Vol. 6, No2 (January 2002)
__Teresa Ruiz
__Tom Wesel
Portland, Oregon
Understanding the City through Form Language – Portland

Portland, Oregon was first settled in the late 18th century and flourished like many frontier towns on the fruits of the environment. Timber, fishing, and agriculture brought shipbuilding and railroads, which enticed many people to the rich river valley. Urban growth was concentrated along the rivers and arranged on a compact 200 foot by 200 foot block, approximately 65 meters by 65 meters. This arrangement was efficient for the buildings types of the day but raises many questions for architecture today and in the future.

The vibrant street life of the early 20th century, including shops, streetcars and plenty of pedestrian activity. During the 1950's and 60's, as the business center moved to the edge of the city, the streetscapes faltered and areas of the town feel victim to the wrecking ball and so-called urban renewal. These measures cleared many historic buildings in hopes that high-rise towers in the park would come to save the town.

The 1970's brought another vision and change to the Portland cityscape. City planners looked to the future and analyzed the features of the city, the dense grid, the walkable streets, the waterfront and the majestic views of the mountains. With this vision they managed to remove a freeway along the west riverbank and create a green space that would help to bringing people back to the downtown. Nodes and view corridors were recognized by architects and planners, and have now been implemented.

Portland has grown, adjusted and progressed to be an example for many redeveloping urban centers in the United States and possibly around the world. The task of keeping a city lively and prosperous is ongoing and always challenging. The research of a form language has helped us to examine the current conditions and suggest opportunities for the future of Portland and possibly other cities.

Understanding architecture as a language has a long tradition as a metaphor as well as a more direct interpretation. In architecture, each building with its individual elements, has to be designed with regard to site, size, volume, composition, structure and construction, as well as materiality, texture, color and ornament.

A form language in architecture may be loosely defined here as the elements, characteristics, or principles of architecture, which repeatedly appear in the forms of buildings, streets, gardens, neighborhoods, towns and cities. It is a form language, which helps to give a place character, identify structure and order. In this study, we have attempted to formulate a form language for downtown Portland.

This investigation is based on an architectural form language draft that was tailored to fit the Portland architectural history and future. Each element was investigated further by a small group and reviewed by the entire class. Developing a form language for a city is challenging and has produced more questions than answers but for our group, it has provided the opportunity to research and present ideas for the future of Portland in a way that was new and enlightening.


The use of a material and the manner in which it is applied can impart a sense of life to a building.  It is the richness and character, which springs from this sense of life that makes some buildings more desirable, more enjoyable to experience than others.

Many buildings have stood for years due to the durability of their materials. Brick and stone buildings, which are able to withstand many years of weather, but have also been affected by the weather to soften the edges, and have evolved overtime to produce a livelier façade. Buildings that exist in this world are subject to the same forces all animals, plants, and objects are subject to. Buildings that take a plastic, changeless approach to their detailing do not have this sense of life. The Portland Performing Arts Center is one example of integrating materials in the built environment. The design uses materials and landscape to provide life to a streetscape. Behind the trees there is a street, which can be used for auto traffic on a normal basis but easily blocked off to become, an outdoor room for the events at the neighboring theatres.

Portland’s Fox Tower has modern materials and design that mix well with the neighboring historic materials. The brick plaza and the terracotta glazed tile tower in the adjacent Pioneer Square blends well with the new steel and glass curtain wall system used on this building. The new building not only brings life to the area through its dynamic design but by reflecting and respecting the existing buildings while interacting with the street life. This juxtaposition of newer and older materials brings life to the city fabric.


All space, mass or void, should be positive space.  The un-built space should be designed as an integral part of the built volume.  Building form should come from the creation of spaces around the building; the boundary of one creates the form of the other, together they enhance the quality of life in the environment.  The interior spaces of a building should be a continuation of the exterior experience and vice versa.

Escher illustrates the relationship between positive and negative space well in his drawings. There is shape to the negative spaces between forms. Both positive and negative spaces are distinguished as complete entities, they exist together: the outline of one shape creates the form of another. They also share a common boundary.  As a result both are positive space. The city’s waterfront is an example of positive space in the built environment. The use of buildings and landscape to provide life to the city, a foreground for viewing the city and an outdoor room for exercise or community events

Portland will continue to build upon and improve the areas around the city. Softening the pedestrian connection between outdoor spaces and the private indoor spaces such as the relationship between the sidewalk and the building. Integrating landscape into the building and open space. Instead of leveling existing blocks to create parks we should make vegetation a part of the built space. And by building volume set backs. Buildings do not need to occupy the entire footprint of the block. High-rise buildings should step back to break down the scale of the building and help to provide a variety of volumes.

