Universal Plaza Offers a Splash of Holiday Color

Tigard's Universal Plaza has a whole new look for the holidays.

Tigard’s Universal Plaza has already been several years in the making. 

“Apple Boxes” by Portland artist Asami Morita. JOSH KULLA/TIGARD LIFE

And despite the COVID-19 pandemic, this holiday season is when Tigard’s new living room is set to be unveiled, complete with new art installations and amenities designed to attract the public’s attention. Call it a Christmas gift to residents who are desperate to find a reason to celebrate. 

“We want this to be a beacon of change, highlight the possibilities for a two-acre open space in the heart of downtown, and we want to generate a lot of enthusiasm for this project,” said Peter Emerson, Studio Director at landscape architecture firm RIOS. The firm was hired by the City to design the $3.5 million makeover of the two-acre site off Burnham Street in downtown Tigard. 

Three “Twinkle Trees” are adorned with thousands of LED Lights and fabricated by a Clackamas company with the same name. TIGARD LIFE/STAFF

The actual physical construction of a new gathering and event space, which will include an interactive water feature, covered seating areas and other amenities, is not planned for completion until 2022. But the City and its project team have chosen to make the site usable well before it formally breaks ground.  

“We had a lot of other plans for the activation of this space pre-COVID and have had to pivot,” said Alisha Sullivan, President of Art Design Situation, a project management firm hired by the City to direct the process. 

To do this, a series of art installations are planned for the current holiday season. These include “Apple Boxes” by Portland artist Asami Morita, “Musical Bench” by Portland metal artist Jill Torberson, and “Beacon,” by Portland artist David Buckley Borden. Finally, a tree-like structure festooned with LED lights created by Twinkle Trees, a Clackamas firm specializing in LED installations, will highlight the rest of the arrangements. 

Portland metal artist Jill Torberson, assembling on one of her “Musical Benches.” COURTESY/TUALATIN VALLEY CREATES

According to Lauren Scott, the City’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Universal Plaza was officially opened to the public on Nov. 20, prior to all the art installations being put in place. The Twinkle Trees creation was scheduled to be placed on Nov. 30, and will be the last to be installed.

Scott emphasized that COVID-19 precautions are still in place for the Plaza. 

“I wanted to make sure that you highlight that COVID safety precautions are still in place,” she told Tigard Life. “The Plaza is open, but art installations are not sanitized. Face coverings are required over 5 years old. Face coverings are required when social distancing cannot be maintained.” 

The public opening will also help the design team. 

“The elements on the site will provide insight for Peter and his team at RIOS to come up with a final design,” Sullivan said. “Some elements are testing certain things like flow and scale and things of that nature, but we want to create a playful experience for citizens.” 

For Morita, the challenge was creating movable benches that both allow interaction as well as social distancing during a pandemic. 

“They need to be really simple and you need to be able to pick them up and move them,” she said. “People need to be able to safely socially distance.” 

Each of the three “Twinkle Trees” has a unique appearance. TIGARD LIFE/STAFF

They are partly inspired by apple boxes, she said, but feature several different shapes to allow for different seating arrangements. Made of 13-ply birch plywood, they are also far stronger than your typical apple crate.

“We’re supposed to invite more interaction with them,” she said. “Maybe people want to climb on them, kids especially, that’s what we talked about: how do people interact in an outdoor space if there’s social distance.” 

Morita started design work on her project in October and finished production of 30 boxes in early November. The benches are now spread around Universal Plaza to welcome the public.

Torberson’s creation is completely different. An accomplished metalworker and welder, she has come up with a piece of art that actually has the ability to sound out musical notes. 

“My bench is not one bench, it’s three seats and they come together as one bench,” she said. “It’s like a transformer. It could be three seats or one bench, and it’s specifically because of COVID.” 

Each seat is 20 inches wide and is hand-built from laser cut mild steel. The tallest is roughly seven feet in height, while the musical chimes that provide both decoration and entertainment are made from aluminum. Each seat will also be weatherproofed with a colorful orange and yellow powder coating. 

“I was inspired by the fires,” she said. “Between the fires and COVID, that’s all going into these. I think it will brighten people’s day.” 

Another holiday topping will be Borden’s “Universal Beacon,” which is a collaboration between the artist and the RIOS design team. 

“This is going to be a really incredible contemporary piece that is truly a beacon for this site,” Sullivan said. 

Portland State University architecture students are also creating a mobile art installation for the plaza. But the holiday topping will come in the form of Twinkle Trees, which are artificial tree-like structures adorned with LED lights and fabricated by the Clackamas company of the same name. 

The Twinkle Trees will decorate the Plaza from that start of December through January, and will provide the festive backdrop for the other installations. 

“We want people to come and safely experience the site on their own terms and own time at their leisure,” Sullivan said.