Michael Graves thinks the building can be saved for $40 million, not $90 million

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Architect Michael Graves, who designed the Portland Building in the 1980s, says estimates to save the building are flawed. The Portland Building is a national historic site and the focus of criticism from architects and the public.Architect Michael Graves, the man who launched post-modernism with the salmon and turquoise Portland Building in 1982, has a few choice words for those who don’t want to save the building.

“I heard this morning that it would cost $90 million to fix it. That’s bulls--t. It’s all the newspapers and people who don’t want to fix it, like the city administrators who don’t want to deal with it any more,” he said, sitting in his wheelchair in a conference room at the Residence Inn in the Pearl District.

“I built that building for $24 million, and now they’re going to fix it for $90 million, not $40 million. They made it up.”

The Portland Building is both a tourist attraction and a working building, filled with city offices, for parking, the parks department etc. It has been criticized for being too dark and leaky inside.

The Tribune asked Graves what he thought about those who say it should be torn down and replaced.

“Where are the going to get the money to build a new one? It’ll cost gobs of money. They’re not going to rip it down now, that’s for sure. I got that from the horse’s mouth, I’m not making that up.”

He wouldn’t say which talking horse, but Graves did add that he has no say in what should be done.

“None whatsoever. I’m here for a couple of days. I came out here to make sure my voice was heard. I don’t get paid for coming out here and speaking for two days."

The University of Oregon School of Architecture invited Graves to Portland to speak as part of Design Week.

What he does advise is they turn the colored glass to clear to let more light in, and add glass to the loggia and bring in retail.

“And clean out the lobby, make it a great deal smarter than it is now. It’s a pig pen in there now.”

He points out that he designed it in an energy crisis and he did as told: use small, tinted windows to keep the heat in.

“That helped me win [the competition]. I got points for that.”

And this was all before LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings.

“Well, LEED’s bullls--t.”

Is it novel that his famous Portland Building elicits strong feeling, pro and anti?

“All my buildings elicit strong feelings. I have more people that like my buildings, or I wouldn’t be practicing today.”

Is the controversy fun?

“Oh, it’s a joy,” he said with irony.

There is a retrospective at the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey opening this month to celebrate 50 years of his firm’s practice.

“That’s pretty exciting, there are things in there I haven’t seen since 1960, models and drawings.”

Graves also had a show of paintings open on Monday, Oct. 6 at the Studio Vendome Gallery in New York City.

What sort of art crowd comes to see his paintings? He doesn’t know, because he only knew two or three people there.

Does he have any secret projects underway?

“Someone asked me to a do a tree house the other day. I can’t afford to spend much time on something like that, but I would do it and it would be pretty interesting. I already have some ideas. I’m thinking about what’s possible to build for $5,000 or $3,000. I don’t know what their budget is yet.”

Graves designed from immediate need — all the furniture when he was a young married man in his first apartment, gaily colored housewares sold in Target and JC Penny, and hand rails and ice cream scoops suitable for disabled people after a virus paralyzed him.

He points out that after World War Two architects were so busy they just did the outsides of buildings. “They gave away the interiors, the carpets and chairs.”

He is now doing the master plan of a university in China, including the school of architecture. “I’m doing everything,” he says proudly.

Graves says he’s very negative about current architecture. What does he think of the concrete towers of Shanghai?

“Shanghai, all that was rice fields, it was beautiful, and now it’s just garbage. All that stuff, architects trying to make names for themselves doing weird things.”

When it comes to materials, he sticks to what he knows: glass, stone and wood. He intensely dislikes the yellow, perforated, metal screen wall on the front of the hotel he’s staying in.

“You can’t see in and you can’t see out. What’s it for? I see it in magazines every day, they don’t make facades any more, they make screen walls. It’s monstrous, it’s a fad.”

As for the Portland Building, he knows it’s a tourist attraction but is convinced it will remain a working building.

“They’re now proposing they build a new city hall. The old city hall, my building and the county courthouse will be the offices, and the new city hall can be smaller.

"That’s a real proposal. I heard it from the horse.”


The Portland Building, by architect and product designer Michael Graves, is considered the first major built work of Postmodernist architecture. The design, which displays numerous symbolic elements on its monumental facades, stands in purposeful contrast to the functional Modernist architecture that was dominant at the time. As Graves explains of his architecture: it’s “a symbolic gesture, an attempt to re-establish a language of architecture and values that are not a part of modernist homogeneity.”