Rediscovering Campus: Urban Plaza is Portland State’s front door

Portland State University’s Urban Plaza

The Urban Plaza is an outdoor gathering space and transit hub between the College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA) and the university’s Campus Rec building.

Completed in 2002, the space was created by closing off SW Montgomery Street to vehicular traffic between 5th and 6th Avenues. The original designers envisioned the plaza as a “cauldron” of activity that would serve as the university’s front door, welcoming commuters arriving by bus, train and bike.

The new entrance was also intended to connect PSU to the city’s municipal and financial areas, complementing its existing relationship with the artistic and cultural core of the South Park Blocks. 

The plaza captures the natural beauty that surrounds Portland State’s campus by bringing together brick and stone elements, dramatic water features, and evergreen landscaping.

The plaza draws frequent comparisons to downtown Portland’s iconic Pioneer Courthouse Square, and for good reason: local design firm Walker Macy consulted on the master plans for both spaces. While the Square — which opened in 1984 — creates an amphitheater by cutting a circle into a concave set of stairs and steps, the Urban Plaza thrusts stairs and stadium-like steps upward into the space. It was once aptly described by a PSU architect as “Pioneer Courthouse Square turned inside out.” 

The plaza fountain

Londoner John Aiken created the mountain-like sculptures that mark the Urban Center’s main entrance. Composed of stone and light granite, the monoliths create 20- to 40-foot shadows across the plaza’s bricks, reminding passersby of the “hugeness of nature” that surrounds the campus on all sides. 

The plaza’s fountains draw attention to the main pedestrian corridors and provide a tranquil backdrop for passersby who elect to sit and stay a while. One fountain creates gentle ripples like a fish ladder, while the others create narrow streams that plunge like the waterfalls in the nearby Columbia Gorge. Students can often be found chatting in the sun or grabbing coffee while sitting atop a fountain parapet. 

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the Urban Plaza is the streetcar that carves a diagonal path through its bricks and stones. Each new car announces itself with a friendly chime and gentle shake of the buildings above it.

With no physical separation between the streetcar tracks and plaza pedestrians, the placement was intended to conjure images of busy European streetscapes.

— Erin Sutherland, Marketing & Communications Manager at Portland State’s College of Urban & Public Affairs


Rediscovering Campus is a weekly series that highlights the stories behind popular spaces at Portland State University, as we gear up for a return to in-person learning.

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