Published: Thursday, August 09, 2012, 5:59 PM Updated: Thursday, August 09, 2012, 11:06 PM
As anyone who has been to the Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland knows, the boxy building may bore but the fountains across the street rock. Sheets of water roll off cascading concrete blocks into a pool at the base, as if the hard surfaces played to some ancient rhythm and as if the natural world itself had crept in to disrupt urban order. Care for a dip, anyone?
Yes: twice. That’s what the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin had in mind in designing the Forecourt Fountains, now known as the Ira Keller Fountain for the man who championed Halprin’s work and who dared his own Portland Development Commission to stretch its imagination in the urban renewal-crazy 1960s.
But time, depleted city budgets, shifting development priorities and a new generation of Portlanders unaware of Halprin’s work have taken a hard toll. The Keller Fountain, despite an overhaul in the 1990s, suffers for proper maintenance.
Less visible are Halprin’s precursor spaces to the Keller Fountain — the Source Fountain, Lovejoy Fountain and Pettygrove Park. All are situated nearby, walkable to the south along Southwest Third and Second avenues. And they, especially, have fallen into disrepair. Yet together the four Halprin installations form an uncommon sequence: urban spaces informed by nature — as if they were their own watershed — and one in their attempt to engage people in play and contemplation.
On a good day, the Halprin parks still succeed on those counts. And while they look a bit frayed, they are credited internationally with changing the conception of what’s architecturally possible in cities.
But fame, perhaps more so when it’s elsewhere, never paid bills. And upkeep for the parks stymies three cash-short city bureaus — parks, transportation and water.
That’s where several Portlanders have stepped up to make the difference. Among them are developer John Russell, whose building at 200 Market St. is situated next door to Pettygrove Park; developer Bob Naito; and The Oregonian’s former architecture critic, Randy Gragg. All worry about not only the condition of the parks but the values of surrounding properties.
Gragg years ago spearheaded the formation of the nonprofit Lawrence Halprin Landscape Conservancy, whose sole purpose was and is to find the money to fix and maintain the parks. The thinking is plain though nobody quite says it: If Rome assures that the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona endure, then why can’t Portland find a way to safeguard its best publicly shared treasures?
The conservancy has logged nearly $2 million in needed repairs at the four sites. Russell has pledged $200,000 and already engaged in tree-pruning and lawn-rebuilding. Others, among them Greg Goodman, are contributors. The city’s recent clearance to the conservancy — that it provide the added layer of maintenance it cannot — clears the way for things to really start happening.
But the let’s-just-get-it-done ethic is no stranger here. Years ago the Pittock Mansion, in its perch overlooking the city, was at risk. The city bought the property in a spasm to save it. But it took private citizens who formed a nonprofit corporation to raise money for the Pittock’s overhaul, upkeep and management. That’s why the mansion is such a tidy, flourishing place today — not to mention the venue Portlanders like to show off to out-of-towners.
Portland’s commissioner of parks, Nick Fish, effuses over the private push to restore and oversee the Halprin sequence. “It’s the next big thing in our system,” he says. “We provide only a baseline of services, and unless highly motivated citizens step up, we just can’t take on (all the repairs).”
The sentiment is clear-eyed in a time of fewer public dollars. It embraces the public-private partnerships that will increasingly make the difference as public budgets are stretched and as citizens reclaim responsibility for shared assets.
And good things tend to be shared. At the opening in June 1970 of what is now Ira Keller Fountain, a formally attired Halprin told a free-form, anti-war, post-Kent State gathering: “As you play in this garden, please try to remember we’re all in this together.” And then he jumped, fully suited, into the pool beneath the falls.
Thankfully, that seems to be what any number of private citizens are doing to save his work.