At first glance, the day-long celebration of architect Michael Graves, FAIA, organized by The Architectural League of New York in November and subtitled “Past As Prologue,” promised to be a re-examination of the postmodern era in architecture. After all, it was Graves’ 1982 Portland Building that is, according to the movement’s foremost evangelist, Charles Jencks, “the first major monument of Post-Modernism, just as the Bauhaus was of Modernism.”
My own feelings about that building are largely positive. In the early 1980s, as an editor of a Seattle-based music magazine, I didn’t care much about architecture. But when a group of my colleagues and I drove down to Portland for an event in early 1982, our local friends took us straightaway to see this new structure that looked like a “birthday present.” I remember being thrilled by it. Having grown up with default modernism—my dispiriting high school, my poured-concrete college campus, every bank tower I’d ever seen—the Portland Building alerted me to the idea that architecture could be different, approachable, maybe even lovable. So, when I heard the news, early last year, that the city of Portland was considering demolishing its namesake building, I was shocked.
I thought that this development—which seemed to indicate a certain contempt, not just for the Portland Building, but for the aesthetic moment it embodies—would be a major focus of the Architectural League’s symposium. But it wasn’t. Instead, Syracuse University professor Francisco Sanin started things off with a historical survey of Graves’ buildings, including the Portland. But Sanin didn’t discuss his role in precipitating a major—and still controversial—movement. He noted that Graves’ work helped “legitimize a relation to the past,” but he didn’t delve into the implications. If he uttered the word “postmodern,” I missed it.
A panel discussion moderated by Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, and featuring Graves’ old Princeton sidekick, Peter Eisenman, FAIA, focused more on the 1960s, when the two architects collaborated on a linear city called the Jersey Corridor Project, an extruded hive of commerce and housing running for miles across the state. The Jersey Corridor was, of course, never built, but it was given a splashy presentation in a 1965 issue of Life magazine. “That was a very heady time,” Eisenman recalled. One could have come away from the discussion believing that Graves was a latter day utopian modernist, not the guy who brought back columns and acanthus leaves.
Finally, in a panel ostensibly dedicated to the subject of scale, Glenn Adamson, the director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, uttered the word “Postmodernism.” “Not everyone has always liked the architecture of Michael Graves,” said Adamson. The Portland Building “has always been a lightning rod.”
Adamson went on to give an engaging, needling talk in which he compared Graves’ architecture in the 1980s to the work of artist Jeff Koons—who, Adamson argued, has proved “unsettling” in similar ways, appropriating and applying lowbrow icons to highbrow art. Adamson’s most seductive assertion was that 1980s Postmodernism, with its colorful buildings that photographed well (architecture as image), “seems to be like an early warning system for our times.”
I was hungry for further discussion of Adamson’s ideas, but panel moderator Karen Stein then steered the conversation that followed away from PoMo and towards product design. My sense, as an onlooker, was that Adamson had let slip a forbidden word.
All involved with the symposium, including Anne Rieselbach, program director of the Architectural League, denied that PoMo was subject non grata. When I asked Adamson why he was the only one to broach the topic, he said that he had a good idea. As the co-curator of the 2011 Victoria & Albert exhibition, “Post-Modernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990,” he learned a few things about how the architects generally considered to be the movement’s leaders—including Graves, James Stirling, and Ettore Sottsass—regard the term. “If you leave architects and their adherents to their own devices, they’re not going to bring it up,” Adamson told me. “Because there’s a lot of exhaustion and frustration around the topic, and many didn’t accept that it was a valid way of looking at the state of affairs in the first place.” With the V&A show, he says, “hardly anybody that we talked to was happy to be put in a show about Postmodernism. They were happy to be in a show at the V&A, but they would say, ‘Do you really have to call it that? Isn’t there a better way of assessing those years?’ ”
Indeed, Postmodernism was troublesome from the start, when the reintroduction of architectural ornament riled the Modernists who still held sway. Jencks wrote that PoMo relied on “double coding,” which he defined as “the combination of Modern techniques with something else (usually traditional building) in order for architecture to communicate with the public and a concerned minority, usually other architects.” But the real motivation might have been the reintroduction of human qualities, like sensuality, warmth, and color, that had been long banished. By the late 1980s, even dyed-in-the-wool Modernists like Kevin Roche, FAIA, had come on board. A 1987 Goldberger review in The New York Times of Roche’s 3 United Nations Plaza mentioned columns that were “witty, almost cartoonlike.”
