Reimagining the Burnside Bridge
Author: Karen O’Donnell Stein
Posted: June 4, 2019

Architecture students redesign the bridge in preparation for the Big One.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake—whenever it occurs—is expected to devastate the Pacific Northwest and destroy most of Portland’s bridges, including the Burnside Bridge. 

Expert analysis indicates that the Burnside Bridge is likely to collapse in a manner that would obstruct adjoining roadways since two-thirds of the bridge is over land, and block north-south ship traffic in the Willamette River. Worse, the five-lane roadway is a designated official “regional lifeline route,” intended to carry first responders and needed supplies during emergencies. If the bridge were to fail, that lifeline route would be cut off. 

Because the Burnside Bridge plays such an important role in the life of the city, transporting more than 40,000 vehicles and 2,000-plus pedestrians and cyclists each day, Multnomah County engineers are undertaking a major bridge improvement project. And in an effort to generate imaginative ideas for the bridge and spark a public conversation, they enlisted professor Jeff Schnabel and his class of PSU Master of Architecture students to design concepts for the reimagined bridge.

Schnabel posed to his students the questions, “How do you make a bridge that meets the needs for right now? What role does it play post-earthquake? How do you design a structure that is at once functional, beautiful and iconic?” 

County officials asked for innovative designs that will accommodate cars and transit vehicles as well as improve the experience for cyclists and pedestrians, says Schnabel. “The students also looked at how to integrate the bridge connections with the green spaces on either side in order to enrich that bike and pedestrian experience.” 

Because the county is still determining what type of bridge to use, the students’ proposals ranged from operable to fixed bridge designs, keeping in mind how these would impact users. For those who went with a fixed bridge option, they had to address the height needed for water traffic. Others chose a movable bridge, with a vertical lift or a double drawbridge; with this option, students had to contend with potential interruptions to road traffic.

SOME OF the students designed dramatic light features in their bridges that could act as beacons, while others incorporated digital art panels that could convert to emergency messages. Creating access to water-based transportation was an important part of students’ designs as well. 

The idea of a bridge that serves multiple functions was particularly compelling. One such proposal suggested that the bridge could be used as scaffolding—extending alongside the unreinforced masonry buildings at the ends of the bridge and providing structural support. That same scaffolding would also create temporary market space on either end beneath the bridge, and places for emergency services to be offered. 

Throughout the design process, students presented their design proposals to bridge engineers and officials at Multnomah County and got their feedback. 

County officials didn’t always agree with the students’ proposals—financial and practical constraints meant that sometimes their designs were nixed. “But that was really the best part of the studio—there was a dialogue,” says Schnabel. 

“Naturally, the county representatives were open to new ideas, but they had a clear perspective on their needs for the bridge, and as a result the students confronted more criticism than they would get in a traditional academic setting,” adds Schnabel. “But pedagogically that was a valuable experience. They had to come up with brilliant ideas that would also resonate with the client and meet their practical requirements.”

The students’ designs were recently shared with the public in an open house, where the county encouraged community input.
Karen O’Donnell Stein is communications and student services coordinator in the PSU School of Architecture.

Caption: (Above center) Architecture master's student Brandon Parker shares his ideas for the Burnside Bridge with interested faculty member Juan Heredia. Timothy Barnett (above left) and Emily Waldinger (above right) present their designs for critique by faculty, local architects and officials from Multnomah County.