Saturday, May 16, 2009

I finally made it up to Departure last week, on a pleasant evening right as the sun was going down over the hills. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of announcing to the hostess that I was there to "drink a beer and take some photos". The manager informed me soon after that, if I indeed wanted to photograph the space, I'd first have to write a letter to Departure's corporate owner, Sage Hospitality, asking permission. I wanted to ask whether I had just been beamed up to Beijing or something, but instead I strolled around and took some pictures nonetheless. Mostly outside, which detracts from my story. I passed on the beer.

Yesterday evening I went back with friends and family (cameo appearance below). I found myself warning them as we were riding the elevator up to the 15th floor: "focus on the architecture!". For, indeed, Skylab has outdone themselves. They have managed to attach a modern, impeccably detailed, space onto the roof of one of Portland's most illustrious historic terra cotta structures, The Meier and Frank building, once home to the department store of the same name, now home to Macy's and the Nines Hotel. It is a playful yet serious place that is comprised of a central bar suffused with natural light, several dark passageways, a large sitting area, and two outdoor decks. It may sound pretentious to say this, but the use of materials is masterful. Wood. Glass. Fabric. Mirror. Metal. Dark and light. All are used to gorgeous effect. It is a place that begs to be touched. Repeatedly. Skylab's Jeff Kovel has said that they were inspired by the historic role of the department store as "portal" to the rest of the world, and it's a testament to this firm's growing talent that they have blended together not-too-obvious elements of space age luxury travel without being remotely kitschy. Stand at the bar and tell me you don't feel like you are in an oceanliner about to be launched into space. (I ordered one of the $6.50 draft beers this time.)

Unfortunately, their hard work has been crippled by Sage. In a space that screams for the welcoming, creative-commons ambience of Holocene, they have delivered a cultural atmosphere that invites comparison to a schmaltzy lounge in the Dallas airport. And that might be an insult to Texans. I'm not sure how one would describe the musical selection, but it is atrocious. Worse than elevator music. Kind of like being trapped in a mall. The overall effect feels as though you are merely part of a corporation's lame business plan. Accordingly, you won't find many of the denizens of Portland's independent and creative underworld milling about up there, despite the fact that Portland owes much of its current cachet to them. It's not an unfriendly environment or anything, just rigorously upscale in a way that leaves you hungry for authenticity. I found myself daydreaming about lugging all of my Broadcast records up there to dj some night, but I doubt that such an unpredictable scenario would fit in with their "program". That program needs to be jettisoned for the space that Skylab designed to be completed.

I'll be going back, with Ipod, to appreciate Departure's marriage of art and architecture. It's a beautiful spot to ponder our bend in the river from yet another perspective. To wonder if we really need all those parking garages... or if we'll ever be able to send the east bank freeway and Marquam Bridge the way of Harbor Drive. Or, heck, to just stare at a volcano and feel small.

* Check out the lights of the St Johns Bridge in the distance!


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