MYS Oregon to Iberia

PSU doubles down on its performance hall bid

The university’s revised design proposal for a Keller Auditorium replacement offers two venues in one: a Keller-sized 3,000-seat hall and a versatile 1,200-seat companion space.

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Main entrance to Portland State University's proposed performance complex at the south end of downtown. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.
Main entrance to Portland State University’s proposed performance complex at the south end of downtown. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.

This month, as Portland City Council begins deliberating the future of Keller Auditorium and which of three finalists will be selected—a renovation of the existing venue or one of two new-build options—one of the finalists, Portland State University, has upped the ante on its proposal and offered a first glimpse.

For its University Place Hotel & Conference site on Southwest Lincoln Street at the south edge of downtown, PSU has unveiled a design by Portland architecture firm Bora for not just a 3,000-seat performance venue to replace the Keller, but also an adjoining 1,200-seat theater, in addition to a hotel tower and restaurant space.

The revised double-venue plan — which will be presented to the City Council on May 29, as will proposals for a newly constructed performance hall at Lloyd Center and renovation of the current Keller Auditorium — resulted from the university’s conversations with existing Keller Auditorium tenants and other local arts organizations.

While Keller’s approximately 3,000-seat capacity and accompanying large stage are ideal for touring Broadway Across America shows as well as popular ballets such as The Nutcracker each December, “really what folks are looking for is 1,200 seats for some of the more intimate gatherings,” explains Jason Franklin, PSU’s associate vice president for planning, construction and real estate. “That’s one thing that we’ve certainly been hearing over and over again. There’s this hole in the market.” 

Re-examining their own proposal for a Keller replacement on the 4.25-acre University Place Hotel site, they found there was room for a two-venue configuration as well as a new hotel building, and asked Bora to move forward with a revised design.

Double Benefit

Interior view of the proposed center's main lobby space. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.
Interior view of the proposed center’s main lobby space. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.

Creating a second venue adjacent to the larger auditorium brings added benefits. In those same conversations indicating the need for a 1,200-seat space, stakeholders expressed a need for rehearsal space on a stage of equal size, so Bora’s design accordingly gives the smaller venue an equal-sized stage to its larger neighbor, meaning it can be utilized for rehearsals when not hosting performances of its own. And by committing to two venues, PSU’s new plan also creates correspondingly spacious twin adjacent loading docks, which could then become one large loading dock for the largest touring shows.

“You could get as many as six semis in the back of the house at one time, as well as places where you can park them or park buses for touring venues back here,” explains Bora principal Michael Tingley, who has led the design for PSU. “Major Broadway productions now come with 10 or 12 semis. It takes them a week to load into the Keller, and three days to load out. In most venues they can load in in two days and load out in a single day. At Keller, that really reduces the number of performances and shows that you can put on.” At PSU’s double venue, with its six-semi-truck capacity, he adds, “You could probably get one and a half times the number of performances that you can put on in the Keller, just in the large venue, not even counting the 1,200-seat venue.”

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PCS Clyde’s

Upon moving forward with its Keller replacement at University Place, PSU would hope to add at least one resident arts company, for which there would be a practical incentive. By having access to two adjacent, different-sized performance spaces, organizations currently using the Keller would no longer have to split their performances between two different buildings. Companies such as Oregon Ballet Theater, which already stages its highest-attended performances at the existing Keller (such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Peter Pan), could use the 1,200-seat venue for its productions requiring fewer seats (currently staged at the 880-seat Newmark Theater), thus maintaining a year-round presence at one place.

For arts organizations that don’t ever need a 3,000-seat venue but could realistically stage performances in the 1,200-seat venue, “The cost to access that would be a lot more advantageous,” Franklin says, “and would give them access to a premier arts destination.”

Artistic Placemaking

Conception of how a new performance center (near middle) at Portland State University would fit into Portland's downtown. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.
Conception of how a new performance center (near middle) at Portland State University would fit into Portland’s downtown. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.

Bora’s Michael Tingley has made a career of designing arts venues like this and witnessing the ripple effect they can have on the cities and districts where they’re built. In 2011, he led the renovation of Portland State’s existing performance space, the 454-seat Lincoln Performance Hall, which helped make the campus an arts destination, regularly hosting a variety of dance and music performances.

In 2005, the firm designed the Mesa Arts Center in Arizona, with four theaters, a museum, and an education complex. “It has really brought people back downtown and has become a destination for shared community and cultural celebrations and festivities,” Tingley says, which is exactly what downtown Portland needs today.

More recently, in 2022 Tingley and Bora’s design for the Van Cliburn Concert Hall at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth helped the school bring back the internationally renowned Van Cliburn International Piano Competition to campus after it had decamped in 2001 for another venue.

Tingley believes that while the City of Portland began its exploration of Keller renovation or relocation options based on the auditorium’s inherent needs—seismic upgrading, a larger site—the opportunities offered by a larger site are allowing decision-makers to think more broadly about the larger socio-economic impact of a multi-venue building.

“It’s transformed the conversation,” he says, “and allows them to say, ‘What can we do to really help invest energy and bring vitality back to downtown?’ Their success as an institution is so completely tied to Portland’s reputation that they’re kind of inextricably bound together. They’re genuinely concerned about the arts organizations and their viability.”

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All Classical Radio James Depreist

The double venue, rehearsal spaces and hotel at PSU’s University Place Hotel site would be large enough, Tingley adds, that the building could remain active all day, “not just the 150 nights that there’s an actual performance happening. Arts organizations could use them for rehearsals, or a nascent arts organization could put on a little performance in one of these rehearsal spaces.”

