DEMOLISHING POSTMODERNISM?: MICHAEL GRAVES' PORTLAND BUILDING
Portland Building (1982), Michael Graves
The news that Michael Graves' seminal postmodern work, the the 15-storey Portland Public Services Building, is under threat of demolition only 32 years after completion following news that the building needs more than $95 million worth of repairs, raises some questions about the longevity of postmodernism.
Michael Graves (b.1934) is an American architect whose firm, Michael Graves & Associates, has built an international reputation since Graves founded the practice in 1964. MGA is responsible for master plans, architecture and interiors of over 350 buildings worldwide, including hotels and resorts, restaurants, retail stores, civic and cultural projects, office buildings, healthcare, residences and a wide variety of academic facilities. Michael Graves belonged to the group of five New York City architects (Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk and Richard Meier and Graves) who had a common allegiance (stemming from the mentoring role of Philip Johnson) to a pure form of architectural modernism. Their book, Five Architects, published in 1972 evoked a stinging rebuke in 1973 in a group of essays, "Five on Five", written by architects Romaldo Giurgola, Allan Greenberg, Charles Moore, Jaquelin T. Robertson, and Robert A. M. Stern. Known as the "Grays", these architects attacked the "Whites" on the grounds that their pursuit of the pure modernist aesthetic resulted in unworkable buildings that were indifferent to site, indifferent to users, and divorced from daily life. The "Grays" were aligned with Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi and the emerging interest in vernacular architecture and early postmodernism.
Certainly, Graves’ earliest designs show the strong influence of purist modernist principles, especially those of the great modernist theorist Le Corbusier. However, he was to move away from modernism towards the post-modern movement in architecture. While it displays modernist ideas and geometries, the Snyderman house in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1972-77) was also considered a transitional work for Graves, bridging from his earlier modernist phase to an emerging approach that would break away from strict principles of modernism.
In 1977, Graves heralded a new movement in architecture with a groundbreaking home design on a hillside in Warren, New Jersey. Echoing elements of an Italian palazzo Graves’ design for Plocek house did more than just break free of the constraints of modernism. He playfully connected with architectural history, helping to create a new vocabulary of design that would inform an emerging school of postmodernism.
Effectively burning his modernist credentials, Michael Graves’ Portland Building boldly showed what was next: postmodernism, writ large. In this high-rise civic structure, his unorthodox use of color, texture, and classical allusion defied modernist principles – and provoked broad debate. The Portland Building truly put Graves’ postmodern ideas on the map. With its vibrant colors and classical references, the 15-story Portland Building helped spark a new architectural movement. Its significance led the building to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. Above the front entrance is a statue of “Portlandia” that Graves conceived, designed, and named. The statue, installed in 1985, was executed in hammered copper by sculptor Raymond Kaskey. Architectural historian Charles Jencks underlined the importance of the building in his influential book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture: "The Portland still is the first major monument of Post-Modernism, just as the Bauhaus was of Modernism, because with all its faults it still is the first to show that one can build with art, ornament, and symbolism on a grand scale, and in a language the inhabitants understand."
However, the Portland Building has been plagued with major structural problems and defects ever since its completion, many of which are attributed to the tight $25 million budget of the original construction.The possible demolition of the Portland Building is one of several options under consideration by city officials following a recent analysis of the building's condition. According to the assessment, a complete overhaul of the building would require $95 million (£58 million), while replacing it or relocating could cost anything between $110 million and $400 million (£67 million and £243 million).
The Graves design had won a 1980 competition chaired by Philip Johnson. According to Randy Gragg, the former architecture critic of The Oregonian, “Johnson was really only interested in changing the dialogue around architecture at that time, and Graves was his boy.” The design won in part, says Gragg, because the energy crisis dictated the need for an efficient building. In that era, that meant minimizing the glass, and Graves obligingly supplied the notoriously small windows that have led to unhappy, sunlight-starved public servants. Actually, as Jencks has written, Graves was forced to win the competition twice, because his initial victory was challenged by the local AIA chapter, which suggested his design belonged in Las Vegas. Graves prevailed in part because, according to Jencks, “his scheme was the cheapest.”
Costs at the Portland Building were cut to the bone and structural problems were first discovered during construction. These were fixed, but there was more trouble in the 1990s. In late 2013, a survey determined that the building was leaking and structurally deficient and needed a $95 million rehabilitation. The recommendation of the report was to renovate the structure, which would take two years and require finding a temporary home for 1300 employees. However, city commissioners have branded it a "white elephant" and are considering pulling down both this building and a neighbouring courthouse to make way for an all-new public services complex.
Graves went on to design and complete other striking postmodern buildings. He was commissioned in 1990 to renovate and design an extension to the Denver Central Library. Sited next to Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, the Denver Central Library is one of the largest libraries in the United States and attracts over a million readers each year. Graves designed a series of abstracted classical forms, natural materials and colors commonly characteristic of the postmodern mind but attempted to allow the existing library building designed by Burnham Hoyt in 1956 to maintain its own identity. So Graves’ addition and the original library are two parts in a larger composition that are connected by a three story atrium which serves as a new main entrance that becomes the main focal point for visitors and circulation to either wing of the library. The interior of the library is fairly conservative when it comes to the decorative aesthetics. Most of the spaces appear to be traditional library spaces composed of natural wood. Only in the reading rooms is there any trace of the post-modern aesthetic.
There is no news yet on the decision whether to demolish the Portland Building.
All text and photographs © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014
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