Peter Meijer and I recently reprised a debate on the future of Portland’s iconic Portland Building (designed by Michael Graves in 1982) as part of the Portland Design Festival. Peter and I are on the board of DoCoMoMo-Oregon and were invited to present the same topic at DoCoMoMo-US’s National Symposium in Sarasota earlier this year. The Modernism conservation group is beginning to grapple with the issue of Postmodernism and we tried to highlight some of the major issues while maintaining a fairly lighthearted approach. In Florida we only had 20 minutes to present our cases, and this time we had over an hour, and we had a lively and engaged audience who brought their own perspectives to the discussion.
This whole venture grew from conversations Peter and I had after the successful nomination of the Portland Building to the National Register of Historic Places. Peter and his firm PMA wrote the nomination at their own volition, and I was unaware of the venture until after the entire process was complete. My initial reaction was one of outrage – how could this failed building be considered a historic landmark? How could a building that is so reviled, and one that is barely 30 years old, even be a contender? The opportunity to take this discussion to the stage was too good to miss, and we both jumped at the chance. And as we have prepared and presented this topic twice I’ve learned a lot more about the building and have – begrudgingly – developed more sympathy for it as part of our cityscape and yes, our history here in Portland.
The story behind the Portland Building is complex and fascinating. The bare bones are these: The project was achieved through a design-build competition, with Philip Johnson advising the selection committee; three teams competed in the final round, and Graves’ team prevailed because it met various criteria including a very challenging budget. Graves was primarily an academic, teaching at Princeton at this point, although he enjoyed early fame as a member of the “New York Five” with several modernist houses to his credit. Always an exceptional draftsman, his sketches, drawings and models for the Portland Building were highly evocative and displayed a use of color and texture as well as material rendering that was a jolting contrast to the formal, somewhat austere language of Modernism that still dominated the design arena at that time. With Philip Johnson’s endorsement, and despite Pietro Belluschi’s protestations, Graves’ design was realized. Or was it?
My argument in opposition claimed that the building as constructed is not a representation of the design. The budget couldn’t support the details that gave richness to the building – materials were cheapened and details flattened to the point that the building is a caricature of the original intent – alarming, since the design sketches themselves are very gestural. The windows have always been and remain highly controversial. They are very small – according to Graves this was a budget-driven issue – but they are also placed without consideration of the staff who work within the building. When seated you cannot see out of the windows, and the interiors are quite dark and rely on artificial light. The loggias – one of the competition-winning “criteria” – don’t connect to the sidewalk because of grading issues and the intended street-level retail isn’t viable. And the coloration of the façade is achieved through paint rather than materials with the exception of the oddly under-scaled blue tiles that clad the street level.
But Peter’s argument in favor has serious teeth too: the Portland Building is the first built example of Postmodern architecture in the United States. The building represents a sea change in style, materials, and use of color. And the building is potentially endangered. Well known internationally, Peter claims that it is only Portlanders who truly dislike the building, and its various construction problems are of increasing concern to its owner. Peter made it clear that the Landmark status now enjoyed by the building isn’t necessarily strong protection. The building can still be demolished or significantly altered, although the review mechanism is different with Portland’s Landmarks Commission having oversight. And Peter argues that it’s too soon – the building is too young – for us to judge it a failure. That time will tell.
I can trot out my cheap shots – the building’s only redeeming feature is the enormous sculpture “Portlandia” that adorns its West elevation, that it faces the wrong way, that the blue tile reminds me of a public restroom. I can argue that it is an “object” building that has complete disregard for the wellbeing of its occupants. But I understand that Graves’ Portland Building is a significant design from a particular moment in our architectural history. A movement that I hope never enjoys a revival – but perhaps our Portland Building should survive. Or maybe the solution – the win-win – is to retain its shell and to completely reimagine everything that happens within its four walls. Now, that would make a great design studio project.