Atlantic Cities
Postcard

Should Portland Save a Building It Really, Really Hates?

Should Portland Save a Building It Really, Really Hates?
Flickr/ CamKnows

One of Portland, Oregon's most important buildings is also one of its most detested. Now facing a $95 million renovation, some city commissioners are calling for its demolition.

The Portland Building, a 15-story municipal structure downtown, is the work of Michael Graves. A designer, Graves is more often admired for his household products than his edifices. But the 31-year-old Portland Building is one of America's first significant pieces of postmodern architecture. At the time it was built, it was seen as a refreshing rejection of modernism. It won an AIA award in 1983.

Still, most Portlanders never warmed to it. Late local architect Pietro Belluschi said at the time "it's not architecture, it's packaging."

Part of the problem was that the building was built on the cheap (Graves in a 2012 interview  that the budget was "lower than a spec house would be built for in the suburbs."). This led to several structural problems. Its lobby and food court were renovated only eight years after opening. As for the upper levels, frustratingly tiny windows continue to depress its sun-deprived workers.

Since then, the building hasn't fared well. As architecture critic Alexandra Lange wrote after a visit last April, "it has not aged well. To be more precise: it looked like shit."

According to the Oregonian, mayor Charlie Hales has been mum on whether the building is worth the reinvestment. Meanwhile, one city commissioner says it's "a nightmare for people who work there," and another thinks there must be a better option than throwing so much money at a "white elephant."

Image via Flickr user Holly Hayes

It would probably be easier for a city to quietly rid itself of a banal structure with the same deficiencies, or to preserve a Victorian one in need of similar salvation. But the Portland Building's incredibly playful, attention-demanding facade represents what 1980s America wanted out of its architecture. It was the first of many more silly-but-stately office buildings Graves designed around the country. Like every other style that came before it, it too lost favor with time.

But it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, nominated by a local architect concerned about its future. It is culturally significant, if not admired.

In fact, the only thing most locals seem to care about when it comes to the building is its  "Portlandia" statue, added a few years after the building opened. One local news report on the Portland Building's possible renovation makes the statue's fate seem like the most important concern.

A final decision among city officials will take months to reach. Determining the cultural value of postmodern structures like Graves's is a new frontier in the world of historic preservation. It'll be interesting to see what Portland decides to do with the building that local writer Brian Libby perfectly describes as, "so important and so poorly done, so eye-catchingly unique and so ridiculous, so historic and so in need of substantial alteration."

Top image courtesy Flickr user CamKnows

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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