Along the banks of the Willamette River in Oregon City, a vision is taking shape to reconnect Oregonians with one of the state’s most spectacular — and hidden — natural treasures: Willamette Falls.
Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the State of Oregon have teamed up to help transform a former industrial site into an iconic destination, beginning with a public riverwalk. The partners are working with a world-class design team: Snøhetta, Mayer/Reed and DIALOG, chosen last year in a competitive selection process that drew proposals from around the world.
The designers’ work is founded on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project’s four core values and informed by site visits and research, discussions with stakeholders and the input of thousands of community members gathered through numerous public engagement efforts since the project began.
The team’s riverwalk design ideas will be introduced this fall at a community event and on the project’s website, rediscoverthefalls.com.
Michelle Delk of international design superstar Snøhetta shared her thoughts about waterfalls, past projects, design for public spaces – and what excites her the most about the Willamette Falls Legacy Project. We also talked with Carol Mayer-Reed of local design powerhouse Mayer/Reed.
Willamette Falls is your favorite waterfall (clearly!). Describe your second favorite waterfall in the world.
Yes, Willamette Falls is clearly a magnificent and unique waterfall! But my heart belongs to another . . . my husband proposed after a rain-soaked hike to a discreet waterfall just outside of Dahlonega, Ga.
While Willamette Falls is absolutely unique and incredible, “our” backwoods waterfall is simply intertwined with a meaningful moment in my life. But, it's just one of many beautiful places, where nature and the power of waterfalls can captivate you.
Any place can become special because of the history and memories we find embedded there. It's our personal experiences that are vital.
No two people experience, remember, or understand a place quite the same, and this is what allows places to become special and exceptional.
Tell us about a past project you worked on that was especially meaningful to you.
Over a decade ago, I started the redesign of the former Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami, Florida (now called Museum Park Miami). It was an impressive site embodied by great ambitions! I had only a few years’ experience, and certainly not with anything as complex or culturally significant as this site.
As the original home of the Port of Miami, the site had a long history of industrial maritime use prior to its establishment as a city park in 1976. Unfortunately, the park quickly deteriorated while crime and homelessness became prevalent.
When I started the project, very few people spent time there and the existing park was derelict, with only intermittent events, such as a grand prix style auto race.
The 29-acre site was a very special place, as it stretched along a half mile of publicly accessible waterfront; very rare in downtown Miami. During the 5-year design process, I became increasingly intertwined and deeply knowledgeable of the site, the team, and the political environment surrounding this project.
The proposed design not only created a home for a new art museum and a new science museum, but established the park itself as an outdoor cultural destination with unique spaces and rich materiality that would invite a diversity of future users back to this incredible waterfront.
Unfortunately, after the drawings were released for bid, financing difficulties caused the park-as-designed to not be constructed.
Museum Park taught me so much about the many layers of complexity that design embodies and still holds a special place in my heart.
You’ve designed a lot of parks and public spaces. What do you think is the key to designing successful public spaces?
Respecting and developing an understanding of a place is vital to foster a design that reflects a multiplicity of voices.
We explore the boundaries between program and spontaneity and emphasize the importance of the human experience as the center of our transformations within the public realm.
People are the key to the success of public spaces, but we must inspire them and provide them opportunity to build their own stories, histories, and connections for true success.
What are you most excited about on the riverwalk project?
The site is such an incredibly complex amalgamation of the natural and built environment! The physical strata intertwined with remnants of the constructed industrial landscape along the waterfront of the Willamette Falls and Willamette River hold such a compelling story that beg for reveal!
I've always been drawn to places where nature and culture merge to create unique and complex landscapes. This is probably inspired by my childhood. In a vastly agricultural landscape, my home sat near a shallow river, surrounded by acres of deciduous forest.
I could often be found in an abandoned rock quarry, partially filled with waste rock and successional vegetation. My days were spent exploring this landscape, imagining all the people who had been there before me and what they had created. At the same time, I scoured the landscape and formed art installations out of plants and old relics that I’d found.
The first time I visited the Blue Heron site I was immediately inspired and connected to this landscape as though it was a long lost friend. I’m intrigued not only by what is visible here, but by so much that is invisible. It’s an incredible three-dimensional place that’s absolutely inspiring and powerful!