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Paul Falsetto

Brian – that was a great article you wrote on the status of the Portland Building. I just so happen to come across it at the same time I was rereading the excellent book Frozen Music (1985, Gideon Bosker & Lena Lencek), specifically the chapter titled “Postmodern Face-off”. The authors describe the context surrounding the building’s design and construction, which sat fresh in their minds having written it a few short years after the building came on line.

From the beginning, the City required a design-build process for the Portland General Services Building, with a general contractor acting as lead consultant to ensure that budget, office layout, and energy efficiency would take precedent. To address the demand for a large building with a low initial budget that yielded low operating costs, the obvious direction was to design a simple box comprised of mostly insulated walls, covered with some sort of acceptable (and inexpensive) surface treatment. That is exactly what the Hoffman Construction/Michael Graves proposal provided, and along with a few not-so-subtle nudges from Philip Johnson, that team was awarded the contract.

Within a few short years the building began showing signs of engineering and construction failure. This failure extended into the interior, with Pietro Belluschi, a consistent critic of the building, asserting that “. . . when you go inside, it has no respect whatever for the people who have to work in it.”

Ironically, while the building was failing in many core construction categories, its aesthetic made it a stylistic landmark. The Portland Building became known for . . . well . . . being well known, much like a Kardashian. Is it a good building? Not really. Do you know and recognize it? Yup, absolutely. Its recognizance made it significant (and worthy of listing in the National Register), while its physical failings made it a general liability.

Fast forward to current times, with the City compelled to address the building deterioration by evaluating three options: sell the building and site; demolish it and build new; or conduct a full rehabilitation. Much to their credit, the third option was selected, with the added mandate to not just repair the building, but to actually fix it. In a way, this current City Council was forced to fix the sins of the 1980s Council, and to the tune of over $200M.

The rehabilitation project requires changes to the building’s envelope, disrupting or removing and replicating the original aesthetic elements. To continue (to death) the earlier metaphor, this Kardashian is getting a facelift. This strategy is pretty much a cardinal sin in the historic preservation field, but makes very good sense in envelope design. The big question to ask is this: though losing its material integrity, does the Portland Building retain its aesthetic integrity? If that answer is seen as ‘yes’, or even ‘mostly yes’ then maybe this tradeoff is a good and proper one. In the long run, creating a new and healthy Portland Building that accommodates contented tenants might be considered our gift to future Portlanders, and that is something they might consider to be truly worthy of significance.

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