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How come Eugene has a nice gleaming new interesting Courthouse and we do not? The Central Library is typical Portland, excellent content in uninspiring architectural packaging. Thank you Brian for mentioning a concert hall as a (near) future necessity.It is one of my pet peeves that we do not have a signature concert space.


The Eugene courthouse is a Federal Courthouse. Portland has a fairly new Federal Courthouse that is maybe 8? years old...


"In 2004, the Project for Public Spaces listed Pioneer Courthouse Square as one of the six best public squares in the world."

FYI: The Project for Public Spaces and its founder Fred Kent have a well documented disdain for designers of parks and other public spaces both past and present. They apply the same formulaic matrix to every space they review, without reference to the aesthetics or programming of them.

Grain of salt is all I'm saying...


"The Central Library is typical Portland, excellent content in uninspiring architectural packaging."

I have to assume that everyone else who read this statement found it too ridiculous to be provoked by it. I suppose that's as it should be.


Or they are in agreement the Library is uninspiring, which is as it should be.


The beauty of Portland is that it is not obsessed with the latest and greatest starchitect creation. The city has focused on the spaces in between the structures-enhancing its overall livability. That is not to say that a beautiful structure cannot enhance its environment.

The Koolhaus library in Seattle is already showing its limitations. In addition there was no attention given to the building's realtionship to the street.

Does Nikos consider NYC Public inspiring, or Boston's central? They were built at a different time and represent a totally different vision of what libraries are and the environment in which they exist. I think our library is lovely - not dramatic but charming. More mportantly - we have the largest circulation of any library system in the US.

I'd rather live in a city that reads instead of only looking at the pictures.


The library is "uninspiring" in what context? Certainly, it is a product of its time AS IT SHOULD BE. To apply a presentist mindset to a building nearly 100 years old, misses the point. What exactly does inspire you Nikos? Trolling blogs on a cloudy afternoon, looking for some muck to rake?


"It's not to say cherished older institutions like the Portland Art Museum, City Hall and Central Library deserved the wrecking ball-far from it-but what kind of mark has this generation made on the landscape?" Apparently Brian, although he thinks they "do not deserve the wrecking ball" (what an endorsement) is not impressed by "the kind of mark" they left on the landscape.

As I said, I like the "content" of the library, so I think it is succesful as to what it provides, so no disagreement there, Anthony.

Neither the exterior of the New York Public library, or its lobby frescoes, aspiring to give it a "european air" are anything to write home about. It is an amazing collection, of course, and that's what counts most. The reading room is impressive.The more Americans are trying to ape Europe, the more provincial they look.

If you claim to like architecture, surely you must crave at least some structures that attempt to be extraordinary, which means taking some risk.

Which would you prefer, a museum by say Tadao Ando (starchitect of the sublime Fort Worth Museum of Art) or the converted Masonic Temple we have now (most of which is given to a Ballroom and offices, not art)

PS Bite me Val


Portland's Central is plenty inspiring as well as being functionally practical, but I suppose somebody's always going to be bored. I think there's a lot of people around with ambition not particularly accompanied by a receptivity to inspiration even when it's staring them right in the face.

Nobody's saying Mult Central, NYCPublic, or the Masonic Temple has to repeated ad nauseum, but if the guys producing the new stuff would at least try to let some kind of aesthetic, artistic or cultural inspiration imbue and drive their work, we might finally start to get some decently inspiring designed buildings again. Gee, I wonder what or even if Bart King was moved to say something about the Benson or Eliot towers.

So Bart King says horses used to race around the SoPkBlks on a dirt race track. How about if we take out all the fairly recently added parking spaces and bring the horses back? Or make it a bike boulevard, eliminating most of the cars entirely? Parking lost soon to be replaced by the Ladd Tower and new Moyer Tower underground structures.

Brian Libby

Nikos, I have to disagree and say that I think our Central Library is wonderful. I should have better articulated that first time around. If I were an architect, it wouldn't inspire me to create something Georgian, but would serve as an example of real beauty.

At the same time, I agree with Nikos and the strong-willed attitude that Portland at least once in a while really needs to have an exquisite piece of architecture that takes the risk of trying to be great. That's why I have a soft spot for the Portland Building despite its failure - at least it tried to knock one out of the park instead of going for a single.


Anthony - I don't know about you, but the 'space' between my house and the one next door consists of a driveway with weeds growing on it... although our front yard sports some nice trees.

The house, on the other hand, is a complete craphole of a 1910 foursquare, filled with mold, with sloping floors and a high likelihood of not standing the next earthquake!

