• Guenevere Millius

It's a Wrap! 8 years, 9 months, and 14 days on the Portland Design Commission

On August 6, 2015, I attended my final Portland Design Commission hearing as a Design Commissioner. For the uninitiated, the Portland Design Commission is a quasi-judicial body that reviews and approves new buildings and major renovations in Portland's downtown and central city neighborhoods, the Hollywood District, and Gateway. The commission also advises City Council and city bureaus on urban design and architectural matters. For people outside of the architecture world, the commission is an obscure cog in the machinery of representative government. For real estate development insiders, the Design Commission is kind of a big deal. As one of Mayor Charlie Hales' staff put it to me, it is one of a handful of places where a citizen volunteer can have a lasting impact on Portland's urban form. I joined the Design Commission in October, 2006, at the peak of the last real estate bubble. My first hearing, which started at 1:30 pm, was 8 hours long. When it was over, I was totally exhausted. I called my mother that evening to report on my day, and she asked me, in total exasperation, "How do you get yourself involved in these things?"

I have to admit, early on, there were times when I asked myself a similar question. In 2006, I was easily the youngest commission member. I was also the only woman. More than once, when I told acquaintances in the industry that I sat on the commission, they would give me a mildly puzzled look and ask, "you're a Design Commissioner?!?" I guess I didn't look like the sort of eminence grise that spends their Thursday afternoons critiquing other people's work.

When I started, I questioned whether I would serve a second four year term. After my son was born in 2010, I wasn't certain I could keep going, either. In 2006, I never dreamed I would one day chair the commission, but I did from 2012 to 2014. It's an understatement to say that my time on the commission was formative. And now, 8 years, 9 months, 14 days, and hundreds and hundreds of hours of unpaid work later, it's hard to believe its over. At my last hearing, I gave a brief talk on the cycle of creation, crititque and editing that sprang into my head on a post-hearing bike ride. Here it is:

When I was in college, I studied ceramics with a Professor named Brooke LeVan. When we started working on the wheel, he had us throw a minimum of 100 objects of a particular form each week. One week it would be bowls, the next mugs, and so on. The first week, Brooke asked us to put our favorites out to discuss, and to our horror, he proceeded to cut the ones that were still soft enough in half.

His rationale was in part to help us better understand the forms we’d made. Had we left too much clay at the bottom? Did the piece have walls that would survive the firing process? What was the nature of the foot, the lip, the skin of the piece?

It was also an early lesson in not being precious with first efforts and early ideas. After all, it was the nature of the medium that not everything we threw or built would survive the multi-step process to finished piece. Indeed, he really stressed that not everything we made should go to the kiln. Putting clay in a kiln, after all, amounts to making a very permanent thing. The truth is, not everything we create deserves to be permanent. Brooke was pretty adamant that we only commit to the fire the pieces of which we were the most proud – the rest went back to the slurry pile.

In this class, we ended up talking a lot about the meaning of craft, the power of the intentionally created thing, the connection we make with objects that somehow express the hand of their creator. Of course, we were making dishes, so we dwelt on the importance of the vessel to the presentation of a meal. It is so easy today to thoughtlessly eat food made by machines in a throw-away container made by other machines.

Meanwhile, a beautifully crafted bowl can put the simplest food on a sort of altar, reminding us that a meal is a gift and a blessing.

I was thinking about Professor LeVan and throwing all those bowls and mugs on my ride home from one of these hearings recently. I thought about that cycle of creation, criticism, and editing ideas down to the best of what we have in us, and how much it reminded me of what we do in this room, together: applicants, staff, and commission.

Of course, the vessels that we are grappling with here are much larger and consequential than mugs or bowls. These buildings that we design and build for each other have such significance and meaning in our lives. We eat, sleep, work, live, love and die in them. We raise and educate our children in them. Buildings are so essential to us, and yet it is so easy to take them for granted and to lose sight of their profound meaning to us.

Yet we know that good architecture has the power to bring dignity to the down-trodden, speed the healing of the unwell, and to open minds to new ideas. So here’s my parting shot to applicants, staff, and this commission: only commit to permanence that of which you are most proud. Be open to the cycle of creation, critique, and revision. Keep challenging each other to deliver buildings worthy of housing the blessed, everyday acts of life. Don’t forget your part in making the world a better place.

Before I close, I want to officially thank, on the record, my husband and son, and to beg their forgiveness for the many missed Thursday evening dinners and story times. I also want to thank my colleague Julia Sylla, who has kept the lights on at Parachute Strategies in my absence. Thank you to the staff who move heaven and earth to keep these hearings on track. You are magicians, and yet you too often toil without praise. I also want to thank the applicants who allow us to cut their projects open and suggest what might be kept and what might go back to the slurry bin. Finally, I want to thank my fellow commissioners, past and present, for your tireless dedication to this process. You are truly the people to whom CES Wood was referring when he said “good citizens are the riches of a city.” I love you all very much. It’s been an incredible privilege to serve on this commission, and to serve the City of Portland. Thank you.

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