I recently came across this Oregonian article, and was immediately brought back to 1997 on the opening day for this museum and interpretive center located in The Dalles, Oregon. I’ll get to the building in a moment, but first let’s just consider that its location – on a bluff in the Columbia River Gorge – is nothing short of transcendent. The power of this place, and the 10,000-year history of the Columbia Basin, is all felt on this site. And almost 20 years after my first experience at this place, I can still feel the emotion of opening day of the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Wasco County Historical Museum.
Let’s travel back to before the project was built (not too far back – I don’t pretend to have near the knowledge to honor the site’s true history, though there are many resources for that, including the Center & Museum’s website). But let’s look back to the time before THA Architecture (then Thomas Hacker & Associates) was involved: This project was conceived as two separate facilities – the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and the Wasco County Museum. In fact, we interviewed with both clients independently and won both commissions. We quickly recognized that each institution could get more if they combined resources, and while it took a little convincing (we had the federal government contributing to the Discovery Center and private funds for the County Museum), the promise of a “great hall” connecting the two facilities (with a powerful connection to the Gorge and the Klickitat Hills in Washington State across the river) won them over.
The result is a building made of strong, yet simple forms that respond to the powerful landscape. Basalt walls push out into the landscape so the building feels like it grows out of the land. One of the most significant moves in my opinion was the decision to rotate the plan so that the great hall (called the River Gallery) looked out to a (usually dry) river bed in the Klickitat Hills. Doug Macy, landscape architect of Walker Macy, was responsible for this significant decision – as the logical decision would have been to site the building directly perpendicular to the river. But Doug said, and was right, that if you angled the building in that way, you would be looking at old trailers on the other side of the river. The chosen angle, and the view it captures from the River Gallery, creates the immediate experience of being submerged in the landscape rather than set apart from it.
So back to that opening day in the summer of 1997. Though it was almost 20 years ago, I remember a few things very clearly. The wind blowing through the gorge, the acres upon acres of restored landscape brought back to its purpose and glory, the speeches by everyone who had touched and was touched by the project, and the peacefulness of the place.
For additional photos of the project, visit our website.