BY BRIAN LIBBY
Fritz Junker is a persistent guy. A longtime condo owner at the Portland Plaza building downtown, he has been toiling on and off for a decade now to see the place renovated: to get scores of his fellow condo owners, many of them elderly, to agree to a series of moves that were costly on a per-person basis, but in return have the building looking better than it has since it was completed in 1973. The building is now ready for its 45th anniversary close-up.
It began with a series of facade repairs, but ultimately blossomed into a more extensive and full-scale renovation of the building's lobby and public spaces inside and out, including a large surrounding plaza for which the building is named. Opsis Architecture, interiors firm Staicoff Design Company and landscape design firm Lango Hansen all collaborated on the inside-out restoration.
"This building has such a strong voice," Opsis's Jim Kalvelage told me as we began a recent tour. "You just want to listen to it."
The Portland Plaza was designed by Los Angeles firm DMJM, which as of the late 1960s onward was co-led by by César Pelli; he obviously has become famous for a host of buildings around the world while leading a firm of his own, such as the World Financial Center in New York, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia (tallest in the world from 1998-2004) and the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. DMJM itself was later, in 1984, folded into the gigantic international firm AECOM. In the late '60s, DMJM pioneered the glass membrane facade design system. "By reversing the mullions (vertical elements that separate windows) inward rather than outward, the system enabled completely new ways of 'wrapping' buildings in glass, creating smooth curtain walls," explains a brief history of DMJM from the Los Angeles Conservancy. The firm, the Conservancy argues, "literally changed the face of corporate architecture in the late twentieth century." Their noteworthy mid-century projects in L.A., ranging from buildings to landscape design to transportation, included the American Cement Building and MacArthur Park.
The building is both distinctive and prominent. It was the first residential building in downtown Portland to occupy a full city block. Like the Standard Plaza down the street, which was the first office building on a full block, the added space gives the building room to breathe in relation to its neighbors and it offers a generous amount of ground floor outdoor space. In the Portland Plaza's case, you can't stare at Lawrence Halprin's magnificent Keller Fountain (which New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable once called the best public space since the Renaissance) without seeing the building towering above it with the help of not just its own 25 stories but a sloping topography.
The Portland Plaza is often referred to by a nickname, the Norelco building, because of its shape, which is like the electric shaver of the same name: three circles forming a triangle. Rather than the Norelco building one could also note its resemblance (when seen from directly above, at least) to a flower. Regardless of what you call it, the building's form is part of the time from whence it came.
The early 1970s historically in architecture would probably be associated more with concrete and Brutalism than with glass curtain walls. In this way, the Plaza could be more associated with the more glass and steel-oriented modern architecture of the '60s. The aforementioned Standard Plaza and Veterans Memorial Coliseum—dating to 1963 and 1960, respectively, and both designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill—are two local examples. Yet there is something to the curvy form of the DMJM design for the Portland Plaza that, at least to my eyes, is the tip-off that it's actually from the '70s.
As I visited the project with Junker and Opsis's Jim Kalvelage, we first stopped to see a new glass entry awning that curves outward in a shape similar to the building. The old canopy was actually not original to the design but added five years later, in 1978, after the Portland Plaza initially didn't sell well. People had been living in or near downtown for decades, but many of those immigrant neighborhoods were eradicated during the 1950s and '60s by urban renewal.
When it was completed in 1973, just three years after the Keller Fountain (known then as the Forecourt Fountain), the idea of contemporary or luxury living in Portland, especially in a tower, was new. There were the nearby Harrison Tower Apartments, completed in 1965, but not too many others. So the Portland Plaza was symbolic of downtown becoming more vertical and possibly more of a place to live. As it turned out, there weren't to many other residential towers built downtown in the ensuing years, until maybe the nearby KOIN Center in 1984. Apparently the extras added in 1978 helped, because the building soon filled up, including, the story goes, a member or two of the Trail Blazers who enjoyed making use of the hot tub.
