The Portland Building (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
There is no building in Portland or perhaps even the United States that is at once so important and so poorly done, so eye-catchingly unique and so ridiculous, so historic and so in need of substantial alteration. What to do with the Portland Building?
As reported by The Oregonian's Brad Schmidt a few days ago, Portland City Council members, faced with $95 million in repairs necessary to fix water damage and structural damage to the Portland Building, have openly considered razing it.
Even besides the huge cost to repair the Portland Building, there are other problems inherent to the Michael Graves-designed city administrative center. In a cloudy climate, its windows are extra small. Employees working there have higher rates of sick days than those working in other city buildings.
“My reaction is we should basically tear it down and build something new,” Council member Dan Saltzman told Schmidt, calling the Portland Building “a nightmare for people who work there.”
“There’s got to be a better option than putting another $100 million into a white elephant,” added Council member Nick Fish. Saltzman and Fish's fellow councilor, Steve Novick, proposed that a new home be built that could house both Multnomah County's courts (the nearby courthouse, while historic, is aging) and city of Portland administrative offices now housed in the Portland Building.
In many ways, their arguments make sense. Any other city administrative building that, at just 32 years of age, needed $95 million in repairs but even then would be a cheaply constructed place with dreary lightless interiors and a terrible street presence would likely be demolished.
But the Portland building is also very historically significant, not just in a local or national but even in an international context. It's the first major work of postmodern architecture in the United States. Any time a city tears down such historically significant architecture, it's a draconian act.
At the time of its completion in 1982, public buildings and corporate offices alike were almost always modern, and modernism by the early 1980s had become an ugly version of itself: all concrete brutalism and reflective glass facades. The Portland Building, along with Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York (completed just afterward), ushered in an entirely new era in world architecture: one that eschewed modernism's deliberate ignorance of the past and embraced historical forms. The Portland Building also stood out markedly for its color and whimsy, its peach-toned facade festooned with red garlands.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places last year, an honor usually reserved for buildings 50 years or older. That it was accepted at 32 is an indication of its significance, not just to Portland but to the world.
"Younger architects may not grasp how radical Graves’ design for the Portland Building appeared when it was first unveiled during the course of the competition," writes Eugene architect Randy Nishimura on his blog. "His highly personal design vocabulary fundamentally strayed from the principles and orthodoxy of modernism, which since WWII had established itself as the architectural doctrine of choice for large institutional and commercial projects. Graves employed color and grossly over-scaled classical elements (keystones, pilasters, garlands, etc.) in an unabashedly symbolic way. The Portland Building’s design overtly acknowledged the power of architecture to communicate meaning."
Indeed, I often describe the Portland Building as the architectural equivalent of Andy Warhol's Brillo-box sculptures or prints of Campbell's soup cans: a whimsical deconstruction. But such irony may work better in the visual arts than it does on an administrative building that needs to stand the test of time.
I also often describe the Portland Building as a kind of noble failure. When it was completed, then-mayor Frank Ivancie was quoted as saying that this would be Portland's Eiffel Tower: a world-renowned landmark that would emblemize the city. It didn't quite turn out that way, but while our city has an exceptionally talented roster of architects and firms, I think of the Portland buiding as a design that aspired to a home run but struck out in a city of buildings that go for singles and usually get on base.
In other words, while there's no doubt the Portland Building is flawed, one can see Graves aspire to greatness. You can feel not only the whimsy but the audaciousness. Portland buildings, even the best ones, are normally never audacious. In a certain way, it's precisely the ridiculousness of this building that becomes its best quality.
"What appeared beguiling and nuanced in the competition renderings would be realized as a grossly unrefined, miserable, squat box of a building. Regardless, its significance as a piece of architecture cannot be understated," Nishimura adds. "For this reason alone, I believe the Portland Building and its salient features are worthy of preservation. This is easy for me to say: I don’t have to come up with the money to properly repair and refurbish it."
I'm not going to argue that the city should simply spend the $95 million and restore the building as is. But I'm certainly not going to join those calling for it to be torn down. I'd rather see a compromise, although it might cost more: transform the building but keep its historic facade. What if, for example, a new design cut a hole in the roof to allow a massive atrium?
One way or another, the city is going to have to spend money, either on the Portland Building or on its replacement. Does it have to be an either/or proposition? Do we have only the options to destroy an internationally renowned building in a way that would taint Portland's reputation as a steward of history or to sink $95 million into the building without addressing its shortcomings? Perhaps there is a third way.
Even among architects the building lacks consensus on whether it should live or die. Architects Becca Cavell (of THA Architecture) and Peter Meijer (who wrote the building's National Register listing), both of whom have long track records in historic preservation, have publicly debated the Portland Building's fate.
While Meijer argues that it's too soon for history to determine whether the building was a failure (postmodernism is now a thing of the past that few miss), Cavell, in a THA blog post, argues 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."
If gutting the interior and keeping the facade is not a good option (the small exterior windows are part of the problem - although the atrium could alleviate that), a reader of this blog suggested another option: that the city could tear down the Portland building and more or less rebuild it to something that more closely resembles Graves' quirky original design, only more soundly contructed this time. You could even get Graves to lead the redesign.
Indeed, while Graves is a famous name in architecture (as well as product design following his work for Target), he really was reportedly responsible for little beyond the building's exterior form. And as Cavell points out, that form was significantly altered from his original sketches.
But Cavell isn't arguing for demolition either. "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," she writes.
"Maybe the solution – the win-win – is to retain its shell and to completely reimagine everything that happens within its four walls," Cavell concludes. "Now, that would make a great design studio project."