Unpacking The Design

The design for the theater's interior crates a more intimate large-capacity house, with balconies pushed closer to the stage and the most distant seats 50 feet closer than in the current Keller Auditorium. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.
The design for the theater’s interior creates a more intimate large-capacity house, with balconies pushed closer to the stage and the most distant seats are closer than in the current Keller Auditorium. Rendering courtesy of Bora Architects.

Bora’s design for the proposed Keller Auditorium replacement at PSU is rooted not just in the twin theaters, but also in the client’s desire to build an arts facility that reflects the character of the Pacific Northwest, “that feels like a place that couldn’t exist any place else,” the architect explains.

While the performance venues would be built with concrete and steel, the surrounding multistory lobby and the adjacent hotel tower would be built with mass timber. Over the past decade this building method has become the biggest trend in international architecture, as a new generation of materials such as cross-laminated timber have enabled architects to design taller, stronger wood buildings than ever before. A case in point: the new Portland International Airport terminal set to open this summer, which has already drawn rave reviews before its construction has even completed.

The larger, 3,000-seat venue would be built at the most prominent corner, Fourth Avenue and Lincoln Street, making it easily visible from the street. Almost like a ship in a bottle, the metal-paneled theater would sit inside a larger multistory, wood-ensconced lobby. Mezzanines and glass-walled rehearsal spaces would line its edges, giving visitors a chance to see and be seen from several levels at once. With skylights permeating the lobby with natural light, the effect would be similar to the aforementioned airport terminal design: a huge volume of space with the warm feel of wood and enough natural light to create the sensation of a winter garden or conservatory: a feeling of being outdoors while inside.

The combination of tall wood columns in the lobby and the adjacent white metal-paneled auditorium, the latter of which passes through the ceiling of the lobby and down to the ground, is meant to refer to two paragons of Northwest nature: towering Douglas fir trees and waterfalls. “We’re trying to making something that feels like the Northwest, but not like any other art center that you’ve been to,” Tingley says. “We are super excited about this.”

Inside the 3,000-seat auditorium itself, which is also clad with natural wood (which is conducive to optimal acoustics), the Bora design improves upon the existing Keller’s configuration by enlarging its balconies and moving them forward. In renderings, the new venue’s balconies appear to float.

“Because of the structural limitations of the original building, the balconies are pulled very far back from the stage,” Tingley says. “Here, it’s a lot more intimate.”

Sponsor

PCS Clyde’s

PSU’s University Place Hotel site is still just one of three options. Renovating the existing Keller Auditorium is still the most sustainable option, and may be less expensive. The Lloyd Center site offers considerably more space than the other two, and even more optimal transit access. Yet PSU’s University Place Hotel site was already an attractive option because it would help re-invigorate downtown, and the university has considerable experience partnering with the City of Portland on building projects. The addition of a 1,200 seat venue, a size that does not currently exist within the city-owned Portland’5 quintet of venues, would seem to give PSU a substantial chance at winning this three-horse race.

“We think it brings another piece to the puzzle,” PSU’s Jason Franklin says, “when you’re thinking about the vitality and the critical mass you want to create downtown.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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8 Responses

  1. I lived across the street from this site for a time and have a friend who lives in the towers just adjacent to the east. I don’t feel that this proposal at this location is going to “revitalize downtown”. I feel PSUs commitment to the arts should be with education, not involvement with mega projects. Didn’t they once have a world class dance program?

  2. What will happen to the Keller Auditorium if one of the other options are chosen? Will it be abandoned, demolished, or used as a second-tier facility?

  3. Unless there are radical changes to Lincoln avenue next to the proposed venues, there is no way a 53′ semi trailer could turn into the loading dock area. I doubt the existing MAX station could be moved easily. The 15 story hotel would block the westward view of at least one of the American Plaza towers. The 405 exit onto 4th avenue is frequently a parking lot at rush hour, and the turn from 4th onto Lincoln avenue would be very tight for a semi with a 53′ trailer. There is a list of other problems like the disruption and noise surrounding the condos and apartments in the neighborhood. The proposed loading dock areas are just below our rear terrace, the noise and fumes from six semis might be less then optimum.

  4. Is PSU going to relocate the Fore Court Fountain? The fountain alone is reason enough to renovate the Keller. The fountain is the best piece of architecture in Portland.

  5. If this thing gets built, what’s the plan for PCPA? Seems like it would be made obsolete by the Reser and the proposed 1,200-seat theater. The Winningstad and Brunish Hall alone can’t possibly bring in enough revenue to sustain the venue. Smaller companies are already priced out there anyway.

  6. in general I’m all for nice PAC’s. as far as PSU goes? this is exactly why University’s are known now for high price low return, they aren’t worth the money in tuition or funding in general. like most universities, the finishes and craftsmanship fits that of kings and queens ——- not where learning institutions should be funding incoming monies.

  7. The overwhelming support by the general public has been shown in the Tribune poll and will soon be verified. This is a bad idea.

  8. The Keller Auditorium should be renovated and updated. I was born and raised in Portland, and attended many great concerts at the Keller which was called Civic Auditorium. These include the Portland Opera, and the Oregon Symphony which was then based at the Keller. I do not see any assurances that the Keller Auditorium will be renovated if the PSU proposed plan goes through. Also, the iconic fore court fountains have not been working for months. The repairs need to be completed. The money to be spent on the PSU plan is staggering. 

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