Mirage Building (Surface Magazine)

A Portland art organization earns a reputation for architectural achievement — without a building to show for it.

Raising money to construct a signature building designed by a famous architect is on the to-do list of most art institutions these days. That’s simply not a problem for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. “We’re itinerant by nature by choice,” says Victoria Frey, PICA’s executive director, explaining the group’s unorthodox approach to design “We don’t mount a capital campaign to build a facility to house a theater, because the kind of work we’re presenting may not always fit within whatever box we build.”

So for the past two years – and with plans to do it again this fall – PICA has collaborated with Oregon-based Boora Architects on temporary theater and social spaces for its annual Time-Based Art Festival, held each September. In 2004, the architects flipped 200 five-gallon orange buckets and capped them with carpet-tile samples to create a playful, ethereal and recyclable black-box theater in a borrowed warehouse. At the end of the festival, they stacked up the buckets and returned them to Home Depot – collecting an American Institute of Architects honor award for their efforts. For the 2005 version, an empty printing plant was transformed into a theater-in-the-round and cabaret, with a beer garden spilling out onto its asphalt front lawn. Metal scaffolding wrapped in orange construction fencing became gauzy lanterns that turned a sleepy industrial neighborhood into a glittering block-long theater district – at least for 10 days.

While more accustomed to wrestling with permanence than performance, the architects embraced their creation’s short life. “It’s not, how is this going to serve its client 20 years from now, but, how do we make something that’s going to be fun and intriguing for this one moment in time?” says Boora principal Michael Tingley. For Frey, the design is ultimately about co-creation. “Place is community rather than monument,” she says. “Rather than build a place where the community interacts with us, we inhabit and live within and alongside a community. Ultimately that allows us to respond to the needs of artists and their ideas.”