The art of architecture
Thirty-five years ago this month, the Portland Building by architect Michael Graves caught the world's attention with its provocative yet whimsical postmodern style and color. It looked like a city block as a wrapped birthday present, which engendered love and hate in perhaps equal measure.
Today, as the Portland Building goes forward with a nearly $200 million renovation to mark its 35th anniversary, another work of local architecture is similarly turning heads and inspiring debate over its fanciful packaging: the Fair-Haired Dumbbell by developer-designer Kevin Cavenaugh and FFA Architecture.
Situated along busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at the east edge of the Burnside Bridge next door to the controversial Yard tower, the Fair-Haired Dumbbell is impossible to miss: as colorful as Yard is oppressively black. But the Dumbbell would get attention even in an isolated location.
The building, or really a pair of six-story buildings connected by a skybridge, has an eye-catching pattern of irregularly sized windows, which means when you're inside there could be a tiny window at your feet or a large one at eye level. Cavenaugh's work would look bold even without the paint job. And yet the paint job is what anyone will notice, even from several blocks away. The entirety of the eight separate facades are covered in a hand-painted mural by Los Angeles artist James Jean, representing the Rose City's namesake flower and the state's official rock (the thunder egg) at a multi-story scale.
A number of architects I've talked to dislike the building, suggesting its mural-covered facade lacks integrity because it's only skin-deep beauty (if that), and has no relation to the offices functioning inside. They predict those bold paint colors will fade and look shabby. But since when do we judge a building by future wear and tear? They argue the random windows amount to an aesthetic choice and thus a detriment to interior experience, lacking light. As it happens, breaking down the Dumbbell into two separate structures keeps the floor plates small and, therefore, full of natural light because you're never far from those windows.
Maybe we wouldn't want every building to take the approach Cavenaugh and FFA have. Like the Portland building, the Dumbbell is playful enough to perhaps seem trite. And admittedly it was, like its predecessor by Graves, built somewhat cheaply.
Yet I can't help but smile every time I pass Cavenaugh's confection at MLK and Burnside. And outside of the architecture profession, I can tell I'm far from the only person delighted by the Dumbbell. In a gray and rainy climate, its wild colors and multi-story imagery provide a welcome respite.
Cavenaugh's approach is equally refreshing. Zoning allowed another tall tower here, and the designer-developer could have made more profit by building to the limit, like almost any other building-industry businessperson would have. (Look no further than the banal eyesore being built from a Myhre Group design across the street.) He also pursued a pioneering crowdfunding approach to raise money for the Dumbbell's construction. But while Cavenaugh doesn't want to fail, he also doesn't measure success in solely financial terms. Like the late Michael Graves, he wants to pursue artful, iconoclastic place-making, and that's exactly what has been accomplished.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com