Thirty-eight years after the city's most famous work of architecture officially opened for business, the Portland Building is now finally complete.
Architecture firm DLR Group's renovation of the circa-1982 Postmodernist icon originally designed by Michael Graves is remarkable. The heretofore-tiny lobby has been expanded and, for the first time, filled with natural light, after incorporating former ground-floor retail spaces. On the office floors, drop ceilings have been removed, and dark glass made clear. The façade, though clad in an entirely different material, looks newly crisp even as it maintains the original pink-and-teal appearance.
So compromised and claustrophobic was the original Portland Building construction that the renovation we behold today isn't just renewing what's there. It has brought the essence of Graves's vision closer to fruition. Think of it as post-postmodern.
Cheap was costly
By now, the Portland Building's origin story is a familiar one. It started when Graves won the commission through an international design competition over two other finalists — each of which designed a more conventional-looking modernist city office building. Nobody expected Graves, a Princeton University professor and postmodernist-architect provocateur, to secure the commission.
However, the Graves design was the only one of three that could be built for an absurdly low budget insisted on by Mayor Frank Ivancie: about $51 per square foot. Corrected for inflation, that's about $136 today. By comparison, the average per-square-foot cost in 2019 dollars for a multistory office building was just under $200.
To keep his campaign promises of fiscal conservativism at city hall, Ivancie insisted that the Portland Building be built for far less than a private-sector office.
But you get what you pay for.
Ivancie's budget austerity has since cost the City of Portland many millions more in repairs than a properly-funded Portland Building ever would have.
Renderings showed Graves's design to be a fanciful confection, with faux garlands affixed to a colorful façade that looked almost like a wrapped birthday present. Yet there was a method to his madness: rejecting architectural austerity.
Graves wasn't the only one. At the time, architects and critics around the country were beginning to challenge Modernism and its 1970s iterations: namely Brutalist raw-concrete behemoths and mirrored-glass office buildings.
The Portland Building instead did something the modernists considered taboo. It reinterpreted the language of traditional (particularly classical) architecture. It also sought to re-invigorate the street outside with ground-floor retail, something we take for granted in large downtown buildings today but was uncommon in the 1970s when the Portland Building was conceived.
Because the retail outlets were set back from the street in a covered loggia, they never worked well. But that's nothing compared to the physical problems resulting from an insufficient budget. Facades of stucco and ceramic tile that Graves proposed instead became a solution no one would even try to make work today: simply painting the concrete structure itself. With an energy crisis in full swing, the windows also got small, and the glass darkly shaded.
As a result, the Portland Building became a much-unloved place to work and a costly facility to maintain. And it stayed that way for decades.
Controversy and opportunity
When the City of Portland committed nearly $200 million in 2014 to fix the building once and for all (about half that cost representing a year-long staff relocation), the plan was controversial, particularly its façade changes.
Architectural landmarks of international historical don't normally get re-clad with entirely different materials. But you can't replicate a cladding type that nobody builds anymore, and repairing the existing one was a non-starter because it would likely continue to leak every few years. Instead, an aluminum rain-screen system was introduced. It will, in all likelihood, cost the Portland Building its National Register listing, but it was the right move.
The new cladding looks better than the original ever did, but it also, crucially, doesn't look that different.
Yet what about the building's resident goddess, the Portlandia statue?
This second-largest statue in America was left relatively untouched, but in the renovated building, she's easier to behold. For the first time, you can regard the statue from behind, inside the building, and from the side, via a new outdoor viewing area.
It's not to say one should take so many liberties with other historic buildings. Because the building is so historic, yet was always so flawed a structure, the Portland Building is a special case. Yet it also reflects a changing philosophy in historic preservation. To truly endure, our buildings have to work for their occupants: to encourage their health and well-being. That's what Michael Graves and his team always sought, but conservative cost-cutting got in the way.
Graves didn't get to live to see his most famous design reborn, but there's no doubt he would be happy. His vision has finally been realized.
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
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