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Architects call Tram design a plum

Four firms chosen as finalists; winner to be named on April 2

Four up-and-coming firms that span the globe have been selected as finalists in the competition to design an aerial tram to run between Oregon Health & Science University and the North Macadam District.

The Portland Aerial Transportation Inc. board received seven applications and narrowed the list to four relatively new firms at its meeting Thursday night.

The board chose Guy Nordenson and Associates, New York City; SHoP (Sharples Holden Pasquarelli), New York City; UN Studio, Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Angelil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl, of Zurich, Switzerland, and Los Angeles.

'It's very clear to the board that these are firms capable of taking on any design problem and coming up with inventive solutions,' said Gordon Davis, president of the nonprofit aerial transportation group. 'They weren't worried that none of these firms could come up with a tram.'

Because few commuter trams are built, Davis said group members are looking for a firm that can solve a design puzzle, not a transportation issue.

'This is a very hybrid kind of project,' he said. 'It has transportation components; urban design components; it has structural components. It's hard to say that it has just transportation components.'

During the last two months, board members attended interviews with representatives of the seven firms and ranked them. From those rankings, there was 'an extremely strong consensus' on the final four, Davis said.

• UN Studio is possibly the most cutting edge of the four, with its steel and swanlike Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam and the new Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

• Nordenson specializes in earthquake engineering and has designed projects such as a Santa Fe Opera House and a new 10,500-car Disneyland parking building.

• SHoP has designed a number of public projects, including the Rector Street pedestrian bridge, a temporary span at Ground Zero in New York City and Mitchell Park, a town park located on the eastern end of Long Island. The firm is known for using the computer as a design tool to build and fabricate things for the auto, aerospace and other industries.

'Every architect's hope is that a good idea will be what it takes to win,' said Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal at SHoP. 'We will put all our efforts behind something that really brings magic to Portland. It's exciting because of the urban design and architecture components.'

• Sarah Graham, a principal at Angelil/Graham, is the only architect from Portland. Her firm has won numerous awards for its work at the Zurich International Airport Midfield Terminal and is on the design team for the Children's Museum of Los Angeles

Graham, who started her career in Portland under the late architect Will Martin, said her firm was drawn to the tram project because 'it's wild.'

'It's a fascinating, rich, almost impossible to believe project,' she said. 'There are no cities, except possibly Madeira, Portugal, who have an aerial tram in a city. The idea of having an aerial tram as part of the transportation infrastructure is visionary and potentially brilliant. We were fascinated with the idea of it.'

The four firms will next receive a competition package with the schedule, scope and background material on the tram. They will return to Portland on Jan. 22 for a three-day visit to tour the site with OHSU, North Macadam developers and residents, and city officials. Davis said Portland Aerial Transportation will provide each firm with a $35,000 stipend for planning.

Final selection of a tram design team will be left to an independent jury of Portlanders that includes Bob Frasca, a principal at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects; Brad Cloepfil, a principal at Allied Works Architecture; and former public school official Diana Goldschmidt.

The jury will select a firm based on a 15-page narrative of the design problem to be solved and how it fits into the context of the community, Davis said.

'What we are doing is picking a team,' he said. 'We want their design ideas but are not necessarily picking the design.'

The jury will convene on March 28 and make its recommendation on the winning firm to the aerial transportation group's board April 2.

To take advantage of the firms' visits to Portland, Davis said his group is planning a lecture series with the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects.