Page C1.2 . 05 June 2002                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Reevaluating Postmodernism


Local architects have even pointed out that Graves's building was completed in 1984, as if imagined by George Orwell. And now that postmodernism seems to have largely died out, the building illustrates the movement's inadequacies all the more eloquently.

The Architect Returns to the Scene

Thus, it's not surprising that Graves who has since gone on to become one of the most heralded architects of his generation, as evidenced by his recent AIA Gold Medal and National Medal of Arts has shied away from visiting Portland over the last twenty years.

His Portland "homecoming" in May 2002, his first visit since the building was completed, was partly a time for speechmaking, at the invitation of local architecture organizations. It was also the occasion for reconciliation between the architect and the city that had turned away from provocative design in the years since his departure.

Graves's visit may also have served to mark a kind of wake for postmodernism, in which the movement's veritable demise could be remembered with both affection for its intentions and discontent with its wildly uneven results.

"Twenty years ago my supporters couldn't fill one Chinese restaurant," Graves joked upon greeting a capacity crowd at the Oregon Convention Center. "Maybe you're all my enemies."

In a newspaper interview before his arrival, he had cantankerously insisted that he wouldn't discuss the Portland Building in his speech. In the end, however, he did talk about it. He was gracious as could be, and the crowd returned the favor.

"I know of no other city in America quite like this," Graves said of Portland, lauding its European-style, pedestrian-friendly downtown. "It's about people coming out of their homes and offices to participate in the life of their city."

Defining Postmodernism

Graves began his speech by outlining his theoretical roots in the modernism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Courbusier, stopping short of that of Walter Gropius. Graves pointed out the inherent symbolism in the work of many great modernists, particularly Le Corbusier, which Graves found to be an important impetus in formulating his own style. He seemed to want to persuade the audience that postmodernism's roots are in modernism, and that the two movements are not polar opposites.

After studying architecture at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University, Graves says he felt his education "...hadn't started yet. I had to get smart." He began to find his sense of purpose at the American Academy in Rome, where Italy's romantic design vernacular and its centuries of classical architecture gave him a "liturgical cleansing" that would shape the rest of his career. Since then he has focused on returning to a more humanistic architectural tradition.

Herein lies a vital point about postmodern architecture. With its bold allusions to classical architecture, the movement is often described as ironic or, worse, a caricature of buildings past.

But as Graves reminds us, good postmodernism is more a romantic celebration and incorporation of previous styles, periods, and visual forms than a sardonic mockery. The problem, though, is that this distinction is difficult for architects to navigate successfully.

Transforming Portland

And there's no better example of veering off course than Graves's own Portland Building. At that point in his career, the young architect had no experience designing such large buildings. But in the Portland Building design competition, he had an important ally in Philip Johnson, a member of the three-person selection committee.

With Johnson's help, Graves got the job (over Arthur Erickson and Mitchell/Giurgola) and Portland got a building with an unprecedented expression of color and neoclassical form.

"It was a little over the top, perhaps," Graves now says of the Portland Building's outer features, which include faux garlands and tiny windows that ignore a rainy climate's need for light in favor of a symbolic reference to its small blocks.

Indeed, the Portland Building represents not just an early step for postmodernism, but a kind of adolescence for Graves as an architect. There are aspects of greatness to the building in its break from the stylistic norm, its painterly quality, and its humanistic flair.

All of this speaks as much to postmodernism's possibility as to the project's unquestionably numerous faults. Portland's downtown is among the most livable and inviting of all American cities, but its individual buildings are largely uninspiring and lacking in pedigree. An exception is the elegantly modern Equitable Building, by Pietro Belluschi, which narrowly beat out the United Nations to become the world's first aluminum-clad structure in 1948.

In 1984, downtown Portland was little more than another collection of middling modernism. As such, Graves recalls his bewilderment at the venom with which locals regarded his building: "I thought, 'Why are they so upset?' Modernism has given them a choice between vertical and horizontal, white, gray or black. Come on! This is the City of Roses. You're too smart for that!" For all the hostility this building has inspired, the recent audience of Portlanders couldn't help but applaud.

The Demise of Postmodernism?

Indeed, for all the hostility with which postmodernism has been met over the years, it has generated not only a collection of major buildings by Graves, Johnson, Helmut Jahn, and others, but also some valuable lessons, at least in theory, about what makes good architecture.

There is certainly a place for incorporating the forms of the past into the styles of today and the future. Building colors need not be restricted to a limited palette. While sometimes "less is more," as Mies van der Rohe liked to quote Robert Browning, that ethic is balanced on the skyline by buildings with a greater flair for drama. Not every building needs to be a box where form is rigidly determined by function.

The best cityscapes are an eclectic assortment of buildings, which is why even a noble failure like the Portland Building may be of value. Graves's work did not become Portland's Eiffel Tower. It hasn't even been accepted by the community as a welcome addition. But in a city where politely livable if often-mediocre architecture reigns, the Portland Public Services Building at least aspired once to greatness.

Perhaps that's where Graves and his Portland audience finally found common ground. For even if the result did not make for great (or even repeatable) architecture, Graves' underlying inspiration about the role of architecture partakes of a spirit to which city leaders should more often take heed.

Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who has also published in Metropolis, Architectural Record, New York Times, and Salon.

Portions of this article are based on an interview with Randy Gragg, Graves: Architect Still Proud of Building, published on May 5, 2002 in The Oregonian. Most of the images are courtesy of the Cities/Buildings Database, University of Washington.

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The Portland Building by Michael Graves.
Photo: Meredith L. Clausen/ Cities/Buildings Database

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The Portland Building as seen from street level.
Photo: Meredith L. Clausen/ Cities/Buildings Database

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Interior spaces are dark in a sunlight-hungry climate.
Photo: Meredith L. Clausen/ Cities/Buildings Database

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At the 14th floor, metal props were added to prevent structural failure.
Photo: Meredith L. Clausen/ Cities/Buildings Database

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The public dining area.
Photo: Meredith L. Clausen/ Cities/Buildings Database

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A gloomy office interior.
Photo: Meredith L. Clausen/ Cities/Buildings Database


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