A Bridge to Nowhere

The UO’s latest architectural folly isolates it even more from the community it serves

Bridges are meant for connection.

The Brooklyn Bridge ties together two key boroughs of New York City. The Golden Gate Bridge not only lets people walk or drive from San Francisco across the entrance to San Francisco Bay, but it also welcomes travelers from the Pacific Ocean. It really is a gateway, a gorgeous entrance to California.

Not so the newest bridge being erected in downtown Eugene.

It’s not even done yet — the arching white supports have barely been winched into place — and already the $4.9-million sky bridge that’s being built between the University of Oregon’s new Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and the existing Lokey Science Complex across Franklin Boulevard presents a visual barrier rather than an inviting portal.

Driving west on Franklin the other morning I was surprised at how abrupt the change is to the cityscape. A few days before, the view from the university toward downtown seemed open and inviting. Mature trees line both sides of the street. Even with cars and buses jockeying for position during the morning commute, the atmosphere was quiet, open and almost bucolic.

Now a shiny new glass and steel cage will block the view.

At its historic core, the UO’s 19th-century campus offers contemplative vistas. Buildings are balanced by open space and trees. The older campus buildings sit back from the streets and sidewalks, inviting people to approach them.

No longer.

The new campus aesthetic is that of a southern California office park. Construction forces its way right up to the curbside — as has already been happening for years in Eugene with the appearance of student housing (think Capstone) that’s more in tune with Soviet brutalist architecture than Northwest Modernism or its woodsy successors. 

Now that the steel framework of the new sky bridge is in place, what you see looking down Franklin Boulevard is a wall. You might be approaching a border checkpoint instead of a civic entrance. This isn’t helped by the fact that the science building being constructed on the north side of the street now presses right up against the sidewalk.

That sense of isolation is compounded by a non-architectural fact: The sky bridge, built on the publicly owned campus of a public university, isn’t going to be open to the public. Pedestrians still will have to find their own way across Franklin.

I’m not against new buildings, new bridges or contemporary architecture. The Peter DeFazio Bridge that has spanned the Willamette River for pedestrians and cyclists in downtown Eugene since 2000 is a graceful, airy ornament to the riverfront landscape and to Alton Baker Park.

The Wayne Morse U.S. Courthouse, designed by architecture superstar Thom Mayne and completed in 2006 on the edge of downtown, is a visual delight and the best example of contemporary architecture Eugene has to offer. Its undulating metal skin catches the Oregon sky in all its shifting moods and complements its color and presence. 

Recent architecture at the UO, on the other hand, conveys arrogance, power and disregard for the surrounding community. The amped-up version of once-charismatic Hayward Field, with construction well under way for the track championships in 2021, includes that silly, egotistical tower; the facility itself feels jammed into a site too small for it.

It’s exciting that the university is building new research facilities. It’s too bad that they don’t feel rooted in Eugene. ν

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