Typical Portland. :)


god i love baseball analogies.

portland's architectural legacy is that the buildings, especially the older and more recent ones, lay heavy emphasis on their intreraction with the street, rather than the skyline. our buildings are more about us than the person who designed them which i have no problem with. that said, i wouldn't mind it if some big name architects received a commission in pdx, as long as they designed a building that reflected the city's values. these people cost money however, and few portland companies/developers are willing to pay for them.

as for nikos' opinion, if the collection at the libraries is "what really counts" then why bother commenting on the architecture at all? secondly, the nyc public library was built 110 years ago and the multnomah county library was built 84 years ago - at a time when most architects were designing in the beaux arts style - a movement which had its time and left us with some outstanding works of architecture. nobody is doing that today and if they are, they should lose their license.


Foursquares are beautiful house designs. Association of any good design with the results of decay they inevitably aquire through neglect and abuse often has a lot to do with reduced understanding and appreciation of good design.

The result is, their good design comes to be easily dismissed by many people in such terms as "out of date", "old", or "decrepit". Architects and developers so blinded and obsessed with revulsion for these "decrepit design styles" then seem to fail to learn anything at all from the fundamental design principles inherent in such design. We've lost lots of architectural integrity, past, present, and future, due to this superficial kind of reaction.

I also think the Graves Portland Building is good. I think it's very good, except for the fact that the Portland City Council went cheap, obliging Graves to dumb down his design, thereby turning it into a fortress by making the windows so small.

Bart King

I seem to have gotten to this discussion a bit late, but if I can pick out one thread from the above comments, "ws" wonders if I have anything to say about recent buildings like the Eliot Tower on SW 10th Avenue.

While some may be dismissive of the Eliot, it certainly has its admirers. Randy Gragg wrote that it is “by far, the most beautifully detailed condo tower in Portland.”

Its arresting glass façade aside, I found the Eliot's story interesting because its developer was so enchanted with high-end design, the promotional material for the building stated the Eliot was inspired “by the likes of A.E. Doyle, Robert Frasca and Ludvig Mies van der Rohe. Aesthetically, this distinctive dwelling connects to the Portland art community, both in location and design.”

Given the brouhaha about Central Library, it’s hard to understand why A.E. Doyle was dragged into the marketing statement. Also of note was that the design goal of the building’s exterior pattern was to provide a “Mondrian-like” composition. The fact that no work by Mondrian has ever been exhibited at the Portland Art Museum perhaps makes the Eliot’s design complementary to the PAM collection, I suppose.

One last note: The family of the late Pietro Belluschi declined to have this building named after him. Thus, the privilege went to the late Thomas Lamb Eliot (1841-1936), who many of you know was a city father and philanthropist who was instrumental in getting Reed College established. He was also the first minister of the nearby Unitarian Church.


Bart King, thanks for commenting. There's often something good to be found in unlikely subjects. Of the Eliot: "Randy Gragg wrote that it is “by far, the most beautifully detailed condo tower in Portland.”

Details, such as a fine stone plaza on the building's east flank do exist, but details alone cannot lift architecture to the level extraordinary, good design. For example, how does Randy Gragg regard the Eliot's west facade as it rises into the city's skyline? The west facade appears as a somber grey, monotonous repetition of glass and metallic balconies. The thinking behind it may have been borrowed from a Mies van der Rohe idea.

Maybe this building will get better when more people actually start to spend time on those balconies where people down on the street can discreetly observe them and the change they affect to the appearance of the facade. Walking by after work, sometimes I'll see people through the glass windows on the well-lit 3rd or 4th floor working out on the treadmill. Maybe details like this are where building's like the Eliot's true potential for qualification as good architecture exists.

If that's true, and as a result, new architectural designs great contribution to the city is to effectively restore the significance of people to the quality of life in the city over that of buildings, this would definitely qualify a building like the Eliot as inspired designing despite what I personally feel are some of it's lesser qualities.


Problems with Graves Portland building go way beyond the budget, ws.

How about the gaping loading dock facing the park?
(The anthropomophic )*( hole)

How about the whole park facing street level being so unfriendly?

How about the deep dark street level on the other three sides?

How about the claustrophobic lobby proportions?

As someone else here described Portland's style, "lay heavy emphasis on their intreraction with the street, rather than the skyline", Grave's building does the opposite.

