BY BRIAN LIBBY
As Portland leadership has grappled this year with the upcoming challenge of renovating the Portland Building, and some have even floated the idea of demolishing this internationally renowned landmark of American architecture (probably the only Portland building in every history-of-architecture textbook), there was no better time for its architect, Michael Graves, to return to the city for the first time in a decade.
In a talk with Randy Gragg at the Portland Art Museum on Thursday evening put on in partnership with the University of Oregon's John Yeon Center (which Gragg leads), Graves was at times funny and self-deprecating in discussing the building and his career, while at other times he revealed the true pain and disappointment of having a career-launching and moment-christening building be so polarizing, and by some so disliked. "I don't know where the hostility comes from," Graves said of the Portland Building. "It's tear-making."
Beginning his talk, Graves jokingly made note of a produce vendor outside the museum selling tomatoes, as if it would be handy for people to purchase and throw at him onstage. But the architect also received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd, and the question-and-answer session that he seemed to dread was a bit of a love fest of admiration. The first questioner, developer Randy Rapaport, didn't even have a question: he simply told Graves that the building should be restored with Graves redesigning the restoration.
Of course those who say the Portland Building is a major landmark of capital-A architecture and those who say the building is deeply flawed are both right.
As bold as the colorful and classical-riffing design was, with its faux garlands and its salmon hues, and for all the attention it got, in national publications like Time magazine, it was the small $24 million budget imposed by the city and its own design restrictions that terribly compromised the architect's vision. Take the small windows: Graves reminded the audience Thursday night that the energy crisis of the late '70s had prompted the client to insist on them; it wasn't his design choice. Same goes for the triangular glass wall covering portions of the face being tinted enough to not allow much light inside. Or the underground parking garage that has often been criticized for leaving a gaping hole in the street-level facade as it faces the park. Graves fought that inclusion but city government insisted on it. Or the low ceilings that he fought against. The list of failures is perhaps larger on the city side than on the architect's side.
"Before you get your hatchets out, just remember: $24 million," he said.
Even so, it was the "brazen gesture" of a design, as Time critic Wolf Von Eckardt called it in a 1982 review — the symbolism and color of his postmodern creation — that first engendered the building controversy. Von Eckardt wrote that Graves was of attempting to "supplant modern architecture's heroic industrialism with postmodern architecture's heroic . . . what?" He also called the design a "dangerous Pop surrealism."
Indeed, the Portland Building was bold then and remains so today, precisely for what a pendulum swing from the modernist glass box it was. And given how glass boxes persist in ubiquity today, the bold look of Graves's design remains unlike much else in the architecture world.
Graves went to great lengths in his talk with Gragg to explain that his design did not come out of a vacuum. He cited the classical architectural tradition of buildings having a base, middle and top, showing pictures of buildings not only from Italian renaissance tradition but also 19th-century buildings in Portland. He showed how garlands have for centuries been a symbol on building facades expressing welcome. And he talked about how the idea of introducing color to architecture could be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, even if literally every building around his in downtown Portland seemed to come only in shades of black, white or gray.
During a dinner I attended for Graves the night before his lecture at the Watzek House, one member of a committee looking at the building and its needs on behalf of the city told the architect he thought it was likely that the building would be renovated. And whether in Thursday night's lectures or in interviews or in informal conversations, Graves indicated that he's very open to changes that might improve the building and introduce more natural light. While structural limits would prevent the small square-shaped windows from being enlarged, the larger glass portions on the facade could be changed from tinted to clear glass. And the covered ground-level loggias, into which retailers seem to die, could be glassed off and made into new retail space fronting the sidewalk. Graves also advocated removing the small underground parking garage. Yet he also expressed dismay and frustration that his firm hadn't been contacted by the City of Portland at all. He didn't even know there was a commission looking at renovation.
"Buildings all need care," he said, "and so does the Portland Building."
Aged 48 when the building opened in 1982, with projects like the projects Like the San Juan Capistrano Library and Louisville's Humana Building completing that same year, "I thought I couldn't do wrong," he remembered. Along with that, Graves added, "The Portland Building is a wonderful memory for me." At Thursday night's talk, he recalled standing outside the Portland Building and feeling at peace with the design and how it looked today. "It's so glorious," he said. "It's so full of ideas. This is a major building in America, whether Portland knows it or not."
"I've done 350 building designs," he added, "and I don't have this controversy anywhere else."
Yet this was not a man simply acting steadfast in a storm of criticism. Graves, paralyzed for years now and wheelchair bound, turned 80 this year, and he made it clear that his buildings are his children, and that it had been painful to see his work attacked. "It gets old after a while," he told Gragg. "It hurt when people said tear down the building and keep the statue."
Although I personally am a lover of the modernist glass boxes that Graves has spent his career creating alternatives to, and while I have never been a great lover of postmodernism because of the sometimes cartoonish way it drew from historic forms and motifs, there is simply no question that Portland needs to renovate this building. In fact, this isn't just something we should grudgingly do, but rather, the Portland Building renovation is a great opportunity.
Not many legendary architects have been able to see their work reach a historic age and oversee renovation. It happened here in town before, with Pietro Belluschi's Equitable Building, the one other local work of architecture that one will find, along with Graves's work, in every American architecture textbook. Three decades ago Portland's leaders were right to hold a design competition to seek out the freshest ideas in architecture, but Mayor Ivancie's administration gave the building a near fatal series of flaws by doing the building, as our city too often does, on the cheap. Renovating the Portland Building and re-imagining some of its spaces with Graves in charge of it isn't just a matter of fixing leaks or letting in more light. It's a chance to make a landmark work of architecture better than it has ever been.
And it's also a chance for Portland to re-affirm that just as we don't sprawl endlessly at our edges like so many other West Coast cities do, so too do we have the courage to stay the course with our most prominent public buildings, in a way that does not cater to the temporary whims of taste or act with only an eye for line-item budgeting, but with vision and ambition.
As the talk ended, there was a little too much uncomfortable silence in the air. Graves had made it clear he put his heart and soul into the building, and while the international accolades and keys to cities were nice, he wanted to make peace with Portland and the building that put him on the map. "I think there's a lot of warmth for you in this room," Gragg said, "and I hope you're feeling that." With that, Graves got his end-of-night standing ovation, and it wasn't beyond the aging architect to show that it meant something to him.