Designing a Showpiece for Accessibility

By Hennebery Eddy

PAM Rothko Pavilion Hennebery Eddy Architects Portland Oregon

Making the Portland Art Museum’s New Rothko Pavilion a Space for All Through Universal Design

The Portland Art Museum has long held accessibility at the core of its mission and offered a variety of services to assist visitors of all types. But the museum itself comprises two buildings, each with portions constructed in different eras and incrementally updated and expanded over several decades. Navigating the existing galleries across the various historic buildings has become increasingly problematic, and the need to create better connections has become a priority.

Hennebery Eddy, in partnership with Vinci Hamp Architects of Chicago, is designing the new Rothko Pavilion and campus renovations, which will connect the museum’s two existing buildings at every level, add 30,000 square feet of community and exhibition space, and establish a new, more accessible main entrance.

Early conversations with stakeholders about the expansion and renovation revealed the need to address the museum’s accessibility on a broad, holistic level — from ease and equity of physical access to inclusive programs and exhibition design. From these conversations grew an Accessibility Architecture Task Force, a series of open community dialogues, the formation of a permanent Accessibility Advisory Committee, and the hire of Becky Emmert as the museum’s first-ever Head of Accessibility.

With the Rothko Pavilion project prompting transformational thinking around accessibility and universal design, the museum is positioned to create an entire campus and art experience that not only considers the needs of visitors with a wide variety of abilities, but centers on them. The pavilion design features accessibility improvements that go beyond the application of regulatory requirements.

  • Clear, cohesive wayfinding and intuitive circulation paths that more directly connect every level of the museum and make it easier for visitors to find their way around.
  • A new, singular point of entry via the pavilion provides clarity and equitable access into the building for all visitors, whether they approach from 10th or Park Avenue.
  • Gender-neutral restrooms promote inclusivity with amenities such as adult-sized changing tables and the absence of loud, disorienting electric hand dryers.
  • The use of contrasting colors and textures to ease navigation for visually impaired visitors.
  • New elevator access that connects every floor of the museum from a single location, eliminating the need for undesirable chair lifts. Sloped surfaces also improve accessibility throughout the museum.
  • The public passageway between 10th Avenue and the South Park Blocks allows anyone to see into the museum throughout the day, and a changing exhibit in this space extends the art museum experience into the public realm, reducing barriers to art-viewing.
PAM Rothko Pavilion Hennebery Eddy Architects Portland Oregon
A public passageway between 10th Avenue and the South Park Blocks allows anyone to see into the museum throughout the day.

Project manager Andrew Smith, AIA, said, “The Portland Art Museum is highly committed to a fully accessible and equitable museum for the community. The input we’ve received from the Accessibility Task Force has been of tremendous value to the design team in our pursuit of the project goals.”

The Rothko Pavilion design was unanimously approved by the City of Portland Historic Landmarks Commission earlier this year and has received conditional use approval from the city’s Bureau of Development Services. Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2020.

This post was shared in partnership with the Portland Art Museum; read the full release about the museum’s dedication to accessibility, the task force, and Becky Emmert on the museum’s website.