Brian Libby

Robert, of course you're right about all the Portland Building's faults, particularly in how precisely what it gets wrong is stuff that matters in Portland: the street level. Then there's also the cheesy faux garlands and such. But WS has a point that the Portland Building has merit. Its merit -- aspiring to bold, unique, colorful, iconic design -- is also just very un Portland. Yet that's precisely why I'm glad it's here.


It is the only Portland building that is known and recognized outside Portland. Its street level appearance is indeed forbidding (The aging bluish tile contributing to the unpleasant feel.) I think a distinction needs to be made between discussing a building as an object of art and as to how it functions for its users and the streetscape. There is no question a large part of architecture creation relates to how space is experienced when you are in a structure. However, the reputation and recognizability of buildings sometimes is as fickle as Paris Hilton's fame (or notoriety.) The Empire State Building does nothing for its streetscape but it is an iconic building (by vitrue of what it does to the skyline etc)
Painful fact is, the most "un-Portland" building is what the student of 20th century architecture, say, at Cornell University, sees of Portland's presence in the architectural press/Taschen architecture books/"canon" etc etc. A child only a mother could love? perhaps, but it is our child.


Robert, you're obviously more familiar with the Portland Building than I am. I agree with the point you make about other faults it has besides budget/too small windows. I still think the spirit of inspiration this building has is what so many architects are sorely lacking in much of what they design. When you drive into downtown from the east on...I guess it would be the Morrison Bridge... to me, Graves building with its blue and bronzy wrapping and the garlands (that Brian describes as "cheezy"...kidding I think)looks great amidst the other buildings.

Understand, I'm not saying architects should start cranking out a lot of new buildings that look like the Portland, but only that when they imagine and create a new design, that they should find within themselves, and let themselves be moved by some of the passion and conviction that looks to have been a significant force in Graves work.


What about the aerial tram, wasnt that a significant risk taking and innovative design? Plus its been recently showcased in Arch Record.

Goose, would you care to elaborate why an architect should lose their license for designing classical/traditional today?


ws - you cannot automatically assume just because its old it is a great piece of architecture. Many old homes that I have lived in lacked basic things such as a bathroom (added onto later), a heating system, and south-facing windows. A common layout I have seen in several houses I have lived in and seen, circa 1910, is the placement of closets and enclosed, windowless stairwells along the south side of the house instead of living spaces that need the light the most.

I know that I have learned from the blunders and flat-out terrible design decisions these early buildings/architects made in early Portland housing stock.

The old buildings of Portland really need renovations badly if they want to pretend to be green at all - as in sunrooms, bigger insulated windows, floorplan layouts conducive to natural lighting and ventilation, insulation, and solar water/PV systems. Most of these items were available to home builders 100 years ago, but they chose - in many cases - to ignore them.

These improvements can be achieved for hundreds of thousands of dollars, a steep price for the average joe to shell out for. And, to go green, the houses need them - some of them are true energy hogs. The last house I lived in had a $200 monthly gas bill during the winter - yet the heat never made it over the 60 degree mark!

So, in my experience, old buildings are not universally Great Pieces of Architecture, they're just neat old buildings that typically require a hell of a lot of time and money to make them livable by modern standards - and they don't exactly meet the growing needs for housing in the city of Portland. Where are those extra million residents going to live? The burbs.


I think Graves may have passion and vision when it comes to design, I am just glad he's using his imagination to design clever objects for Target instead of Portland. It is a better venue for his talents.

You may think the building is pretty to look at from far away. That's not a great way to judge architecture though, especially given this buildings scale and context; It is too short to have an effect on the skyline and it is bracketed by the pedestrian environment of a transit mall on one side and a park on the other.


JJ, I was simply exaggerating to make a point. However, as a student of architecture and preservationist, I feel that buildings should be representative of their time. even the untrained should be able to look at a building and know whether it is contemporary or vintage.

as for the portland building, it is a little disconcerting that this is (one of) the only buildings that represents portland in architectural history books. at the time it was built, it was modern and pushed the theories of architectural design. however, other than satisfying our need to see color, and physically representing a moment in architectural time, the building has proven to be a relative failure. that is the problem with designing in a "style", whether it is beaux arts or post-modern or whatever. luckily, architectural and design tastes are cyclical. just as the beaux arts style fell out of favor with modernism and has once again found new fans, perhaps one day the graves building will be repurposed to better serve its inhabitants and will be better appreciated as a monument to its time without being obsolete or otherwise encapsulated or demolished.

lucky for us, we have some great public spaces which have found their way into architecture books like the square and the halprin fountains. for the most part, we at least know how to get that right. just the other month, jamison square was on the cover of the apa's planning magazine.


