BY LUKE AREHART
World renowned American architect Michael Graves has been practicing architecture since 1964 and has completed nearly 200 built examples of his craft to date, spanning many countries on four continents. Originally celebrated as one of the New York Five in the early 1970s (along with legends like Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman), Graves later became known not only for his building commissions but a host of product designs for Target.
Graves completed one of his earliest works, The Portland Building, 30 years ago this winter. The building, one of the nation’s first major works of postmodern architecture, remains one of the most polarizing designs in history. But more than any other local building (except for perhaps Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building or John Yeon’s Watzek House), its impact on American architecture cannot be overstated.
Recently, Graves spoke about the Portland Building from his office in Princeton, New Jersey.
Portland Architecture: It’s been 30 years since The Portland Building has been built. What are your current thoughts and emotions toward this historic building?
Michael Graves: I love it as much as ever. It was an important building for Portland and it was an important building for me obviously because I hadn’t done many big buildings then; it was a first on many accounts. Somebody said the other day, who called and was doing an interview, that this building changed the course of architecture in America.
What are your recollections about the design competition in which you won this project?
You asked about my recollections of the competition? That would take a book. It wasn’t a competition about the aesthetics because we had won on the points, which were a part of the program. You got points for doing various things: the windows, the walls, everything gave you points or subtracted points. We won on points, we won on the budget, and we won on timing. We supplied them 40,000 square foot extra for the rental of the building, all of that we did but still we hadn’t won and the reason we didn’t win was people were questioning the aesthetics of the building and the local architects were very much against it, as it was a threat to modernism. Finally we won out and by that time Phillip Johnson had left the jury, so it was up to the committee to decide, which they did on their own.
What was your relationship like with Phillip Johnson?
My relationship with Philip Johnson was one of knowing him casually. As I remember, I had given a lecture in New York, and he came to that. One of the ways Phillip stayed young during his career was to be friendly with the younger group of architects who he called, “the kids.” You could be 65 years old, and he would call you a kid; he was 90. He was a cheerleader for architecture and I thought that he was good on the jury, getting them to see the differences and the similarities between the schemes and he was not biased in that regard, so I was happy that he was chosen for the jury.
I think you could write a book about this next question as well: Do you recall your initial approach/strategy in designing this building?
Sure, yes you’re right, it’s a book. I wanted to make an urban building. In opposition to let’s say the Orbanco building (currently Congress Center) across the street, which for me is not an urban building, it’s a stand-alone building and it could be built out in the desert, and it wouldn’t make any difference. Because its ground level is not pedestrian friendly and I wanted to make something that people could use at the ground level. In fact, it was part of the points system because the city planners of Portland had had enough of the Orbanco dialogue by that time, and they specified that new buildings in Portland had to have ground level activity. That’s why we have a loggia around three sides of our building.
I wanted to make a building that was civic, something that would work with the City Hall, which I greatly admired, which was next door and one that would fit into the other buildings in Portland. A lot people would say that my building doesn’t do that, but I think that’s probably the coloration of the building that causes them say that. Our building doesn’t have much forgiveness in the surface because of the budget. Our building is straight up and straight down after it does its step back because it’s essentially a concrete column and all that is dealing with the budget.
Perhaps the budget is what compromised things.
The budget was so low that it was lower than a spec house would be built for in the suburbs of Portland at the time. People forget how much the budget really caused the building to be like Bob Venturi’s edict of the ‘decorated shed,’ a duck which is a building that has shape to it or a decorated shed. Ours is more of a decorated shed in that it uses color instead of form to make its differences because of the budget.
Did you know at the time that your building would put Portland on the architectural map?
No, I wasn’t worried about maps, and that wasn’t my position at all. Shortly after doing the Portland Building, we did the Humana Building in Louisville and it had a much more reasonable budget and I suppose it put Louisville on the map, but I wasn’t aware of that. That’s not why I do architecture; it really doesn’t have anything to do with making a statement like that. I wanted to make a good building.
The Portland Building is distinct largely because of the color and imagery of the facade. What was your process in creating the composition?
I was lecturing at the time at Princeton as a professor, and I very much believe in the tripartite arrangement of base, body and head to buildings, where the stories are different where you enter the building at the base, the body of the building is where you are accommodated and the head of the building which reaches the sky and often is lighter in coloration and façade treatment and so on, very much the way a column is base, body and head. This is really what I was after.
As I said before, I was making a civic building and composing in a way that would use the differences in the program. First of all shops of the ground level, which are colored green, green tile originally to go with the Mothers and Daughters park/garden behind the building which was a wonderful site for us. Above that, the spaces for the city and the keystone which is a different glass formation looking back at Fifth Avenue and the park, we had rental offices which were a part of the program; they were ways of breaking up the façade in the program.
