Ship in a bottle
Entering Portland State University's new Viking Pavilion along the South Park Blocks, it doesn't take long to be reminded of the school's Scandinavian-warrior mascot.
After passing through the glass entry façade into the lobby, a captivating ship-in-a-bottle configuration reveals itself: The interior wall of this 3,000-seat multi-purpose arena and event space is clad in unpainted glulam Douglas fir beams, like the hull of some massive vessel navigating the North Sea. But if a Viking ship of ancient lore was designed to be impenetrable, the opposite is true here.
In arguably the project's most compelling design move, the architects from Portland's Woofter Architecture and Denver's Sink Combs Dethlefs (now part of multi-city firm Perkins + Will) lifted up the entire inner wood façade like a curtain, so that the action going on in the arena can be seen from the lobby. This also allows natural light to penetrate deep into the space — a wonderful feature uncommon to virtually any such arena not named Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The $52.1 million Viking Pavilion is an expansion of the existing Peter Stott Center, completed in 1966 and originally known as the Health & Physical Education Building. As that first name indicates, it was never an appropriate home for an NCAA Division I basketball team. With just 1,200 seats the Stott Center was more gymnasium and rec center than arena, and it's a minor miracle that the Vikings managed to win enough games to make it to the NCAA tournament in 2008 and 2009 with such a miniscule home-court advantage. March Madness indeed. Now, however, Vikings basketball can house nearly three times as many supporters.
But Viking Pavilion is about much more than hoops. The building also houses a new Vikings Athletics Hall of Fame as well as student lounges, administrative offices for the athletic department, a renovated weight room, and facilities for the new OHSU Sports Medicine Center, reflecting the university's increasing collaboration with the local medical school. And as for the arena bowl itself, when I visited the space was full of teenagers competing in a science fair. A few days earlier, its first-ever event was TechFestNW, connecting hundreds of programmers and startup entrepreneurs.
Arenas and concert halls are spaces that bring us together, be it for business or entertainment, and as such Viking Pavilion is a key step in Portland State University's larger, multi-decade journey: from the middling commuter school to a more prestigious and vibrant institution that not only attracts students from all over the world but people from all over the community. Besides being bigger than the Stott Center, it's also as transparent and open — to the Park Blocks and to the city — as the old facility was facing inward.
Ships in bottles first became popular in the 18th century as a way of celebrating oceangoing vessels as humankind's ultimate means of exploration and connection. Today technology allows us to reach anyone
anywhere in the world in seconds, but public gathering spaces like Viking Pavilion where we can come together are all the more vital given our reliance on the virtual world. This is a modest little arena compared to some, but it delivers that ship-in-a-bottle sense of wonder: achieving beauty by revealing itself through the glass to all.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com