Portland, Maine

Portland has long been a cultural outpost in New England, a hotspot for artists and longshoreman alike who crave the sophistication of the big city (65,000 people) while still retaining a distinctly Maine character.

A view of the Promenade, looking out to Cascoe Bay.
A view of the Promenade, looking out to Cascoe Bay. Image courtesy of Rocketdog 2000.

I met Portland, Maine-based architect Christopher Campbell on a snowy February morning on the ferry leaving Rockland, Maine, heading toward North Haven Island. He designed a house out there that will show up in the July/August issue of Dwell, but over the course of the day we got to talking about Portland. I’ve only spent a little time there, wandering Exchange Street in the summertime, taking the ferry out to Little Diamond Island to see friends, and generally wandering the cobblestone streets of the old port before hunkering down at Monument Square for a cup of coffee or a lazy browse through Longfellows Books.

I got Campbell to answer a few questions about the city he’s called home for the last ten years, ranging from the state of modern design in the city, to its sustainable future, to where to go for the best bite in town.

 

Modern architecture isn't exactly Portland's strong point. The Portland Museum of Art by Henry N. Cobb’s Portland Art Museum, rendered in the lovely red brick that makes much of the city so beautiful, is the only example I can think of off the top of my head. Is modern design making any inroads I'm missing? I did notice a newish modern glass building on Fore Street as I drove past. What’s that?

Modern design is very quietly sneaking into Portland. After a spate of disastrous mid-century planning and design debacles, the city dug in and resisted new work and the modern aesthetic in general. But new things are being built now, and the planning board and the various design review groups all know that new design can work quite successfully within our historic city framework. It's lovely to see these nuggets of modern peeking out from rooftop additions and squeezed between historic buildings - it adds a vibrancy and a level of excitement that a strictly "Historic" town doesn't have. The building you mentioned is a lovely project which houses Utopia Gallery on the first floor - I believe it is run by the design group Utopia Designs.

Portland seems to have a thriving arts scene, in no small part thanks to you, Space Gallery and One Longfellow. How would you describe the arts climate in Portland?

I think the arts climate is quite strong for a city of our size - there is, of course, always room for improvement, but in general from both a grass roots street level view and also from a higher-end gallery-and-museums point of view there is a feeling of some real positive movement. The art scene and vibe on the street is great - we do an artwalk every first Friday of the month. Design Sponge did a roundup of our art/design scene as well. With the schools in town, particularly the Maine College of Art that is smack in the middle of our downtown, we have a steady influx of young artists into our community. That combined with a healthy tier of professionals and entrepreneurs doing design work really does keep it pretty lively. My involvement with and connection to the community has been through the Non-Profit SPACE Gallery, studio building with 35 artist studios, and also through the music venue One Longfellow Square being involved with these projects has really been a great way to connect to a community and has kept me interested and engaged in the things that are happening in this town outside of the strictly architectural world.

You started a Pecha Kucha night in Portland. Tell me about how you got it started, what sorts present and attend, and your first meeting.

Well, actually SPACE Gallery hosted the first meeting, technically it is now a fully independent and very successful group that makes Pecha Kucha work so well here in Maine. Nights like those are exactly the kind of thing that we love to see happen in our town. The first one was in October of 2007 and the founder Mark Dytham was the official master of ceremonies that night as he had been brought to Portland by an architecture and design group lecture series that we have here in town. The presenters have been a wide ranging group of design people - photographers, painters, designers, architects, planners, students and professionals. It's a fantastic opportunity to get a real snapshot of the community and all the different directions that people are going in.

Where do you go to eat in Portland? Fore Street gets a lot of attention, but what about newer spots like the Blue Spoon? For breakfast I always get dragged to the Good Egg, which is pretty good, I have to say.

The restaurants here are really terrific. Fore Street always gets a great deal of attention but there are a great number of excellent restaurants all through town. Places like Evangeline, Hugo's, Miyake, Bresca, (and on and on) are all top notch. One of the best guides for food in town is Portland Food Map. The places they call out with four and five stars are really must-eat stops if you're planning a visit. There are great little places like the Blue Spoon popping up all the time, and there is a strong and passionate foodie community here ready to swoop in and try it all out.

In addition to tony, beautiful brick houses and views of the Portland jetport (Note to visitors: in Portland, for a reason I cannot divine, the airport is called the “jetport”) the West End seems like it has some cool shops. Where do you satisfy your craving for modern design or clothes in Portland beyond Rogue's Gallery?

These are just some of our homegrown companies that have made it easy to get a little design fix here in town:
Addo Novo: Furniture
Wary Meyers: Decorative Arts and Interior Design
Rogues (above): Clothing
Brook There: Organic Clothing
Angela Adams: Housewares
Eli Phant: Housewares and Apparel
Ferdinand: Handicrafts, Vintage and Apparel
Green Design Furniture: Sustainable Furniture

What's your favorite building in Portland? Any style.

My favorite building is Fort Gorges (pronounced "gorgeous"). It is a small, deserted, never-used fort built in the 1860s out in the middle of our harbor, and every day with the tides it seems to sink into the ocean and rise out again. The roof is piled high with earthen ramparts and in spring the plants and trees growing on top give the fort a crazy surprised look with its crown of green sprouting wildly - our first green roof! Access is by small boat only, as you need to be able to beach the craft, and the interior is a beautiful, peaceful ruin of massive granite blocks and arches.

Portland is a small city, maybe 65,000 people, and part of its colonial New England charm is how walkable it is. How would you like to see the city evolve in a more sustainable way?

Many of the things I'd like to see are being looked at by the city right now, in fact—the city is currently in the process of reviewing its transportation policies, in particular our public transportation, to increase usability and efficiency. I am a big fan of pedestrian and bike-friendly planning moves and am very excited to see that we have a car share program as well. There are a number of progressive policy makers in town; for instance, we just passed a zoning change that allows for small-scale chicken-and-egg operations in our residential neighborhoods. What I would like to see would be a more aggressive stance on the part of the city towards taking advantage of the solar and especially wind power opportunities that we have in our harbor. The lighting in my home is all solar-powered and it would be great if our city encouraged more of this and on a larger scale.

Maine has a small population, just about one million, but that number swells in the summer. Does Portland expand and contract like other parts of the state in the summer months? There must be a strong sense of community as a result--Mainers and summer folk.

I think of our wintertime population as the "core" of the city - the whole place takes on a quieter and more intimate quality. You recognize the bundled-up people that you pass on the streets as your true neighbors. When the weather warms, and the summer population comes back to Maine, then the whole place just blooms with new faces. We complain about the tourists sometimes, but actually I kind of love the energy of it, with massive ships pulling into the harbor, and people speaking all different languages poking around and wandering the streets that only a few short months ago felt like our private little hamlet.

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