The Portland Building

Portland, Oregon | C.1982

Photo Credit: ©1982 PeterAaron/OTTO

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It’s been said that we’re post-everything. In post-modern architecture, Michael Graves deserves his place among the greats of the style. He was known for his iconoclasm and influence, and rebelled against the notions of modernism. Graves invited humanism and spirit back into buildings which can be seen prominently in the Portland Public Service Building, located in a city renowned for its off-kilter style.  

Graves spent his early years earning a reputation as a member of “The New York Five” group of architects – that is until the 1970s when he grew tired with the limitations of modernism. But Graves wasn’t the only one dissatisfied with standardized modern buildings – so was the entire city of Portland.

Mayor Frank Ivancie needed a municipal building, but desired something that was exciting, “rather than the typical glass and steel box.” So in 1979 the city of Portland had itself a good old fashioned design competition. Graves submitted a design for a building that aimed to enliven the space by drawing inspiration from the city, which is said to be like an alternate universe. 

The Portland Building both referenced and parodied classical style. Adorned in bright colors, the façade of the building is dotted with windows, setting it apart from your typical post-war structures. Ornamental features that were suppressed for decades were enlarged to almost grotesque sizes, the colors suggested the environment with earth-green at the bottom and sky-blue at the top, through symmetry and space it skewed and flattened tradition, molding it into something new. 

In a building that could not be described as subtle, one could hardly miss Portlandia: a massive copper statue of a woman wielding a trident. Forged using the same technique as the Statue of Liberty, Portlandia, or the Copper Goddess, was embraced by the people and lent its name to the popular American TV series.

Breaking the mold so forcefully came with its own setbacks. A low budget forced the construction to cut corners, while the “interior was judged to be dark, cramped, and poorly laid out,” according to the Oregon Encyclopedia. In 2016, the City of Portland teamed up with DLR Group and Balfour Betty to undertake a significant reconstruction project and preserve the historic building. The team challenged the notion of historic preservation and, instead of focusing on the materials used, leaned into Graves’ original design intent to drive the reconstruction and, ultimately, create something closer to what he once dreamt of. The final product reasserted Graves’ attempts to “humanize” the building by offering better light and workflow, while also making it more resilient to weather-effects in the rainy climate. In the basement, they even got rid of the parking lot to add bicycle storage, because, after all, it is Portland.

Like other controversial architectural styles, Postmodernism will always have its champions. The Portland Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is cited as one of the most influential buildings in the Postmodern style, and it was also called one of the ugliest buildings in the world. Even in Portland, it has survived several attempts to tear it down and replace it with something more conventional – but then it wouldn’t really be Portland, would it?

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