO Design Workshop Steering Committee, led by Eric Gunderson, was charged with planning the charrette. Design is both a process and a product, and we paid ample attention to the matter of process when organizing what ultimately became a series of two workshops on consecutive Saturdays in February. Spreading the effort over two workshops separated by a week proved to be a stroke of genius – there would be a period for the germination of the ideas planted on the first Saturday. Carefully selecting the charrette participants and ensuring that a correct mixture of disciplines would occupy each of the teams/tables were likewise keys to the success of the workshops.(1)

Charette participants gather in the Atrium Building in downtown Eugene

It was a treat to collaborate with such a diverse group of creative individuals, building communities across the tables. The diversity led to the creation of strong visions for a bridge that will be experienced at many scales. Discussions quickly focused upon the desire to create something memorable and to offer a depth of experience as one crosses the span or visits the river and spaces beneath and around the bridge. The artists did not want to simply treat surfaces, but contribute to the making of places. They observed that the scope of the project is thrilling; subtlety may be lost at the scale of the bridge and yet could have a sublime power where the pace is slower and the river sets the mood.

The charrette dynamic - engaging creative minds

While the dynamics of the various teams resulted in multiple outcomes, several themes emerged:

  • Doing more with less – employing a light touch
  • Weaving space and time, the organic and inorganic
  • Identifying crossings, transitions, gateways, nexus
  • Introducing cadence, rhythm, and undulation
  • Directing the One-Minute Movie
  • Assembling parts into a whole – a narrative
  • Crafting an experience: fleeting, recurring, and pondering
Giving themes expression

The means by which these themes might find expression as “actionable” design items included:
  • Tracing the arches of the span with fiber-optic lights
  • Amplifying the spatial qualities of the immediate geography
  • Planting a camas meadow – generating a burst of color to mark the passage of time
  • Detailing the sound walls thematically using pattern, texture, and color
  • Placing “footprints” in the landscape as tracers of natural and historic pathways
  • Respecting the inherent elegance of Jiri Strasky’s design for the bridge

Sound walls: abstracted basalt outcroppings

I think many of us came to the conclusion that the deck-arch configuration may in fact be the most appropriate for our I-5 bridge, and not the “through-arch” design that was originally favored. One reason for the appeal of the through-arch design was the fact that above-deck elements integral to the bridge structure would prominently announce the crossing of the Willamette River to motorists traveling along I-5. The results of the charrette suggest that there may be other equally effective, albeit subtle, means to achieve this effect. The immediate landscape offers much that is unique and distinctive – the “pinch” of Judkins Point as I-5 and Franklin Boulevard converge around it, the open vista across the meadow of Alton Baker Park toward the west and north, the cluster of cottonwoods and other riparian vegetation – that together signal the presence of the river. The place is also about much more than crossing the river at 60 miles per hour. Although the bridge is the central feature, the sense of place is also derived from the variety of natural and man-made features, and the stories of the people who have passed through the area.

Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman tells a story

The range of the creative output pleasantly surprised many of the participants. Don Kahle observed that when creative people are surprised by what they have done, it’s a good thing. ODOT Project Manager Dick Upton expressed his appreciation for everyone’s efforts and enthusiasm for the process. Many of the ideas may indeed move toward reality.

While the charrette itself is now history, substantial work remains to be completed. This will involve distilling the results and mapping out the actionable items that together will make the project truly remarkable. The charrette has shown us that the “Whilamut Passage”(2) project is about a confluence of many things that will reveal themselves. There are layers of history, varying physical strata in three dimensions and more, multiple scales, intersections of paths of travel, motion, time, and relativity. It is about telling a story about a place that is richer than any one of us imagined prior to the workshops. To me, this means that there need not be a singular, iconic feature. We should not winnow the ideas developed in the workshops to too small a number. The money identified by ODOT as the premium available to tell the story will need to be distributed appropriately to ensure that the complete outline of the narrative is legible.

Eric Gunderson and John Rose

Thank you to all of the participants who gave the design workshops the gift of their talent and valuable time. Thanks too, to Megan Banks of the Lane Council of Governments, Larry Fox of OBEC, Douglas Beauchamp, Don Kahle, Eric Gunderson, and the other members of the Steering Committee. Most important, kudos to ODOT for its commitment to building a beautiful and meaningful new I-5 bridge over the Willamette River. Without its support and resources, we would not have brought together such an inspired and diverse group of people for two special days to work toward this shared goal.

(1) By necessity, this limited the number of AIA-SWO members who took part, but there are two additional charrettes in 2009 to look forward to for those of you who feel you missed out this time.

(2) “Whilamut” is a word derived from the Kalapuya language that means “where the river ripples and runs fast.”

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