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  Reaching for the Sky
Of all the changes to Portland's skyline in the past 25 years,
two projects stand out.


Over the last 25 years, Portland's architectural landscape has undergone tremendous changes. Many of the new buildings have been hopeless in their ugliness, others simply derivative or uninspired. Two projects, however, stand out. One is a controversial structure that remains a landmark in contemporary architecture; the other is the beloved "living room" of the city, which was almost never built.

Michael Graves' Portland Building is a noble failure. Critics of his post-modern play on classicism are legion, and many of their complaints are valid. When one sits and reads the reams of criticism, however, one is struck by the conservative and anti-intellectual subtext that runs throughout. Graves, apparently, was too clever by half. But the sheer exuberance of his design delighted many who were exhausted by the bargain glass-and-concrete aesthetic that prevailed until the early '80s. The design was presented at a time when monumental banalities such as 851 6th Ave., 1 Main Place and the Orbanco Building were rising up and threatening replication. During the discussion on Graves, the city planning commission was actually considering the massive Daon project, which would have leveled tracts of Old Town to build an erector set's version of Dallas.

After a protracted debate on the project's merits, which included generous support from architect Phillip Johnson and biting disdain from architect Pietro Belluschi, the City Council accepted Graves' controversial design on May 1, 1980, and work began on the nation's first large-scale post-modern building.

Its completion in October 1982 firmly placed Portland on the architectural map. The Portland Building generated tremendous publicity and gave the city a singular structure that immediately distinguished its skyline from the dull, corporate piles of Raleigh, Denver or Fort Worth. But many citizens detested the building, unleashing a stream of abuse that would have been better directed at the profusion of brutalist garages then blighting the land. The Portland Building was seen as something foreign, though Graves spent much time in the city studying the existing architecture and references it in the fabric of his building.

In the first WW article on the new building, Gideon Bosker wrote that Graves' creation was best seen at a distance, and the distance of time has only enforced his opinion. From afar, the massive pilasters and keystone immediately engage the eye, which is then drawn to the intriguing honeycombed body. Up close, the building resembles nothing so much as a skep where engloomed bees toil. Graves presented his building from the beginning as being humanist, but many who work there offer testimonies to its inhumanity, especially in regard to the lack of light. The two-sided loggia and porch offer a preview of the interior's darkness. Clad in cheap public-toilet tiles and dutifully redolent of urine, the loggia is a dank space where light has been banished. Inside, the prevailing gloom is relieved by retina-burning fluorescents and the suggestion of sky beyond the smoked-glass portholes.

These are real problems, but little of this is Graves' fault. Throughout construction, the project was compromised by the city's cut-price materials and shoddy workmanship, which today threaten the building's existence. Currently, three floors are under reconstruction, while elsewhere cracked plaster and concrete flourish. Repairing the structure may cost as much as $13 million, and Mayor Vera Katz once rashly suggested demolition instead. But even with its flaws and faults, the leveling of the Portland Building would be a tragic act of vandalism.

One writer prophesied that Graves' building would be of more importance as an intellectual construct than a construction of architecture, and time has borne this out. Certainly it's difficult to imagine Pioneer Square without the Portland Building. The language of Graves' design brought architecture that complemented and commented upon its surroundings. Indeed, Pioneer Courthouse Square is the exemplar of this idea.

Opened in 1984, the square has become one of Portland's principal landmarks. From nearly 200 design proposals, the project finally fell to a consortium of artists led by architect Willard Martin. In the words of one architect, the group's design "out-Gravesed Graves."

Martin's square is a veritable reference library of Portland's architectural styles, from the American Bank Building and Pioneer Courthouse that flank it to the now-destroyed Portland Hotel that once stood on the site. The playful echoing of the American Bank Building's pilasters with terra cotta columns, the evocation of the hotel and cast-iron age in the square's gate and pergola, the mesh of brick with the brick bus mall--all are successfully integrated.

But the square came perilously close to never being realized. It was actually the square's bricks that saved the project. Mayor Frank Ivancie, backed by business leaders, tried to kill plans for the square out of fear that it would attract transients. But led by city commissioners Charles Jordan and Mike Lindberg, a citizens' support group raised construction funds by selling 50,000 bricks that still bear the purchasers' names. Portlanders' affection for their post-modern living room has never been stronger, which makes the continued hostility toward its principal inspiration all the more confounding.

Indeed, the Portland Building shaped much of what was to come, including Robert Frasca's superior Justice Center, the KOIN Tower, the Performing Arts Center and Pioneer Square. Where Graves' historicism and allusive pastiche is blatant, theirs is muted, almost as if in response. In short, these projects would be difficult to fully appreciate without the Portland Building's imaginativeness.

After damning Graves' design as an "enlarged jukebox," Belluschi, the architectural legend of Portland, later admitted that the Portland Building had won him over, and he congratulated Graves for ignoring his early criticism. It seems past time that the people of Portland follow suit. Not every American city can boast of a unique living room to match its own fantastic house.


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