The Dream of the 80s is Alive in Portland. Just.

Michael Graves: Portland Building, preliminary coloured pencil study of general elevation, with perspective and other sketches for a proposed cupola, 1980

Michael Graves: Portland Building, preliminary coloured pencil study of general elevation, with perspective and other sketches for a proposed cupola, 1980

A week before the death of Michael Graves, Portland City Council was locked in complex discussions in how to fund the refurbishment of his most famous work, The Portland Building. Home to a fair chunk of the city’s municipal administration, as well as being a piece of world famous architecture, the city is under pressure to maintain the building. According to surveys last year it requires $95 million in renovations. Portland is a prosperous city; one of the fastest growing in America with a population increase of 1.8% in both 2012 and 2013. It is however feeling the pressure from this expansion, whilst apparently unable to benefit from the increased tax income. 

The city council – sitting in chambers just across the street from the first great post-modernist building to be completed in the USA – say they have some difficult choices to make. They are now contemplating a $84 million reduction in affordable housing projects in urban renewal zones, and a $216 million loss for infrastructure and economic development projects. The council have framed the debate as a struggle between architecture as an art which must be preserved or as a social act which provides basic needs such as shelter. This kind of “either/or” argument always has to be resisted and Michael Graves did so throughout his life in admirable fashion, building humane, buildings that were also great fun.

Indeed if you look at the original sketches for the Portland Building you can see that the ambition of the building was greatly traduced as it went through construction. Graves’s proposal was the least expensive of the finalists in the international competition but he was still forced to reduce costs with the final design. Many of the sculptural elements Graves originally proposed didn’t make the cut, including the cupola that he considers  in this sketch from the Drawing Matter archive. Instead the building developed the slightly terrifying cubic purity that it still possesses today and became this gnarly reductio ad absurdum of the postmodernist agenda. 

I still – like many others – have an affection for it, which has only increased with the news of Graves death. Largely because of the relationship between the beautiful drawings which explore ideas of classical composition for the modern world and the building, in which these ideas are tested out. It was Jayne Kelley who I met whilst working at the CCA who taught me how to consider the building in a new way.  She wrote a small article on a similar drawing to the one above in which she quoted Graves telling the contractor “I don’t care if it’s made of oatmeal—we’re going to be on budget.”

The Portland Building is not some ludicrous vanity project. Rather than positing its maintenance as a trade off with social housing, Portland’s council should think about the kind of metropolis it is slowly becoming. (I prefer Kyle McLachlan’s moronic Portland mayor in the series Portlandia to the reality.) It would be great to hear someone make an argument for great civic buildings and housing and roads from a collective purse in the city: to have it all. If they’re looking for a good example, they don’t need to look much further than Graves attempts to balance financial reality with cultural value in the Portland building.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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