Noah Kalina

Earlier this year, one of the first major works of postmodern architecture in the United States, the Portland building by architect Michael Graves, FAIA, completed in 1982, was threatened with demolition when a city report cited the need for more than $30 million in repairs for leaks and structural damage. That figure balloons to an estimated $95 million when you include the cost of relocating the building's municipal employees during the projected two-year renovation. City council members called the design a "white elephant" and questioned whether the controversial building was worth the repairs.

Graves had little to say after the threat of demolition first surfaced, but last Thursday he returned to Portland for the first time in a decade, for a public talk and interview at the Portland Art Museum.

Randy Gragg, the former architecture critic of The Oregonian and current director of the John Yeon Center for Architectural Studies at the University of Oregon, emceed the event. Graves jokingly made note of produce vendors outside the museum selling tomatoes, as if the audience might consider using them as ammunition. "I've done 350 building designs," he said, "and I don't have this controversy anywhere else. I don't know where the hostility comes from."

Steve Morgan

Indeed, the Portland Building was controversial from the beginning. When it was completed, then-mayor Frank Ivancie said that the structure and the statue of the goddess Portlandia atop its entrance could become an Eiffel Tower–like symbol for the city. But Ivancie also enforced a very small $24 million budget for the project, and the project brief specified small windows, which have made working inside the building a dreary, largely lightless experience.

But the 80-year-old Graves, wheelchair-bound since becoming paralyzed from the waist down in 2003, made a spirited case for saving the building. He described how he designed its classical tripartite base-middle-top configuration, citing buildings of Renaissance Italy as well as 19th-century Portland as precursors. He spoke of his love for color and symbolism in architecture, with garlands on the Portland Building’s façade being a traditional symbol of welcome. And he recalled how he visited the Portland Building earlier that day, and felt happy. "It was shimmering. It was so uplifting," he said. "I had the biggest smile on my face. It was joy."

At the same time, Graves also made clear his pain over the building’s shortcomings and controversial reception. "It hurt when people said, 'Tear down the building and keep the statue,' " he told Gragg. "It's tear-making. Buildings all need care, and so does the Portland Building."

The building's architecture may remain polarizing, but Graves's audience was sympathetic. By evening's end, he received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd. "I think there's a lot of warmth for you in this room," Gragg told Graves, "and I hope you're feeling it."

The Portland Building
The Portland Building

Before the event, I interviewed Graves at his hotel room. Jovial and suit-clad, he marveled at Portland. "It's surprising to me how green it is, the parts that we went through," he said. "For me, Portland is a gentle city. It's a city where you could imagine spending the rest of your days, because like Boston, like New Orleans, like San Francisco, there’s a there there. And you can't say that about very many cities. You can't say that about Des Moines."

Graves fondly recalled winning the competition to design the Portland Building. The jury was headed by Philip Johnson, a proponent of Graves’s work and Postmodernism. "I came here with this idea that we could have a building with symbolism in it, that had color, and that had retail at the base. And it wasn't a glass box. America had grown tired of that, and it was ripe for a change," Graves told me. "The building changed things, certainly. Philip Johnson's Sony Building came just after ours. And little by little, people started to see urbanism in their buildings in a different way."

Still, Graves acknowledged the shortcomings in the building's design. "When we built the building we were in the midst of an energy crisis, and they wanted us to add tinted glass," he told me. "People don't remember, but I got extra points for having windows that were smaller than usual. It's hard to be symbolic with a glass box anyway. I needed the surface of the building to say what I wanted to say."

Graves's suggestions for how to modify the building include switching out the tinted glass for clear panes, changing the interior to an open-office plan, and glassing off the ground-level loggias to bring retail to the sidewalk. Even so, given the high cost of renovating the building, significant challenges remain to find proper funding and get the city council to approve such a plan.

The Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland, also threatened with demolition as part of the plan to build a new public services complex.
The Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland, also threatened with demolition as part of the plan to build a new public services complex.

But Graves's return to the city, as well as his mix of openness (to changing the design) and defiance (about the building's aesthetics), made a strong statement. "I thought it was such an honor for me to get to do a city building, a building that would be uplifting to government," he said. "The fact that some people don't like it, I'm very sorry about. It strikes some people that I tried too much, and they want more beige in their lives. I don't, and I never will. But I don't want to go over the line either. I just want to make buildings that are uplifting and are humanistic at the same time."

Graves said that he's never had a building of his razed, although his Snyderman House in Fort Wayne, Ind., did burn down in 2002. "I would be devastated, I know, if any of my buildings came down. Not just in my lifetime, but I don't want them to come down ever," he says. "They are your children and you love them all."