Currently, the government of Portland is debating the funding of a 95 million dollar renovation for the Portland Public Services Building. Designed by Michael Graves, it is one of the earliest postmodern style buildings ever built. However, many people (including Portlanders) believe it to be a massive white elephant and one of the nation’s worst eyesores.
So what does the building have going against it? For starters, critics and the public alike have expressed discontent at the building’s appearance. The facade resembles a hastily-assembled collage of styles, materials, and colors. All the features appear incredibly faux, like the oversized fluted columns or the cartoonish concrete “ribbon” hanging from them. It is also completely lacking in form, being simply a massive box without any structural spectacles. One could easily see it as being built in the style of a movie theater or mall rather than an important downtown structure. Personal beliefs about its aesthetic value aside, there are many design flaws that plague the structure and its users. In most parts of the building, the small windows let in hardly any light. Structural problems led to a remodeling of the food court and lobby shortly after the building was completed. Finally, a thirty-year-old building should not be needing a renovation that costs nearly a hundred million dollars.
I am certainly no major fan of the Portland Building. I think it’s ugly and poorly designed. However, I strongly disagree with those who think that the structure should be demolished. The Portland Building is quite possibly the most important building of the last fifty years because it is the first major postmodernist building. Before the 1980s, the international style- created fifty to sixty years earlier by such figures as Le Corbusier (in his early work), Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe- ran rampant through the major cities of the world. Followers of this style ran by the maxims less is more and form follows function. Architecture was stripped to the bones and reduced to simple efficiency. While novel and elegant at the time of Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus movement, the next half-century suffered from a drought of architectural innovators and the world’s cities filled with glass, steel, and concrete boxes.
In the early 1980s, architects like Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Philip Johnson finally turned architecture upside down. With their writings and buildings, they advocated everything the international style condemned. Ornament returned to architecture, as did the revival of historic styles, particularly Greek and Palladian. While Venturi wrote extensively on this new style, postmodernism, his architectural works were small and often insignificant. As the first major building in this style, Graves’s Portland Building has had a massive effect on modern cityscapes. In cities like Dubai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, the skyline is dominated by interesting and creative forms that captivate the public. Had it not been for the postmodernist movement, these inspiring structures would have each looked just like one another.
For all the critics of the design itself, the influence and ingenuity of the Portland Building is almost universally adored. While the neo-historical postmodernist style was not strong for long, its challenge to internationalism survives and thrives. If you surveyed New Yorkers and Londoners, each would respectively prefer the Bank of America Tower and the Shard
Over the Metlife Building or Centre Point.
It’s easy to see why, even though it’s only thirty years old, the building is a national historic landmark. Demolishing it would be akin to destroying the work of Brunelleschi in Florence.
What do you think of the Portland Building?
Feature photo by Steve Morgan. In order, the article pictures are by Ryan Browne, Richard Goldschmidt, postdlf, C Ford
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