Nature, Art, and Humanity

March 02, 2020

When things weigh heavy on my mind, I can gain a fresh perspective by “getting lost” in the woods or by going to the coast or the mountains. The northwest has a wealth of natural beauty and resources – being connected to these places is intrinsic to our local culture and character.

The Multnomah County Courthouse provides essential services for our community - the new building should resonate with those who pass by and through its spaces. One of our goals, when imagining a new courthouse, was to create an experience that connects visitors to the surrounding river and mountain landscapes. While courthouse services are an integral part of life, time spent at the courthouse can be stressful. Through the transformative power of design, how can the courthouse help make people feel less anxious as they spend time in the building?

The courthouse is a brilliant beacon of transparency for pedestrians and drivers on Southwest 1st Ave and from the Hawthorne Bridge. A forty-five-foot-tall glass wall offers a view into the lobby defined by a forest of columns against an immense handmade glass backdrop. The entry welcomes an individual with a viewing garden that is located between Jefferson Station and the courthouse – a testament to the importance of nature within our local culture. As visitors continue past the security checkpoint, they emerge into the triple-height grandeur of a light filled lobby.

View from SW 1st Avenue and Madison

Wood-formed concrete columns surround the space, creating the universal feeling of peace that one experiences when walking through an old growth forest – the design decision to use board forms, reflecting the forests of the region, was integral to the overall vision for the space. They evoke a feeling of permanence and stability while the column’s wood plank facets are roughly the width of a hand. The tactile surfaces invite people to touch them – they speak of the handmade craftsmanship and creativity of our local artisans. It’s my hope that the columns develop a patina from years of touch. I look forward to seeing how the light will reflect on the faceted surfaces throughout the changing day and within each season.

Lobby construction and column formwork

To accomplish the monumental task of building the columns, we worked closely with trade partners. We met with the concrete suppliers to understand the best concrete mixes and add-mixtures to achieve the desired flowability, hardness and color. We engaged the local wood suppliers and sawmill to fine-tune the wood character, saw cut, and moisture content that would impress the best wood-grained texture. We collaborated with local carpenters to achieve the desired fit and finish and, ultimately, with the concrete installers to understand the truck delivery timing and how the concrete needed to be placed (two pours, one hour apart) on such tall columns without a perceived cold joint between pours. Heather Mayther, a journey carpenter who helped build and place the formwork, said showing the completed columns to her 7-year-old triplet daughters as they looked in wonder, was one of the best moments of her life. Hearing this was a moving, heart-felt moment for me – a story I’ll never forget.

Through the arcade of columns, one can see the immense handmade glass mosaic that is daylit from the skylight above. The colorful painting of spectacular natural forms, by artist Lynn Basa, suggests a deep blue body of water crashing into vivid, amber and red colored, rugged volcanic terrain—something in this work recalls the beautiful and diverse landscapes of Oregon. As a visitor moves through the lobby, they will be drawn in by this experience of solace and contemplation, momentarily forgetting about the day ahead. Art has a way of soothing our burdens by revealing something beautiful and positive that reminds us of what it is to be human. As an integral member of the art committee, which was made up of local artist and art educators, we agreed early on that the art installation should be bold, abstract and open to individual interpretation. The art piece should be an experience – embodying elements of our natural world and infused with a handmade quality, rather than a literal representation of a particular theme.

Lynn Basa, artist and Tom Jacobs, Bullseye Glass Co.

As a visitor ascends the grand staircase within this “urban room”, they arrive on a tier of public services that is linked by another stair to a third tier, or “living room” where jurors can assemble and enjoy the river and mountain views while sipping on a hot beverage from the café. In fact, the best views throughout the building are reserved for the public - daylit courtrooms and private offices are in the center of the building plan, reserving the views along the perimeter for all - Tom McCall Waterfront Park, the Willamette River, and Mount Hood beyond.

View from the public lounge, northeast corner 12th floor

All of the details in the public spaces of the courthouse, although modern in expression, deliberately support a connection to nature and regional craft that is made by and for the people of the County.

The courthouse now holds a front row seat in the Portland skyline, reflecting the greatness of our County. At a human level the building connects the essential courthouse business to our cultural values of inclusion, transparency, nature, and craft – offering gardens, tree-inspired columns, art, and connections to the greater landscape.

Current view from across the river, photo by Steve Simpson