Manhattan is an example of how the extrusion of city blocks and variable heights of buildings offer an interesting skyline. Although we never intend or believe that Portland will become as dense and tall as the Manhattan skyline, it expresses a point that diversity in volumes provide variations, which lead to an incredibly rich urban pattern.

Walls & Roofs 

Urban walls and roofs incorporate regionalism as a generator for site-specific solutions, stewardship of the earth and our future on it and represent their use culturally as an expression of the city over time.

Walls and roofs should be designed to allow the user of the building to interface with the exterior in any way he or she cares to. It is necessary to allow air, light, heat and people to move through or regulate the movement through the walls and roofs we design. Environmental stewardship must be present when designing walls and roofs even though economists have stated that it is easier to build for ten years and rebuild when the current design has outlived its usefulness. As we all know “temporary” buildings lack the quality of materials, construction, and design that “100 year buildings” realize. The Federal courthouse is a newer building for Portland, which is constructed with materials and design qualities to last at least 100 years, disregarding the short-term economics and looking to the future. The neighboring brick structures are examples of enduring architecture and use of quality building methods. This juxtaposition of design and time are both important parts of Portland’s architecture and history.

Walls & roofs create an important landscape to the city and become the focus for many building that rise above lower structures. The variety of form and color also add diversity to the skyline. Roofs are not only areas for mechanical systems but also opportunities for skylights, green roofs and roof top terraces. Portland like many cities in the United States has yet to utilized the areas available above the street. Utilization of the rooftops is one of our recommendations for the future of Portland not only for environmental and energy conservation but as a visual and personal experience that has yet to be focused upon.


Ornament is an aesthetic interruption or node in the continuum of necessity.  Ornament in architecture must be seen at a variety of scales and conditions in order to begin to understand the phenomenon.  The three major exterior scales are City or macro scale, the Façade or Street scale, and the Pedestrian scale.

Architecture as an ornamentation to the city fabric can be examined through its contribution to the City, the Street, and a Pedestrian, each requiring refined articulation at various scales.  For the purpose of the study, we classified each building as a Jewel, Face, or Field type of ornament.  Subsequently, the success and failure of a building’s contribution to each of the scales mentioned above is evaluated.  A Jewel type of architecture is an object set against a background.  A Face type of architecture implies distinguishing features of a building within a common or shared context.  A Field type of ornament can be scattered over a larger area, at the same time be read as a smaller element.  It can be achieved through the repetition of elements over a façade or a material that can be perceived as a whole in spite of its various components.

In Portland, the Jewel type of ornament such as the US Bank Corp, a.k.a. “Big Pink”, although easy to identify, it contributes little to the street and pedestrian scale.  Often the building overpowers the street Portland has few high-rise buildings compared to other metropolitan areas; as a result, a dialogue between taller buildings has not been established.  As the Downtown continues to develop, the relationship between Jewel type buildings and the streetscape becomes increasingly critical to provide a coherent fabric.

Portland has many successful examples of Face type architecture.  Most of them are historic brick buildings, although different in details, together, they form an ornamented face to the street.  In essence, each building has its own character, at the same time forms a unified whole.  The Field condition is more difficult to locate due to the small scale of Downtown Portland.  It refers to the layering of ornaments.  One non-architectural example used to illustrate the idea can be the boats in the marina along Willamette River.  The boats stand along as ornaments to the river; at the same time, they are part of a larger scale ornament such as the hotels adjacent to the marina.

The architectural form language for Portland in terms of ornament imparts careful consideration of larger scale edifices in relation to smaller scale environments without overpowering its surrounding.


All elements are real, part of a coherent system, and serving a clear purpose.  There is a hierarchy of structural elements building from earth to sky that reflects the construction process.  Structure defines and confirms space.

The fundamental principle of structure is to resist gravitational and lateral forces.  This principle is fulfilled through a hierarchy of structural systems, established through the hierarchy of construction process.  Beyond the gravitational and lateral resistance, structure confirms and defines space.  Portland’s many bridges reinforce the hierarchy of the structural system like a simple skeleton of a tree.  They also separate and define two spaces, above and below.  The space above the bridge is the functional space.  The space below the bridge is mostly underdeveloped, undefined, and yet full of opportunity.