Zilfondel, I won't disagree with you on the house next door to you or the point you made about old structures based on beautiful architectural design that aren't themselves, a great piece of architecture. In the earlier post, I simply said, "Foursquares are beautiful house designs".

Sure, crappy layouts and construction can detract or destroy the livability of a structure based on a beautiful architectural design. Not every old structure should be refurbished, and they aren't. Still, many great old wrecks have survived because their design and materials had merit and people able and willing to recognize this to be the case. This is an awareness I consider very important to promote.

Robert, I've hardly even been in the Portland Building, so maybe I'm no help in arguing for any saving graces it might have. I still like what it does for the cityscape. It looks just fine walking from the south on 4th, or is it 5th ave too. I mostly like the woman sculpture too except for that stupid pickle fork. I guess Graves is probably kind of a weird guy to come up with buildings like that, but it seems like he really believes in their unique essence and the important contribution they can make to the city experience, whether or not that completely pans out in reality.

So, I think I'll go along with goose, and hope that, regardless of it's shortcomings, Graves oddly unconventional building will accomplish a higher purpose in inspiring new ideas.


Nobody has mentioned it and I may be wrong, but isn't Belluschi's Equitable Building equally well known in architecture circles as the original example of the International Style?


No, the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, also Le Corbusier's Stein House and Villa Savoye far predate the Equitable Building (to name a few other than Bauhaus itself) However, it was the first building to be totally enclosed by way of the use of air conditioning!


I'm not sure about Nikos' air-conditioning comment...but the Equitable Building is considered the first steel and glass skyscraper, before Lever House, before Lake Shore Apts...but was largely forgotten because it wasn't in one the the big cities.


Nikos is apparently right about the air conditioning...but i don't think that's the biggest reason it's famous or should be famous.


Bart King

There were International-style buildings that predated the Equitable, but I’ll go out on a limb and call the Equitable (a.k.a. the Commonwealth) Portland’s most important building.

It was a trailblazer in a variety of design and mechanical aspects. With its smooth aluminum and green-glazed glass curtain wall, nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before.

Pietro Belluschi wanted to use aluminum in the structure of the building, but the notion was rejected by local fire marshals. At the time, Belluschi loved the stuff; he wrote in the May 1943 Architectural Forum that “fire-resistant aluminum alloys will do away with concrete fireproofing as now used in steel structures.”

Crushed aluminum dreams aside, the success of the Equitable led to Belluschi being elected as a Fellow of the AIA. A couple of years later, he’d be offered the post of dean of architecture at MIT. (He jumped at it.)


Thank you Mr. King for the information. It appears that indeed there are other buildings in the city that are known outside of Portland.


For what it's worth, the Seattle Library by Koolhas, while it has its moments - key elements have aged poorly. For example, the backlit green plastic that is an essential part of th entry sequence is a wreck and essentially non-repairable. More importantly, the grand conceit of a building organized around the Dewey decimal system is a complete hoax. In order to naviagate this labyrinth, the poor librarians have been forced to erect innumerable ad hoc "wayfinding" totems and have wall-papered the lobbies in an effort to direct the poor minions to materials. A total disaster, unless you like 8-1/2 x 11 bond paper wall paper in your lobbies.


Broad generality here, but in my experience it seems that big-name starchitects tend to design buildings that either (a) look good from the outside, or (b) work well on the inside. Rarely do you get both. You can go back to Wright's Guggenheim Museum, which has always been regarded as an awful place to display art. And Gehry's Disney concert hall? Magnificent as you approach; a disaster of awkward wasted spaces once you get inside.

Obviously both Koolhaas' Seattle library and Graves' Portland Building were designed to look great from the outside, and they do. Hence the problems once you get indoors?


Wright's Guggenheim does seem like a weird place to try and display art, although if art is a venue for creative expression and challenge, it's probably beneficial if at least some of the display settings for art are as well. Seems like a good place for tortured subject art from guys like Munch or Dali. Couldn't say anything about Gehry's Disney. Barely know that building.

Re the Portland building; Are the failings of the Portland Building related to something lacking from Graves design vision or practical problem solving ability, or are the buildings failings due largely to design constraints placed upon Graves?

I may be wrong, but I figure it's a strong likelihood that it's the latter. After all, the buildings basic shape is an absolutely conventional box, unlike either the Wright or the Gehry mentioned.

The city is probably the big player in the building's flaws that Robert mentioned in his comment here: http://chatterbox.typepad.com/portlandarchitecture/2007/09/things-ive-lear.html#comment-82859521

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