a.k.a. The Portland Public Service Building
Architect: Michael Graves (Princeton, New Jersey),
With the possible exception of the Commonwealth Building, the Portland Building is the city's most architecturally renowned structure. It also easily qualifies as Portland's most controversial building. In fact, the Portland Building has garnered so much vitriolic attention, it scared the city's developers and firms from trying their hand at a bold, signature building for years (decades, even!) afterwards.
As Michael Graves is as much a designer as an architect, he was as interested in how the structure would look as in how it would work. The Portland Building has not worked particularly well, and its look has been something of a hit-or-miss proposition. Considered the first large-scale postmodern structure in the U.S., the Portland Building has been criticized for its structural problems, lack of pedestrian access, unconventional design, and for just plain being "ugly." And it also set off a nationwide debate over the proper role of urban architecture.
* Time magazine once ran a cover story on "design" with a full-page photo of a Michael Graves-designed toilet brush. Upon awarding him the National Medal of the Arts, President Clinton said Graves "gets as much pleasure planning a large building as he does designing a spatula."
So what IS "postmodern" architecture? In this case, it means Graves tried to refer to the styles and looks of other Portland building types in order to produce a contemporary amalgamation of what had gone before. The results of this "context-sensitive" approach is unquestionably a clever building, and one that shows thinking outside of the box - namely, the glass and metal box that modern skyscrapers had been up to this point. As such, it gets points just for trying. The building was a one-of-a-kind at a time when large structures seemed to be noted for their banality.
Though its basic form is cube-ish, the Portland Building offers the viewer much to look at, particularly from a distance. Terra-cotta strips line the building's sides, and the bluish-green base compares favorably to the trees in the Plaza Blocks. The building itself is essentially a box with a colorful tripartite column design, and some colorful Art Deco elements.
The Portland Building's west side offers different ways to interpret Graves' aim. Is this design supposed to be a person? While the two "columns" with projecting capitals supporting a keystone at the top were a favorite design element of Graves, this can also be interpreted as an anthropomorphic design. (Or is it just plain old kitsch?)
Much of the building's aesthetic failure is due to an isolated decorative element, namely the metal ribbons on the north and south sides. These "festoons" were originally supposed to be drapes, but the curves employed would have been too difficult to affix to the building. The ribbon was a compromise, and it was a bad one. How bad? Well, the Portland Building was voted one of the five ugliest buildings in Portland in a 2006 survey of local architects by the Portland Tribune.
* "The best cityscapes are an eclectic assortment of buildings, which is why even a noble failure like the Portland Building may be of value." Brian Libby
The genesis of the building was when a citizen committee was drawn up to solicit proposals for a new city government structure. The head of this committee, William Roberts, persuaded his colleagues to hire noted architect Philip Johnson, who had just won the AIA's Gold Medal, as their advisor. Johnson essentially hand-picked the field to three entrants and then recommended Graves.
This was particularly galling to Pietro Belluschi, who had engaged in a series of public debates with Johnson over the previous years about the proper role of the architect. These debates could be simplistically summed up as follows:
Belluschi: The architect should listen to the client while formulating original ideas that elegantly match with the surroundings.
Johnson: The architect should be given free rein so that his authentic artistic expression can run free. Ever read Ayn Rand?
Belluschi actively lobbied the city council against the approval of the Portland Building on the grounds that Graves' conception (which he described as "theenlarged juke box or the oversized beribboned Christmas package") should be built in Las Vegas, not Portland. Mayor Frank Ivancie favored Graves' plans, however, giving them the impetus for approval. He later called the completed Portland Building "our Eiffel Tower." As for Belluschi, he later somewhat recanted his strong opinions about the building.
* Architectural critic and historian Carter Wiseman called the Portland Building "a rather condescending exercise performed by a sophisticated academic on a culturally overeager community." Ouch.
While this was the cheapest of the designs submitted (built at a cost of $24.5 million), it has cost many more millions in subsequent earthquake proofing and leak plugging. Tiles on the lower portion have been repeatedly repaired, while cracks in the upper stories have required bracing. Occupants have found the ceilings too low, ventilation noisy and inefficient, and windows too small - their intentionally small design is supposedly a symbolic representation of Portland's undersized blocks. But the original construction budget was very tight, so the fault should not be entirely laid at Graves' feet.
* The Portland Building was awarded an AIA Honor Award after its completion. Furthermore, it also appeared on the cover of both Time and Newsweek. Unimpressed, Mayor Vera Katz once suggested its demolition.
In alignment with city policies regarding sustainability, the roof of the Portland Building got a 15,000-square-foot green "eco-roof" in the 21st century. While the ostensible goal is to reduce storm water drainage and save heating costs, perhaps this quintessentially Portland feature will finally endear the building to the hearts of its citizens.
There has also been debate over the nine-ton statue "Portlandia" on the Portland Building's west side. The second-largest copper sculpture in the U.S., Portlandia symbolizes commerce. (Trust me.) Attempts to relocate her to a more visible location on the waterfront have failed, partially because of the vociferous complaints of the sculptor. He somehow managed the triple-play of selling the statue to the city, dictating its placement, and retaining the rights to its image. This despite the facts that the statue was a year overdue, thousands of dollars overbudget, and the idea for the statue came from an old Portland city seal. Now that's commerce.
* Michael Graves was awarded the AIA's Gold Medal (its highest honor) in 2001.Less Text