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When it comes to architecture, the contrast couldn’t be more plain: The Emerald City likes the shiny new gems; Portland likes perennials. 

For a fine example, consider the two cities’ central public libraries. In 1901, Andrew Carnegie gave Seattle one of his largest library grants ever, a $200,000 admiration of what he called the city’s “pluck.” The result: a chest-thumping Beaux-Arts pile that the citizens learned to loathe. After scarcely 50 years, the city traded it in for a gleaming new ode to the International Style. Soon tired of that, Seattle voters passed the largest library bond in U.S. history ($196 million) in 1998, in part to build the next new thing: Dutch iconoclast Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 zigzagging tribute to civic ego. 

Portland traveled a far different path. In the early 1910s, its chief librarian and her chosen architect traveled the country to study library buildings, above all listening to their workers’ complaints. The result: a simple, Georgian Revival box designed to be cheaper to build, work in, and maintain—the first open-plan library in the country. By the mid-1990s, as most major cities commissioned the likes of Michael Graves and I. M. Pei to design bold new technologically wired libraries, Portland spent $24 million to gut and rebuild its humble building with nice new modern systems, but looking exactly the same. 

The list goes on. The Emerald City built its 1991 $62 million art museum to be a postmodern icon, its 2003 city hall to be a green machine, and its $430 million football arena to be the noisiest ever known. The Rose City, by contrast, expanded its 1932 vintage Modernist museum with a $32 million remodel of a 1925 Masonic Temple next door. It spent $30 million to restore its 1895 Renaissance Revival city hall. Portland has renovated its humble 1926 Civic Stadium twice in the last 12 years. 

Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation built a $30 million “living building,” the greenest commercial building in the world. Portland’s ubergreen eco-finance organization, Ecotrust, spent $13 million on the first LEED-rated historic renovation in the country—an 1895 Fuller Paint warehouse.  

Indeed, Portland’s most celebrated work of contemporary architecture since Pietro Belluschi’s 1948 Modernist masterpiece, the Commonwealth Building, is the Wieden and Kennedy World Headquarters by Allied Works Architecture, a renovation of a cold-storage warehouse. 

 

Portland historian Carl Abbott likens the two cities’ civic ambitions to the leftovers of their big midcentury self-celebrations, the 1959 Oregon Centennial and the 1962 World’s Fair: Seattle has the 605-foot Space Needle; Portland has a 31-foot Paul Bunyan statue. 

 

Okay, Portland does occasionally buy cool, new things, mainly transportation systems and little urban parks. In the ’70s, the city traded in federal money for a new interstate freeway to instead build what would become, in 1986, the first light rail line in the U.S. In 2001 Portland opened the first new streetcar line in the U.S. since World War II. Seattle finally finished its first light rail and streetcar lines in 2009. In 2007, Portlanders took their first rides on what is only the second commuter aerial tram in the country. Seattle? We anxiously wait.  

In 1966, Portland christened two urban fountain plazas by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin followed by a third that in 1970 New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable declared to be “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.” In the 43 years since, Portland has peppered its downtown with six more such plazas and parks by the likes of Peter Walker, Herbert Dreiseitl, Laurie Olin, George Hargreaves, and Cheryl Barton, together arguably the greatest showcase of contemporary urban landscape architecture outside Barcelona. Seattle has the lovely city hall plaza by Kathryn Gustafson. Nice job, Emerald City. Really. 

Portland mayor Charlie Hales likes to say that other cities build big, bold projects for those who visit, where Portlanders build for themselves. Portland historian Carl Abbott likens the two cities’ civic ambitions to the leftovers of their big midcentury self-celebrations, the 1959 Oregon Centennial and the 1962 World’s Fair: Seattle has the 605-foot Space Needle; Portland has a 31-foot Paul Bunyan statue. 

But another historian and yarn spinner, the late Terence O’Donnell, maybe described the Emerald-Rose split best: “Seattle and San Francisco,” he said, “were founded by people looking for gold. Portland was founded by people looking for Eden.”

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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