John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Four monstrous pitcher plants light up a new pedestrian pathway downtown ... if anybody's brave enough to use it, that is.
For several weeks now, Portland residents have had the unexpected pleasure of walking through an alien greenhouse of huge, bizarrely colored carnivorous plants. These 17-foot-tall monstrosities loom over the sidewalk of NW Davis Street, glowing with self-generated electricity and looking like they might suddenly rotate toward a passerby and bellow, "FEED ME, SEYMOUR!"
Portland installed this unnatural plantlife as part of the Mall Project, an ambitious facelift of nearly 60 blocks downtown. The sculptures are permanent street lamps, positioned to create a pedestrian-friendly link between Chinatown and the Pearl District. "By referencing the patterns of native Oregon native and other carnivorous plants and inserting a quirky expression of nature into an urban environment," writes the Regional Arts and Culture Council, "these sculptures celebrate Old Town Chinatown neighborhood's unique and diverse community."
They also exist to broadcast to the world that, ya know, Portland is still weird. Dan Corson, the Seattle-based artist who made the things, believes that hairy, gland-filled, insect-gobbling freaks of nature are a perfect match for the local populace. (There is some editorializing there from me, obviously; the artist says he loves Portlandians.) "I think [pitcher plants] are so interesting because they almost seem to cross species, from plant to animal," he says. "Their morphology is so crazy, intriguing and sometimes a bit naughty – often like the characters I see in this neighborhood of Portland."
Corson is a self-described "tropical-plant geek" who has a chocolate farm in Hawaii that he uses to cultivate strange flora. For the Portland gig, he drew from his fascination with the Pacific Northwest's Cobra Lilies and tropical Nepenthes "monkey cup" pitchers, so called because chimps sometimes slurp from their liquid-filled bowls. He painted the fiberglass shells to resemble the natural coloring of pitcher plants, and attached photovoltaic cells to their tops so they appear to bioluminesce at night. Lacking are citronella candles to repel any mutant, 40-pound mosquitos or bottleflies attracted to these immense plants.
The artist says he would have enjoyed making them act more like their forest cousins, running off the digested fluids of rats, pigeons and other urban animals. But seeing as how the Regional Arts and Culture Council is responsible for their upkeep, the gruesome task of cleaning them out took that concept "right off the table," he says. "But I would love a more hands-on client being willing to upkeep something like a cross of methane-producing composting toilets and a solar ignitor to burn off the methane at night, and provide fertile compost for the urban farmers."
Take a gander at Portland's newest city greenery:
Here are some of the plants that inspired Corson's odd street fixtures:
Images courtesy of Dan Corson