Today, after a modernist resurgence that began in the 1990s—arguably a backlash against too many “cartoonlike” columns—followed by, or intermingled with, our parametric age, in which buildings can effortlessly mutate into an endless range of asymmetrical forms, Postmodernism is regarded as a mortification, a humiliating phase we went through, like adolescence. After a field trip to Philip Johnson’s Glass House, my students at the School of Visual Arts graduate program in Design Research, Writing, and Criticism told me they loved the house itself. But why, they wanted to know, did Johnson feel compelled to reference classical architecture with his outsized, vaguely Egyptian driveway gate? Why did the entrance to his underground painting gallery have to pay homage to an ancient Greek tomb? I talked about Johnson’s role in Postmodernism and tried to explain, without great success, that there was a period some 35 years ago, when it seemed essential to rebel against Modernism, when the language of modern design was so played out that it was beyond redemption.
It isn’t just my students who don’t get PoMo. Or the good people of Portland. John King, the architecture critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote last year of a goofy downtown San Francisco clock tower, circa 1989, that was about to be lopped off from its perch on a former savings and loan headquarters. When built, it was the sort of faux historical flourish that city planners believed enhanced the character of historic neighborhoods. “PoMo,” King wrote, is the embarrassing uncle who won’t shut up about the first time he saw Depeche Mode.”
Except that Postmodernism might still have some life in it. For one thing, the threats to landmarks from the 1970s and 1980s, like the Portland Building, have reawakened interest in the period for a younger generation. Even Graves, though he didn’t broach PoMo at his symposium, has spoken a great deal about the project. Most recently, at a public discussion held in October as part of Portland’s Design Week, Graves defended the building against the threat of demolition: “The whole idea of tearing the building down, it’s like killing a child. I don’t know how to react to that.”
And he gave two lengthy lectures on the building—one just after it was completed in 1982, and one some 25 years later. In both, he told roughly the same story. That the building’s problems, chronic structural maladies, and dreary interiors are a direct outgrowth of a budget cap that was stipulated by the design competition that he won. And that he triumphed in the competition not just because the jury was headed by Philip Johnson, who was his champion at the time, but also because, working closely with builder George Pavarini (it was a design/build competition), he submitted a bid that was right on budget. The 15-story building had to be erected for $24 million, “to the penny.” Or $61 a square foot. Except that $2 million of the budget represented the contractors’ profits, so it was actually more like $56 a square foot. In his 2008 talk, Graves called the budget “just ungodly.”
Graves had initially envisioned a building with its façade covered in colorful tile. But it was the tile, in the end, that brought the budget $2 million over. In the weeks before the final presentations, Pavarini alerted Graves to the problem. “It was a real crisis to get that much money out of the budget,” Graves explained in his 1982 talk. “I said, ‘I don’t care if it’s made of oatmeal. It’s going to be on budget.’ ”
So it wasn’t all that surprising that the building had structural issues during construction—improperly installed beams. More problems (leaks, saggy floors, seismic issues) have cropped up since. It’s estimated to need $95 million in repairs. And the windows, 4 feet square, considered energy efficient at the time, make the building exceptionally gloomy now.
