In downtown Portland
, in front of the Standard Insurance Building, stands a well-known sculpture most locals refer to as “Family Night at the Y” or “Three Groins in a Fountain
While both monikers describe the sculpture well, I don't think they're meant to be scornful. The sculpture is very peaceful and most people like it. Perhaps the nicknames arise from it showing a tableau one doesn’t often see outside of marble or, say, a Ron Jeremy film.
I finally learned the statue’s official name recently when I wandered up and read the small plaque near the south end.
Sculptor: Count Alexander von Svoboda - 1970
John Ashcroft would probably denounce Quest as a six breasted, two penis’ed abomination (and smother it under a special tax-payer-funded nipple-shrouding, breast resistant tarp) but we Portlanders proudly call it ours.
Hewn from white marble, the large sculpture prominently features two women kind of rearing up like horses or caught mid-dance, arms entwined, and a man kind of flying up beside one of them. (It looks like they all came out of a water slide at the same time or something not really a pose people could “hold”). If you come up to the sculpture and walk around it you’ll see there are two more people carved in it: a little boy standing and a woman resting.
The sculpture sits in the southern end of a long rectangular pool. The pool itself is about fifty feet long and fifteen feet wide and takes up about half of the space in front of the building. The two "rearing" women of the sculpture “face” south. The base of the sculpture is surrounded by small water jets, which provide a small amount of white water and a larger amount of white noise. There is also a small waterfall coming from the statue itself, falling noiselessly from between where the two women’s hips meet. In the 60% of the fountain not taken up by the statue, two vertical jets shoot water about five feet into the air. Nine floodlights, submerged in the ten (or so) inches of water light the statue during the evening.
The fountain is surrounded by a lip about ten inches high and fourteen inches wide; almost perfect for sitting and, judging from the amount of cigarette butts littering the northwest corner, smoke breaks. Across Fifth street from Quest are Happy Bowl, a Radio Shack and a Carl’s Jr. If you’re in need of some bento, criss-cut fries, or a roll of overpriced solder, your salvation is just steps away.
Sitting by the fountain the sounds you hear are the white noise splashing of water and the muted rumble of Tri Met buses as they drive by (or the squeak of their brakes as they stop for passengers). Something so calming about the sound of water (unless you’re in a sinking rowboat with a lump of pure sodium in your lap I suppose).
In search of yet more Quest information I ventured inside the Standard Insurance Building. Sitting behind the desk in the lobby was a nice woman named Evelyn and I asked her if she had any information on the statue out front. She grabbed a black notebook from beneath her huge desk*, removed the rubberband holding it closed and handed me a single Xeroxed page from within.
Here’s what I learned.
First, Evelyn is totally on top of the whole statue inquiry thing. Seriously, hats off to Evelyn.
- The sculptor Alexander von Svoboda was born in Vienna, Austria and now lives (at least he did at the time of the Xeroxed paper's writing) in Ontario, Canada.
- Von Svoboda actually created two pieces of sculpture for the plaza of (what was then) the Georgia-Pacific Building. (I’m not sure what the second one is or if it still exists, I’ll have to take another trip and walk around the building.)
- According to the wizened guard who spelled Evelyn at 4pm, Georgia-Pacific moved out of the building a while ago (“They’re off in... Tigard now I think”). The name of the building then changed to the Standard Insurance Building which we all know and love today.
- Quest (or “The Quest” as the paper refers to it) was carved from a 190-ton block of “white pentelic marble”. I figured “pentelic” must mean “you can’t afford it” until I looked it up and found that it actually means
"Of or pertaining to Mount Pentelicus, near Athens, famous for its fine white marble quarries; obtained from Mount Pentelicus; as, the Pentelic marble of which the Parthenon is built."
Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
Now just stop for a second and think: 190 tons. One hundred and ninety tons
. That’s 380,000 pounds. You ever help a friend move
? You get pretty tired of carrying those damn boxes of hardback books up three flights of stairs, right? (especially since there’s always that one guy that shows up late and only takes in stuff like throw cushions
) Well sure, those boxes of books are heavy, but they ain’t nothing compared to this block of marble. That’s a spicy meatball
- Anyway, as mentioned above with the fancy word, the marble was taken from a quarry near Athens, Greece. Which explains why so much of the ancient Greek buildings were made of marble they’ve got loads of the stuff. ‘Coming out their ass’ a friend might say.
- With the help of twenty assistants, von Svoboda “completed the carving” in Carrara, Italy. Apparently, Carrara is where Michelangelo did most of his great work. The sculptor, not the turtle.
- The finished sculpture weighs seventeen tons (so if you’re thinking of swiping it, bring friends but not that throw-pillow guy). Sure seventeen tons is a lot, but what that really means is that somewhere there's 173 tons of chips. I wouldn’t want to be the guy in charge of hauling away that von Svoboda's Dumpster.
- Von Svoboda described Quest thusly:
“It depicts the growth of today and tomorrow and the awakening to the future. I wanted to have complete contrast between this piece of sculpture and the Georgia-Pacific Building. The sculpture is designed to lead the beholder to look towards the middle of the building and then up.”
by Count Alexander von Svoboda, 1970
the plaza of the Standard Insurance Building
900 S.W. Fifth Avenue (between Salmon and Taylor)
Portland, Oregon, USA
*This enormous desk would’ve felt right at home in the Death Star with it’s twin CCTV screens and the big ‘70s digital L.E.D. elevator tracker. I half-expected Evelyn to strap on one of those black hubcap Death Star laser-operator helmets and lay waste to Alderaan.
While I was gathering information a small grey-haired group came by lead by a man giving what I think is a architectural/historical walking tour of Portland. By the time I scooted over to eavesdrop he was on to the next stop, so he really only had time to say a couple of sentences about Quest. Advantage: strawberry!
Searching Google I found three photos of Quest.
- A wee little postage-stamp sized GIF
- one with a nice woman named Kim standing in front of it
- and one view from the backside
01/09/2008 — Update:
you can see a photo of quest at