We next moved inside, where Staicoff Design's re-imagination of the lobby and a few additional tenant areas such as a small library and reading room is very well done. In the lobby where one enters, the moves are fairly simple. There used to be more of a barrier between the entry and the elevators, but Staicoff created a better balance with some colorful and decorative screens that sit atop a contemporary fireplace. There is a band of stained wood that extends from a far wall and continues across the ceiling to frame the seating area as something a bit cozier.
My favorite space on the ground floor, though, was a few feet away: a library that's got one wall clad completely in wood (with a line of built-in bookshelves along the lower portion) and another wall (forming the exterior of the building) of floor-to-ceiling glass. This library existed before the renovation, I believe including both walls. But it feels brighter, less dusty and forgotten now, and more elegant. A change-out of the curtains to something more whispy and transparent certainly helped, as did new furniture.
Our tour then moved back outside, to the extended plaza extending east from the back of the building. This is actually where one of the biggest transformations occurred.
The outdoor plaza here becomes a kind of podium as it faces Fourth Avenue, which is down the hill from Fifth and ought to have long offered views of the Keller Fountain. But the western side of the podium, particularly at the northeast corner, was filled with overgrown pine trees that actually blocked that view. Junker called it a "dead corner." Now, it's anything but. There is still plenty of shade, provided by the mature street trees below; in fact, they make it like being in the treetops because of the grade change. And the podium itself, here and extending back toward the building, is a place of multiple covered cooking areas, new seating, and a re-done swimming pool: a Myrtha stainless steel pool that was shipped here from Italy. When I visited, on a very hot day with a haze of forest fire smoke, it was quite tempting to just dive right in.
As my tour neared its conclusion, I started thinking further about the notion of a residential tower like the Portland Plaza that sits back from the street without retail frontage. There have been many condo and apartment towers built in the city over the past decade, particularly in the Pearl District and the South Waterfront. Nearly all of them have a podium base of two to three stories that comes all the way to the property line. It's in keeping with Portland's emphasis, through its Design Commission reviewing central-city buildings, on a rich pedestrian experience. Most all of us like having retail storefronts to pass by as we walk down the sidewalk, looking into their windows to get a glimpse inside to a restaurant or a shop.
Yet the very nature of retail is fundamentally changing. While we'll always need places to eat and drink, and to buy certain essentials, online shopping is causing a major, long-term decline in physical retail. Much of that decline is taking its biggest toll on big-box retail chains and shopping malls, the places I avoid like the plague. But it's not exclusively killing off retail spaces that are as big as blimp hangars and corporate chains without a whiff of authenticity. It's happening to mom-and-pop retail too. If Portland keeps building mixed-use buildings all over town with ground-floor retail, can we really fill those retail spaces? If not, do we really need all those podiums?
Meanwhile, I will continue to have a soft spot for the Portland Plaza. For me there has always been something heroic about its architectural form. Though at 272 feet it's only the 20th-tallest building in Portland, it's a slender tower, with elegant proportions. And if you actually look at the list of tallest buildings, take a look at their shapes. Except for the John Ross Tower in South Waterfront and its particularly unattractive neighbor, The Mirabella, the rest of the top 10 tall buildings are rectangular. Some might have funny-looking tops like the slanted solar panels of the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, or pointed tops like the KOIN Center, but they are all basically the same forms. Yet there is nothing else like the sculptural form of the Portland Plaza, whether you liken it to a Norelco shaver or a flower or just see it as a trio of aluminum and glass-clad cylinders connected in the middle.
Though Halprin's fountain will always be the star of this outdoor room, the waterfall at the center of the scene and the design that made it into the history books, the Portland Plaza is the beacon: a relic from the days of bell-bottoms and eight-track tapes, but also a piece of local mid-century modern architecture that feels timeless. Thankfully buildings like this are powerful enough to attract champions who won't let them deteriorate away.