What’s interesting is that the most commonly criticized aspect of the structure is that its ornament, columns, and wreaths, are two-dimensional, decorative appliqué, the sort of “graphic design” approach to architecture for which PoMo was often lambasted. But Graves says that he wasn’t allowed to make functional columns—no budget—and couldn’t include the three-dimensional garlands that he had designed because he was told that they’d interfere with the window washing rig; they had to be shaved flat. The ornament was “value engineered to the nth degree,” says former Oregonian architecture critic Randy Gragg.
Everything that’s wrong with the building functionally and structurally and everything that’s right with it—its weird audacity and a palette that brings much needed color to a rainy Northwestern city—are the product of a youngish architect with big ideas trying desperately to get something built. As flawed as it is, the Portland Building is a pure product of its moment. “It’s just laughable in a way, when you understand all the drivers that shaped it,” Gragg says. Despite that—or maybe because of that—it should be respected and preserved.
After the November symposium, word came that the Portland Building would be preserved. The Architect’s Newspaper quoted Graves: “They said they are saving the building and … we want you to sit on a committee for the redesign.” When I spoke with the city’s chief administrative officer, Fred Miller, he denied that the city had actually intended to demolish the structure. Maybe some city commissioner mouthed off about that idea, Miller says, but he insists it was never a “serious proposal.” Instead, the city has been working assiduously on a plan to revamp the building, to maintain the landmark exterior while giving it a seismic upgrade, plugging the leaks, and installing a new HVAC system—making it, says Miller, “a 75- or 100-year building.” It’s not clear that the committee Graves references exists, but Miller says that the intention is to put the architect on retainer as a project consultant. Miller, whose office is in the Portland Building, is amazed at the emotions it inspires. When asked how he feels about it, he demurs. “I’m the wrong one to ask. It’s a building. I go to work in it. I’m fine.”
Meanwhile, a second wave of PoMo might be on the way. For one thing, there are new buildings that deploy ornament in a way that is oddly redolent of the 1980s. Most ostentatiously, the Rotterdam Market Hall by the Dutch firm MVRDV opened in October and features colorful tile that Graves would have killed for back in 1982. The interior of the market’s massive arch is a mega-mural of giant fruits and vegetables, digitally printed on tile. It was inspired by the Sistine Chapel; it is referential, but not obviously so. “I think many architects are aiming for sublimity,” MVRDV partner Winy Maas told me. “Purity is very reductive.”
Indeed it is. And purity, whether it’s derived from Modernism or generated by computers, may not be so appealing to an emerging generation of architects. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I met a 32-year-old architect named Elizabeth Timme, who runs a nonprofit design lab called Más. She’s the daughter of a “devout” postmodernist, the late Robert Timme, founder of Houston’s Taft Architects.
Elizabeth Timme feels particularly constrained by the software that’s come to dominate the profession. “Parametrics. Parametrics. Parametrics,” she complains. “It’s really similar to the dictum of Modernism that my father grew up with in the late 1960s.” Maybe predictably, the soullessness associated with the current mania for buildings designed by machine and modeled by 3D printers is driving Timme to rebel.
What’s missing in all the parametric swoopyness is joie de vivre, what Vitruvius thought of as delight. While her father looked to Graves and other members of the New York Five, Timme is currently inspired by Venice, Calif.–based “place maker” Jon Jerde, FAIA, and the late graphic designer Deborah Sussman, in particular the work the two did together for the 1984 Olympics. “It was this exuberant model for creating a pedestrian-centered, temporary Los Angeles,” explains Timme. “Playful and fun and cheap.”
“Playful” is the operative word. It’s the quality that Timme thinks is missing in much of what is now coming out of places like SCI-Arc. Playful was also the exact thing that was absent from Modernism circa 1970. Timme shows me some jumbo letters, brightly colored, leaning against the wall of the warehouse where she works, signage left over from a recent neighborhood artwalk. The letters are Timme’s homage to Sussman’s Olympics. Like Winy Maas, Timme is veering in a new direction. Call it Maximalism. Or maybe it’s a revival of an old direction. She tells me, without a hint of sarcasm or irony: “We’re so into Postmodernism.”