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COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE

۬What does the iconic Wells Fargo Center and its staying power say about Portland?

COURTESY PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - The Wells Fargo Center is an iconic piece of Portland's skyline.This year Portland's tallest building, the Wells Fargo Center, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. While it has never been beloved, this Charles Luckman-designed office marked a turning point in the city's history. Somehow, it was both a pinnacle and a bottoming out.

As a young child in 1970s McMinnville, I would anxiously await the moment, on trips to Portland, when our family car would emerge from the Terwilliger curves along Interstate 5 to reveal the tower for the first time. Known in those days as the First National Bank Tower, it was the only building tall enough (at 546 feet) to be seen from this vantage point, three miles south of downtown.PMG FILE PHOTO - Brian Libby

Designed by Los Angeles CEO-turned-architect Charles Luckman, the building's white marble fins against black metal were distinctive — too much so for New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who called it "jazzy and schlocky enough to batter all sensibilities." Critics weren't alone. In a 2006 survey of Portland architects, the Wells Fargo was voted their most-despised structure.

A 41-story building in many big cities wouldn't even be close to the tallest. Why has Portland shied away from such high-rises over the ensuing half-century?

In other cities, tall buildings have never been more commonplace. Nearly all of the buildings on SkyscraperPage's 2022 World's Tallest Buildings list were built after the turn of the 21st century. The Petronas Towers, the world's tallest from 1998-2004, are now ranked 17th.

Granted, Portland's small downtown blocks are not conducive to anchoring huge towers. With numerous majestic Cascade peaks visible from downtown, we have also shied away from treating buildings as our most impressive landmarks, for they will never be. But that doesn't stop Seattle.

No, I think as a relatively insular river city with less capital wealth than larger Pacific coast metropolises, Portland is just not as given to such large speculative projects. And make no mistake: even when they have a namesake anchor tenant, all skyscrapers are fishing for tenants. Cass Gilbert, the architect of New York City's Woolworth Building (the world's tallest from 1913-1930), once wrote that a skyscraper "is a machine that makes the land pay."

In today's times of economic inequality, maybe that's a cautionary tale as much as something to congratulate. Towers are trophies held by an exclusive few.COURTESY PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - The Wells Fargo Center was constructed 50 years ago.

In the 2000s and 2010s we have seen more outside capital arrive, and built more modestly tall buildings (mostly residential) than ever before. Currently under construction, for example, is a 35-story building that will be the city's fourth-tallest, and taller than we've gone since 1984's KOIN Center. Yet the combination Ritz-Carlton Hotel, condo and office building, set for completion next year, seems like an anachronism before it arrives: conceived in one era, opened in another.

With the pandemic gifting millions of white-collar workers the epiphany they can work more efficiently and happily from home, we may no longer see commercial real estate push to the highest architectural heights. With downtown struggling amidst both real social problems and media mischaracterization, the financial optimism underscoring big building projects is also missing.

Even so, the Wells Fargo Center reminds us that while such architecture may be measured in linear terms — rentable square feet, vertical height — the history of downtown is circular. People were fleeing for the suburbs when this tower was built 50 years ago, and then a new generation took over, seeding a downtown Portland renaissance when it was least expected.


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