The Great Debate of 2014: What’s next for the Portland Building?

by Audrey Alverson

When I heard Michael Graves would be in Portland to discuss the Portland Building, there was no question that I would be there. I was excited to gain perspective on this oft maligned and (most recently) hotly debated City building directly from its designer, and I knew this would be a quality production, with Randy Gragg (not one for shying away from the tough questions) as the facilitator.

After introductions, Graves started with a presentation of his body of work – immense as it is. Randy stated clearly he wanted to give some context to the audience’s perception of Graves and what he has done beyond the Portland Building. I appreciated this because knowing Randy, I assumed it was a little bit of a dig at the Portland public’s derision of Graves. Maybe we didn’t all have enough information to criticize so harshly?

And just to get this out of the way: I hold strong on the opinion that even considering tearing the building down is nothing short of tragedy. The building does, indeed, have some problems but tearing it down – erasing history – is not the answer.

During the course of the talk, Graves’ demeanor fluctuated from light and humorous to defensive to a little more defensive to downright cranky. He expressed what I think was his genuine love and admiration for the Portland Building and even said he’d visited the building and that it was “glorious.” Graves said he “doesn’t understand the hostility.” He talked of the extremely low budget, the program constraints he was up against, the parking requirements (which he thought were a terrible idea) – and I definitely got the impression that his grand vision for the project lost much of its luster along the way. As Becca Cavell wrote in an earlier post, if you study the original sketches and models you can clearly see that much of the three-dimensional, tactile ornamentation became cheapened with material and other downgrades. A fair point.

Overall, I walked away from this discussion with an unexpected emotion: sadness. It seemed that Graves has been given the impression – through the media and lots of rumors – that EVERYONE in Portland wants to tear this building down. I believe this is far from the truth, but it’s sometimes the case that the loudest (and perhaps most contentious) voices are the only ones really heard. I believe there are many people in Portland who acknowledge the building’s challenges (lack of daylight for building users, the lack of street-level activity, the low ceiling heights), but also respect the building’s significance. Many others “just don’t like it” or “think it’s ugly” and therefore dismiss it. I dismiss those statements as being invalid reactions to any building. It’s not that simple.

I don’t personally find all of Graves’ work (including the Portland Building) visually pleasing, but at the same time, I get a little joy out of seeing his work – its quirk, its unique artistic expression, its bold use of color. The fact is, architectural history is fraught with “successes” and “failures” – with movements between ornament and lack thereof, with architects who were loathed during their lifetimes yet loved in their deaths. The fundamental truth about the buildings we make is that they should serve their users well, they should create healthy places for people to work, they should inspire, and they should function. But they should also be allowed to insert a little color into an otherwise gray world. Even though I don’t love all his work, I firmly believe Graves does that.

There’s still the big question of what we can do to improve the deficiencies of the Portland Building. And while I don’t have any specific solutions, I came away from this talk even more convicted in my position that this building, and its place in our city, should remain. We should recognize that we cannot make it something it’s not, but figure out what we can do with what we have. And then we should embrace this building as part of architectural history, part of our culture, and part of our city.

In Graves’ words: “Tearing this building down would be like killing a child of mine.” A bit dramatic, perhaps, but not to be dismissed.

And now let’s broaden our minds and take a peek at some of Graves’ other work:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Steigenberger Hotel in El Gouna, Egypt


Denver Public Library

Denver Public Library



Detroit Institute of Art



Tea service for Alessi


Image Credits: Top image: Sam Tenney/DJC; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Steigenberger Hotel; Denver Public Library; Detroit Institute of Art; Alessi

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by Garrett Martin

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