A few weeks ago the Portland Tribune surveyed local architects for a list of the five best and worst buildings in Portland. In an article by Peter Korn on October 24, the winners were listed: the 2281 Glisan Building by Brad Cloepfil's Allied Works, the Belmont Lofts by Holst, the Portland Art Museum by Pietro Belluschi, the US Bancorp Tower by Skidmore, Owings, Merrill (with Belluschi), and the Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse by Kohn Pederson Fox and BOORA.
I'd certainly agree with the first three. While I definitely like the US Bancorp building (a.k.a. 'Big Pink') a lot, I'm not so sure it would be singled out in larger cities. And I have mixed feelings about the Hatfield. That curving roof is so mid-90s, and the building is pretty bulky. Would it be handsome without the expensive materials?
The larger argument, though, has turned out to be a modern versus historic architecture debate, which already is playing out here very often as modern condos begin to occupy old neighborhoods. The Tribune received so many angry letters about the top 5 list of best local buildings, Korn wound up writing a follow-up article on November 16 about it. (The paper also published several letters that are worth a look.)
A data processor and architectural enthusiast named Matthew Slick was quoted in Korn's latter article saying, "What planet are these architects on? I was appalled to find that I hated almost everything that these architects said that they admired.”
It's a hyperbolic quote, which journalists often have a hard time resisting (myself included). Does Slick really hate the Glisan and Belmont buildings? Or Pietro Belluschi's Portland Art Museum? Come on.
However, the larger thrust of the article made a valid point, that 4 out of the 5 buildings that architects chose for the list were modern ones. But some of the city's most treasured architecture is its historic buildings. Arguably the heart of the city is Central Library, the warm, elegant work of Georgian-styled architecture by the great A.E. Doyle. There is also the Jackson Tower (pictured) overlooking Pioneer Courthouse Square with its signature clock. The city also has lots of great old churches and single-family homes.
And Matthew Slick even rings in later to make a more thoughtful point about modernism's lack of ornamentation. "A lot of times you’re eliminating, eliminating, eliminating," he says of contemporary design. "And then you get this thing that is not very interesting. I can deal with unremarkable. The Pearl District is totally unremarkable to me, with a few exceptions, and the few exceptions actually have ornamentation on them.”
Done right, modern architecture is sublimely simple and poetic. But the opposite side of that coin is plain and boring, which a lot of contemporary buildings are.
Still, when today's buildings add ornamentation it often feels ham-fisted to me, like the ye-olde English style railings on the otherwise modern Elizabeth Lofts. Oy, fancy some eel pie, guv-nah? But some people love that stuff. A lot of this debate comes down to personal preference.
One reader emailed me to ask for my top 5 list of favorite buildings. It's a hard question, becuase probably the best thing about Portland design-wise is the city itself. And in terms of iconic structures, Mt. Hood is really our Eiffel Tower, so to speak, and Mt. St. Helens the Arc de Triumphe. But the leading candidates for my faves list would probably be the very ones previously mentioned on each side of the debate.
I love Central Library, so much so that I wouldn't even trade it for the famous Rem Koolhaas designed library in Seattle. But I also love the 2281 Glisan building for its gorgeous sculptural simplicity. I continue to marvel at the interior of the Wieden + Kennedy building, but so much so I find the exterior warehouse to be a bore.
Of course there's Pietro Belluschi's Equitable Building (now called the Commonwealth), which was exceptionally innovative for its time (1946) and has a timeless elegant geometric look that still inspires.
And in a completely different way, I've also more recently come to love The Rebuilding Center (pictured) and its facade of used windows and planks. I also love the Gilbert Building downtown, a humble little brick job on SW Second. I love the vacant multicolored checkerboard facade building on 10th mentioned in previous posts. I really like the two Brewery Blocks along Burnside. The Jackson Tower and various old white brick AE Doyle buildings are great, and I even am fond of the Portland Plaza apartments.
This summer I also visited the Pietro Belluschi-designed church at the University of Portland and was astounded by its beauty. Look for a separate post about that buidling down the road.
After the controversy surrounding the pending demolition of the Rosefriend Apartments, that buidling has become a favorite. Luckily we have a similar building, the Ambassador Apartments (pictured), nearby, which is another favorite, as is the empty Solomon federal courthouse it sits around the corner from. Oh, and Thomas Hacker's libraries are very nice, particularly the Woodstock and Hillsdale branches.
But I think my current favorite among Portland buildings would have to be the Standard Plaza (a.k.a. Standard Insurance Building), one of two buildings called the 'Standard' within a couple blocks of each other. I'm talking about the one with lots of glass, and curtains in all the windows. It was built in 1963 by S.O.M.
Incidentally, one of the most reviled buildings in Portland, the Union Bank of California building (downtown on broadway), is the subject of a new short film by my filmmaker friend Andy Blubaugh, whose last film played at the Sundance Film Festival. Andy's got an interesting take on the building, and you can watch the film online, complete with commentary by yours truly.