Steve Morgan

Some 32 years after its completion, it’s hard to remember the impact a boxy building dressed up like an Egyptian temple had when it first brightened the dreary cityscape of 1980s Portland, Ore. It is no exaggeration to say that Michael Graves’s Portland Public Services Building (as it was originally named) changed the broad perception of architecture as much as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao did 15 years later. As Charles Jencks, the foremost defender of Postmodernism, wrote in his book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture: “The Portland still is the first major monument of Post-Modernism, just as the Bauhaus was of Modernism, because with all its faults it still is the first to show that one can build with art, ornament, and symbolism on a grand scale, and in a language the inhabitants understand.”

At the time, I was what Jencks might have considered an “inhabitant.” I worked at a rock 'n' roll magazine in Seattle. I had little interest in architecture. One night, some colleagues and I were driving around Portland. Our local friends insisted that we had to go see an amazing new building: “It looks like a birthday present,” one of them told us. And it absolutely did. Unlike most new buildings I’d encountered, it had an attitude, one I could understand and appreciate. It suggested to me that architecture could be crowd pleasing, a value that Jencks championed and hard-line modernists disdained.

The Graves design had won a 1980 competition chaired by Philip Johnson. According to 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, “Johnson was really only interested in changing the dialogue around architecture at that time, and Graves was his boy.” The design won in part, says Gragg, because the energy crisis dictated the need for an efficient building. In that era, that meant minimizing the glass, and Graves obligingly supplied the notoriously small windows that have led to unhappy, sunlight-starved public servants. Actually, as Jencks has written, Graves was forced to win the competition twice, because his initial victory was challenged by the local AIA chapter, which suggested his design belonged in Las Vegas. Graves prevailed in part because, according to Jencks, “his scheme was the cheapest.”

“It was built cheaply to begin with,” Gragg says, “and also built poorly to the point of scandal.” Indeed, as Brad Schmidt of The Oregonian recently reported, “Structural problems at The Portland Building were first discovered during construction.” It turns out that “reinforcing steel wasn’t integrated into key points of the building’s fifth floor.” Those structural problems were fixed, but there was more trouble in the 1990s. "There was angst because the ceiling beams were failing,” Gragg says. Most recently, in late 2013, a report by Portland’s Office of Management & Finance determined that the building, leaky and structurally deficient, needs a $95 million rehabilitation. 

The upshot is that this immensely significant building—it was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2011—is now regarded by city officials as a “white elephant” and “a nightmare for people who work there,” and there is serious talk of razing it (along with a nearby county courthouse) in favor of a new public services complex. “There isn’t a great deal of love for the building,” acknowledges Carrie Richter, the most recent chair of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission. She notes that while she would much prefer to see it saved, the commission has no real power and the National Register is merely an “incentive program that does not prohibit the demolition of historic buildings.”

Richter hasn’t noticed the local architecture community rising to the Portland Building’s defense and suggests that Graves himself would do well to speak out. But when I called the architect’s office to get a reaction, Graves’ spokesman, Ben Saltzman, was surprised by the talk of demolition. He later provided a brief statement from the architect: "The Portland Building was a seminal project and it has recently been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Of course my preference would be to repair the existing structure." Not exactly fighting words.

Gragg, who I’d assumed would be one of the building’s staunchest defenders, said something to me that I found logical but sad: “Is it as influential through photographs of it as it would be standing there? Is it really something you have to experience in order to understand the importance of? And I think, probably not.” (Gragg also suggested relocating the beloved goddess statue—Portlandia, namesake of the IFC series—that crouches out front.)

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.

Most buildings have flaws, and the Portland Building is certainly not the first architecturally significant one to need work. Manhattan's Lever House, for example, had to be completely re-skinned in the 1990s because the original curtainwall was leaky and corroded. Of course, it had a private owner to cover the costs and, by the time that multi-million dollar restoration was finally undertaken in 1999, Modernism had roared back into fashion. Today, by comparison, we regard Postmodernism’s language of repurposed ornament with contempt.

But I think that’s the precise reason to hang on to the Portland Building; it’s a bad idea to do something irreversible when your judgment is clouded by disdain. Not to mention that Portland, despite its reputation as a bastion of alternative everything, is a city where strong regulation tends to prevent anything too flamboyant from being built. It would be foolish for the city to discard a work of architecture stranger than anything that it will probably ever build again.
The Portland Building
The Portland Building