Friday, April 18, 2014


Portland's Fire Station #1, at Naito & Ash, is a cool midcentury building dating back to 1951. At one point during the late-2000s real estate bubble, the city decided the building was obsolete and seismically unsafe, and the only solution was to tear it out, move the fire station away from the Skidmore Fountain area, and put in a super-upscale condo tower in its place. I suppose because being protected from fires and so forth isn't upscale enough. Saturday Market was booted from under the Burnside Bridge to make room for the UO Architecture School, but replacing the fire station fell through and they reluctantly made seismic upgrades on the existing building instead. As with all public buildings, 1% of the construction costs went to public art, which in this case was a stained glass window to brighten up the main entrance to the fire station. This is Engine:

Engine by Jack Archibald is inspired in part by the poem ‘The Great Figure’ by William Carlos Williams, and by two paintings also based on the poem by Charles Demuth and Robert Indiana. Archibald approached this piece wanting to create a totemic image for the headquarters. “Color, flash, and kinetics all held fast in the confines of the station’s entryway. The glasswork is intended to evoke explosive movement held in check, heroic energies at the ready, dramatic moments about to unfold... My intent was to modernize the imagery in the medium of glass, which is, I think, a kind of frozen energy itself, ready to explode when light hits it.”

The page continues with the aforementioned poem, which I'm leaving out just to be on the safe side, copyright-wise. Instead, here's a page at Emory University with the poem and the Demuth painting it inspired; and one at UIUC with three critics discussing it. The TL;DR here is that the window has a properly serious and highbrow inspiration, and one that relates directly to fire engines, which is no small feat. (And it's more eye-catching than the older piece with the stylized fire ladders out back of the fire station.)

On the other hand, the users of (which exists) only give it a 5.5 out of 10, and everyone knows it's the 21st Century and crowdsourced wisdom is superior to the stodgy old-fashioned kind. Although they currently have a Kipling in their top 10, which is just silly. Still, we defy the mob at our peril, and the next time someone wants stained glass inspired by a poem, we should probably stick to the one about the guy from Nantucket.

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