Portland’s buildings are divided into two categories for the analysis of their structural system:  Historic buildings that are 50 years or older and the new buildings.  Portland has a tradition of timber related industries as well as local masonry.  The historic buildings reflect the use of this local building material in forms of perimeter load bearing masonry with timber or steel frame interior or all wood/timber frame construction.  The modern structures tend to follow a more universal building system using concrete or steel framing systems with exterior cladding.  The study of existing buildings enables the development of the following guidelines for Portland’s future construction:

  1. Site Conditions:  It requires a technical understanding of soil conditions, building orientation and exposure to determine the appropriate selection of a structural system.  In Portland, the systems should be responsive to the site in which it sits whether be the hillside, the high flatland, or the river’s edge.
  2. Climate and Internal Spaces:  The influence of the climate on the selection of a structural system has to do with the quality of the internal spaces.  Choices should be made based on the building orientation and the levels of exposure and light required in particular spaces.  This can mean a light and open steel frame roof structure versus a typical concrete slab.  The selection of the structural system is dependent on the level of daylight and permeability required for both interior and exterior spaces.
  3. Spatial Definition/Function:  The structural layout should define and confirm spaces.  In the selection of a structural system, the designer decides what system does the most to define the space.  In a similar way, the structural system should define and separate the functions of the building.
  4. Available Materials:  Selections of structural systems should be made based on Portland’s available materials.  This does not mean the perpetuation of traditional non-native building materials that inherently produce form of a foreign nature.  Instead, structural system selection should be an informed and environmentally conscious decision of renewable material resources.


The window is an essential part of the figure/ground wall system, “an interruption of the structure of the wall”.  As a figure set off against the ground, the window is an identifiable element and a system of parts that is separate form the wall.  The window must have good shape and proportion.  The window must have depth in the wall.  It should rest on the sill set back into the wall some distance in proportion to its size.

Windows have a certain character within the frame system wall.  The openings become more than just a glazed element; they begin to create a micro-composition.  The shape and size of windows, for the longest time, was governed by glass technology and bearing wall construction.  The more historic buildings tend to have smaller windows with more repetitive mullions.  These windows were seen as objects or interruptions to the wall system.  However, in the newer buildings, the window is no longer part of the wall, it has become the wall.  In each case, it should reflect the interior space as a way to communicate with the outside.  This can be achieved simply by the placement of glazing within different planes of the wall. 

The windows in Downtown Portland follow the universal evolution of the window and wall construction.  The smaller windows in the historic buildings incorporate operable windows, which animate the spaces inside and outside. Unfortunately, the newer buildings eliminate the operable function of the windows. Although the actual size of the glazing of the newer buildings is larger in comparison to that of the older buildings and it introduces more light to interior space, the actual physical connection has regressed. In some level, the glass becomes the barrier rather than the connection between interior and exterior spaces. Each space becomes physically un-approachable.

Future construction for Portland may integrate operable feature back to window design.  Operable windows should not be worshiped as the ultimate solution to modern buildings, nor should they be treated as the adversary of mechanical and electrical systems. The two should support one another to provide efficiency and comfort to the users. In Europe, many buildings were designed with ‘double skin’ to achieve such goal: the first layer of glazing allows light to the building, and the second layer of operable windows offers a sense of physical connection to the outside.

Form is of the Place

Design should start by considering the specific elements that make the city and the site a unique place.  Examine the place at different levels: the city, the street, and the pedestrians scales, each have different implications for the generation of form.

The building form of a specific city should evolve from the inspiration of specific elements that makes the city and the site unique.  This idea is similar to that of Critical Regionalism, except the topic here focuses on the site-specific architectural elements rather than the poetic or literal inspiration of local tradition.  At the city scale, Downtown Portland is located west of the Willamette River with a topography that slopes toward the river.  Oregon’s tallest mountain, Mount Hood, is situated at the eastern horizon of the City.  Its presence provides a strong sense of identity to the residents of Portland.  The existing topography regulates the heights of Downtown buildings. The building heights slope from the west down towards the east to preserve the view corridor to Mount Hood.  At the street scale, due to the smaller block size, many newer Downtown buildings tend to occupy the entire block rather than articulating the building footprint.  This results in boxy buildings that offer minimum differentiation between facades.  For this reason, navigating around Downtown can be a disorienting experience.  The smaller block size allows no for alleyways in Downtown Portland.  Consequently, Downtown architecture often has no backside to the buildings.  Acknowledging this condition will allow for opportunities to design for the pedestrians at all sides.  It will also post challenges to architects when designing service entries and loading docks to avoid interruption of the already small City blocks.

Portland takes great pride in promoting a pedestrian friendly environment.  The building form of Portland’s architecture should continue to enhance such quality by providing visual interest at the street scale.  Portland also needs to address the water edge that so prominently divides the City.  The current waterfront park provides nice greenery.  But the views to the water are few and access is limited. 

