The Rothko Bridge.
I must admit, it has a certain ring, though in my imagination it isn’t so much a “structure” as an atmospheric blur of color that couldn’t support a pedestrian or a bike, let alone a light rail train or a bus.
But Jeff Jahn is proposing to name the new cable-stayed bridge over the Willamette River the Rothko Bridge as a serious matter. His argument as I understand it is that the name would both recognize a great artist (who lived in the city from ages 10 to 18 and then for short periods a little later) and also all the other great artists who have moved to the city, and might also help us overcome a deep-seated psychological issue: “Portland has a hard time acknowledging greatness.”
Wow: All that from naming a bridge! I propose that we rename ALL our bridges to get similar benefits out of them.
Artist and spoilsport Paul Sutinen does a tidy job of demolishing Jahn’s argument, though. He points out that Portland and Rothko were mutually indifferent to each other while Rothko was alive, and that attempting to “claim” Rothko now is several decades late.
“Jahn says that “Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people.” I don’t quite understand what Jahn means by acknowledging in this regard. For me this whole thing still smacks of “grabbing at the coattails of someone who became a great artist.” Our ancestors (he left 92 years ago) had damn little to do with the success of Mark Rothko. This bridge naming thing remains something like getting one’s picture taken with a celebrity so you can claim a connection.”
Given our predilection for offering standing ovations at the end of performances of various sorts, I don’t understand the acknowledging highly ambitious people (or greatness) part, either. Sometimes I think we’ll give you a standing ovation if you just manage to stay upright the whole time.
Now, I happen to think this bridge is not good enough to name after Rothko in the first place. It’s an off-the-shelf bridge with near copies around the world. In some circumstances, these bridges are perfect—especially in hilly terrain, where their peaks and angles fit right in, or on rivers with very aggressive modernist buildings on either bank. This particular site and this particular use suggest a more modest-looking bridge, like the one proposed by original bridge designer Miguel Rosales, much to the chagrin of TriMet. Rosales and his “wave bridge” were dismissed and an architect hired who would give the agency what it wanted from the beginning, a cable-stayed bridge, one advantage of which is lower cost variability.
I wrote about all of this several times back in 2009 while I was at The Oregonian (here’s my final take), and now the design decision is all water under the…oh, please! I’ve been waiting to see what it would look like once it was built, since during the design phase, TriMet never built a scale model of the bridge and its landing points on either side of the Willamette. Now that we’re starting to see the magnitude of those towers and the splay of the cable, I’m afraid I just might have been right about that bridge, although The Oregonian keeps trying to make it “iconic.” It’s not, of course. It says absolutely nothing about Portland (as Rosales best design would have) and everything about cost certainty. In its own way, it’s about as bad as the Marquam Bridge.
So, I wouldn’t name it after Rothko, especially if Rothko was deeply associated with Portland. But our relationship with him has been difficult when it hasn’t been non-existent (another topic I’ve written about, when the Portland Art Museum put together a retrospective of his work). If I were naming something after Rothko, maybe it would be a sculpture garden, a plaza outside the art school at PSU, something like that.
What I DO appreciate about Jahn’s proposal? Naming something after an artist. Let’s say the new bridge wasn’t such a Godzilla on the Willamette (the title of my last post on the matter in 2009). Who among the city’s artists should we consider naming it after? In general, my rule would be: An artist who spent a significant portion of a significant career in the state. If we were determined to go with a visual artist, I would choose CS Price, probably, though my personal favorite would be the Carl and Hilda Morris Bridge. And frankly, a dozen more artists from their time would make me happy—Mike Russo and Sally Haley, Louis Bunce, the Runquist Brothers, Amanda Snyder, Jack McCarty, Charles Heaney, etc. But maybe we should go literary and honor poet William Stafford (whose centenary is coming up) and his wife Dorothy, who just passed away? Or Ursula K. Le Guin, which would mean she could come to the bridge dedication and say something smart and funny!
For this particular bridge at his particular time, I’m stumped. I’m attracted to Cheapside Bridge, though there’s no marketplace on either bank. The opera center and OMSI are nearby on the east bank, so maybe that suggests something? The Aria Bridge? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know it when I hear it.