Sunday, June 01, 2014

Big Pipe Portal

This stop on our ongoing public art tour takes us to industrial Swan Island, home to Big Pipe Portal, a monument to... um... an enormous sewer pipe. The sculpture is a round archway at the south end of McCarthy Park, on the upstream side of Swan Island. It's a short walk from the McDonalds, in case you need somewhere to park or have a sudden craving for a McRib. The RACC description explains what's going on here:

This sculpture is sited on the banks of the Willamette River at the confluence of the East Side and West Side Combined Sewer Overflow (C.S.O.) tunnels, and is surrounded by a man-made home to heavy industry. The sculpture echoes an ecological approach to the built environment wherein manufacturing is interwoven with our shared natural resources.

Although the Big Pipe Project is the largest infrastructure project in Portland history, it is largely invisible. Working closely with the Bureau of Environmental Services, the sculpture celebrates this hidden work by revealing and readapting massive precast concrete segments of the Big Pipe. These pieces of infrastructure are now put to work in support of art and narrative. Partially buried in the alluvial bank, the sculpture traces out the circumference of the hidden pipe and transforms it from an industrial artifact into a woven arch of currents and eddies.

The page also notes it was created by the design firm rhiza A + D, which also designed Cloud Cavu at the Cascades MAX station near the airport.

The Big Pipe project is a long-running city project intended to keep raw sewage out of the Willamette. Early on, the city made the unfortunate (but common) decision to have city sewers and storm drain runoff use the same pipes. This obviously saved money, and it generally did the job, except when the combined system was overloaded. When that happened, the overflow, um, material had to go somewhere, and unfortunately the only place it could go was directly into the river. And even more unfortunately, the system was overloaded a lot, because it rains here. So the idea behind the Big Pipe was to install enormous underground pipes on each side of the river to catch the outflow before it got to the river, and eventually direct it to the big sewage plant in North Portland. The westside Big Pipe actually tunnels under the Willamette right around here, and a huge (and mostly underground) pumping station here on Swan Island (next door to Big Pipe Portal) sends it uphill for the last leg of its journey to North Portland. As the description above explains, this was the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in Portland history, and yet the only parts of it visible to ordinary citizens are higher sewer bills, and a drop in the number of "ZOMG Don't Touch The River" alerts on the evening news. Don't get me wrong; like most people over eight years old, I'm basically ok with the sewer system being invisible. I can see how the Bureau of Environmental Services (the oh-so-delicately-named sewer agency) might feel their $1.4 billion investment has gone unappreciated, though. So the art helps the public imagine just how big the pipe is, without making people dwell on what's burbling through the pipe.

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