Movement of People

Movement of people outside the building and inside the building should be an experience rather than purely a functional event.

Positive urban environments should provide systems of movement, which transcend their utilitarian requirements and provide a meaning, purpose, and poetry to virtually all daily activities.  One’s experience in the city changes depending on the means and speed of traveling, via foot, bike, bus, rail and car.  The visual scale and focus shifts accordingly.  Downtown Portland’s success lies in its ability to accommodate these multi layers of movement with minimum disruption to one another.  The smaller block size creates short pauses in the sequence of travel.  One is required to ‘stop & go’ more often than in larger city blocks.  As a result, more opportunities for interaction, or nodes in the city fabric, occur.

Intersections and crosswalks are a weaving of a cross section of the Portland community.  Each segment of the urban community is forced to interact with each other.  They provide a dynamic interaction of movement at different speed, modes and directions.  Portland does not have an underground rail system, only surface light-rail – ‘MAX’.  Along the MAX stops are prime retail real estate, tailored toward frequent pedestrian traffic.  However, MAX discourages automobile traffic as the driving freedom is restricted by the MAX track.  Automobiles are required to yield to MAX traffic.  Portland also has a dedicated Bus Mall, 2 one-way streets restricted for bus traffic only.  The Bus Mall along with a free bus ride program for Downtown encourages the architectural development of small details that are identifiable to pedestrians rather than larger scale iconography.  However, as Downtown Portland continues to increase its density, City officials need to evaluate the feasibility of underground means of transportation, which will broaden the physical experience of the City and increase the speed of travel through Downtown.

Herman Hertzberger said, “The most elementary thing we can do to help people take over their environment is perhaps to provide seating.”  Streets and cities are environments that need to be inhabited, taken over, in order to have life.  The simple gesture of providing seating allows people to settle themselves.  This principle can be expanded to places for people to linger without being in the midst of through traffic.  Portland’s architecture should address such challenge, and allow people to “settle in” in the Streetscape.


Simplicity, both as a design process and an end result, is key to bring unity, usability, and understanding to an evolving scene.  Simplicity can bring a sense of order and peace to a complex and chaotic environment.

Lastly we have simplicity as a way to connect architecture to integrate structure, function and esthetic design into a cohesive whole. To achieve this requires working back and forth through three factors during the design and conceptualization process. First we examine the individual buildings. These are the tangible structural components of buildings that can be integrated with the functional use aspects, at the same time be made with aesthetic consideration.  One example would be the entrance to the Morris Gift shop in San Francisco by Frank Lloyd Wright. Second we evaluate the community of buildings. This integration takes place with regard not only to the individual building but also the community of buildings within the built environment.  A natural sense of unity and cohesiveness emerges and comes together to make a composition without calling extra attention to the buildings themselves. Lastly, we need to avoid over designing. Some of the buildings’ or structures’ character should come as a result of actions that occur during construction or because of the context that it is built in. For example the east side river walk is more about the journey along the water, the views of the bridges and seeing the city. The simplicity in its construction is complimented by the complexity of its surroundings.

Materials and transportation play a major part in connecting people to the city and the city to its surrounding neighbors. Downtown Portland incorporates bricks as a paving material and wide intersections that can help pedestrians to establish points of reference within the city. Portland’s small grid is a major component in making the city a walkable and connected city. Public transit whether it be buses, light rail or streetcar are helpful in creating a simple and easy commute for the exchange of business within the city center. These public areas also allow the people of Portland to congregate for lunchtime or community festivals within the city’s fabric that many have worked hard to maintain and grow.

The product of this research has brought the entire group that worked on the Portland Form Language proposal and many who have come in contact with it more knowledge about Portland. Many of us had never approached architecture or research in this manner and have found many answers along with many more questions about Portland’s architecture and architecture in general. The Portland Form Language study has been an investigation of the present that will lead to visions for future development in Portland. It can also be a contributing factor to future investigations in cities around the world.

Many of the form language properties overlap and are dependent upon each other. Varieties of scale and material may be the two elements that are most important throughout. These elements are critical to the development of the Form Language and the architecture itself.

Portland is looking toward the future with the implementation of a growth boundary. This containment ring is one way to reduce sprawl and unplanned suburban expansion but also causes the city of Portland to look within itself to build upon its future. Aspects of this form language will help to inform architects, planners, builders and the general public how to restore, rebuild and expand within the city of Portland.

The Portland Form Language study will continue to evolve, if not at the University of Oregon, with each of the students that helped with this process. These studies will help us to better understand the architecture of Portland’s past, present, and especially the future.