If you were able to go through the process again, would you still come to Portland to design?
Many times over, sure. I love Portland and have very, very good memories of Portland. Even at the end when Belluschi asked me to dinner and he said he wanted to ‘bury the hatchet.’ Well, I didn’t have a hatchet to bury because I wasn’t against Belluschi or anybody else, but he was against my building. He said once it’s built there was nothing he could do about it, so we might as well be friends.
Did you see the photograph of yourself sticking your tongue out at Pietro Belluschi at that dinner?
I thought it was charming. Where did you get it?
Saul Zaik’s office.
He must have been there.
Beyond that, do you recall any friction between yourself and late Portland architect Pietro Belluschi?
No, I didn’t know him at all. One time he got up at a committee meeting and said if I had columns, I ought to make them out of real material like marble, like the ones in the City Hall. I got up after him and said, “I think Mr. Belluschi should take a better look at the columns, because they are all faux painted, they’re not real, they’re plaster.” That was just something that was humorous; I wasn’t trying to show him up.
What are your thoughts of Portland now, in comparison with the early 1980s?
I really can’t answer that question because I haven’t been there. I usually go places where I’m invited to build and to work, and I haven’t been invited back [to Portland] (chuckles) and I doubt that I will be.
Would you be open to the idea of a renovation of The Portland Building, perhaps with an interior atrium or some other means for additional natural light?
That’s not a possibility, for additional light you’d have to go up 15 floors to get top light with an atrium. The whole building is a structural column, so it wouldn’t sustain that kind of thing. In a way that’s just a silly notion. You couldn’t take the guts out of the building; you’d lose all of the office space in the center.
Why are the windows relatively small given our often overcast climate?
The country was going through an energy crisis at the time and we actually got points for making small windows so that we could contain the energy in the building. There was a conflict there: I may have made them too small and a lot of people think I did. They were used to floor-to-ceiling glass in buildings like the Orbanco building but I was determined not to do that because I don’t think that makes an urban scene. Nobody ever talks about buildings like the Orbanco building in terms of a place to work. It should be noted that I didn’t do the interiors of the building, I wanted to and I competed to, but they were given to Zimmer Gunsul Frasca.
Did you have a working relationship like with the firm designing the interior of this building?
I know Bob Frasca from college, but we didn’t talk to them during that time and they didn’t contact us.
The Portland Building seems very much of its era, a time of excitement about postmodernism in the late 1970s and '80s. Given how historic styles can fall in and out of favor, do you think The Portland Building or postmodernism will find a resurgence of interest in the future?
What do you think postmodernism as a style is? I ask that question because nobody can answer it. It’s just a way of putting people in the closet and saying “You’re a deconstructivist,” “You’re a post-modernist,” “You’re a hyper-realist,” “You’re a figurative architect,” You’re a new urbanist.” It’s just a way for journalism to put a tag on somebody because it makes their job so much easier.
As an architect, when they say: “Are you a postmodernist” I always ask, “What is that?” And they don’t know, they have no idea; it’s just a name to them.
For me, postmodernism is a way to see the traditional city. It’s a way that, for instance, Fifth Avenue in Portland gains more traction with the transit mall and all of that than if it were a glass box city even in an empty square, which is what one of the competitors proposed. I think it’s important that when we walk in the city, that we are part of the city, that the buildings of the city speak back to us. This is what I am after in my architecture.
I really don’t care whether so-called postmodernism, whatever one thinks that it is or any other style returns. I just want people to do good architecture.
Who are some of your favorite architects working today?
Most of my favorites are dead. One of them, Aldo Rossi, died years ago. I suppose I’d have to say one of the architects who I admire is Leon Krier.
As a landmark building that was named to the National Register of Historic Places last year, is The Portland Building intentionally missing from michaelgraves.com?
No, is it missing?
Yes, on your completed works timeline and map.
Okay, we’ll fix that. No, it’s not intentional at all.
Given its color and playful sense of appropriated imagery, how much of a relationship do you see between postmodern architecture and Pop Art artists like Andy Warhol?
No I don’t. It would be more in the monochromatic architecture of Mies van der Rohe than Andy Warhol.
You made your first post-Portland Building visit back to city in 2002. What were your feelings and emotions?
It’s a wonderful city. It rains a little too much but everybody knows that. So does Seattle, but that’s part of its charm. That’s what makes it so green and lush; it’s a very positive thing. It seems to me that if all cities were as vital as Portland we’d have a wonderful place to live in America.