Architects, Critics Reflect on the Portland Building

The Michael Graves legacy remains as contentious and confounding as ever.

Michael Graves’s controversial Portland Building will soon get a modest makeover. The city is replacing the worn old roof with a vegetated “green” one. As news broke last year of the renovation, it became clear that the building’s legacy remains a matter of fierce debate, particularly in Portland. Love it or hate it, the government building’s stylized cream-and-mauve facade made it a symbol of the Post-Modern style.

Graves’s aesthetic provoked heady discussion in architectural circles and often vehement disapproval from the public. Shortly after its dedication in October 1982, New York Times critic Paul Goldberger called it “the most important public building to open thus far in this decade” but mentioned that others saw Graves as a mere “creature of fashion.” Time magazine’s Wolf Von Eckardt denounced the building as “pop surrealism.”

More recently, an article in Portland’s Willamette Week called it the city’s “noble failure.” While the new roof is unlikely to alter the building’s contentious legacy (or its colossal effect on pedestrians), it will help its heating, cooling, and storm-water runoff systems run more efficiently and provide those inside the surrounding glass-and-steel high-rises with a lush new view of a familiar icon.

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We asked young architects and critics a generation or two removed from the Graves debates the following:

What do you think of the Portland Building? Is it an eyesore or an icon? Will its legacy evolve?

“The dubious handling of scale still startles me. But with all the retro comebacks, I wouldn’t be surprised to see references to it in the near future.”
Jurgen Mayer H.

“I recall visiting the building as an undergraduate. My immediate reaction was shock followed by nervous disbelief. Was this thing real? Its composition seemed too easy. And nowhere in my architectural education did we ever venture into the topic of color. Natural materials, yes. But applied? Never.”
Joe Macdonald
Urban A&O

“The Portland Building reminds me of the Cray-1 supercomputer from 1976—it’s a visually robust testament to its own maverick (but serious) intentions. It signifies a brutish but bold beginning.”
Talia Dorsey
Architecture Student at MIT

“In all its controversy, neither praise nor criticism gave due credit to the building on a literal level. Graves (and Rossi) are masters of tweaking proportions. Their legacy is making things portly, and their audaciousness is totally inspiring at a large urban scale.”
Jeffrey Inaba

“I’ve always admired Charles Jencks’s assertion that it is the first Post-Modern building ‘to show that one can build with art, ornament, and symbolism on a grand scale.’ It matched Graves’s own confidence as a designer. It may have given us little to look back on, but it is a lightning rod of a superconfident past.”
Sarah Whiting
Critic and Associate Professor of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design

“Post-Modernism proposed architecture so impoverished and flat that it had no possibility for evolution. Michael Graves’s Portland Building, while certainly a monument to the zeitgeist of the 1980s, has little to offer the contemporary world.”
Tom Wiscombe

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