Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Perils of Building Cheaply

The Portland Building (photo by Steve Morgan, via Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license) 

The fate of the Portland Building is in question. The City of Portland’s infamous administrative headquarters, completed in 1982, is currently the subject of serious discussions by city commissioners about whether it should be overhauled to correct an estimated $95 million in deficiencies or demolished and replaced altogether at considerably higher cost. Completed in 1982 for what even then seemed a remarkably meager sum ($25 million for a 364,000 square foot, 15-story tower occupying an entire block in downtown Portland), the building today suffers a litany of costly problems: long-standing structural defects, leaky roofs and windows, lack of natural light inside, and general user-unfriendliness. Its current turn in the spotlights raises significant questions regarding our throw-away culture and reluctance to invest adequately in sound design and construction to begin with. 

The Portland Building is well-known to most architects, particularly those of us who were around at the time of its genesis during Postmodernism’s heady days in the 70s and 80s. Its notoriety largely derives from the fact it was the first large-scale example of Postmodern architecture completed in the U.S. and because it was designed by Michael Graves, FAIA, one of the movement’s enfants terribles. I well remember the hubbub raised by the jury’s selection of Graves’ design, particularly the accusations of patent lobbying on its behalf by Philip Johnson, the professional advisor for the contest and one of the godfathers of Postmodern architecture.(1) 

Younger architects may not grasp how radical Graves’ design for the Portland Building appeared when it was first unveiled during the course of the competition. His highly personal design vocabulary fundamentally strayed from the principles and orthodoxy of Modernism, which since WWII had established itself as the architectural doctrine of choice for large institutional and commercial projects. Graves employed color and grossly over-scaled Classical elements (keystones, pilasters, garlands, etc.) in an unabashedly symbolic way.(2) The Portland Building’s design overtly acknowledged the power of architecture to communicate meaning. Its arrival on the scene was a watershed moment in the history of 20th century architecture, one which critics of its design (particularly those in Portland) would all too happily see erased and forgotten. Most notable among these critics was Pietro Belluschi, who in a conversation with a reporter for the Oregonian later declared it to be “totally wrong. It's not architecture; it's packaging. I said there were only two good things about it: It will put Portland on the map, architecturally, and it will never be repeated.” 

 Elevation drawing by Michael Graves, 1980
While a student at the University of Oregon (1980-83), I took note of the Portland Building’s rising each time I traveled north and south along I-5 between Eugene and my parents’ home in Vancouver, British Columbia. I found the building particularly striking once the bare concrete shell achieved its final height: it looked to me like nothing if not a colossal, ghostly gray columbarium, a foreboding fortress of the dead amidst an indifferent gaggle of sleek, stark towers. The Portland Building was also ill-proportioned and lacking in scale, traits that would remain even after it received its vibrantly painted coat of colors. 

Therein lies the rub. As noteworthy an achievement as it is from an historical perspective, there’s no getting around the fact that the Portland Building is simply ugly. Belluschi and the building’s other detractors were quick to cite its superficial and inelegant design, as well as its many functional shortcomings. What appeared beguiling and nuanced in the competition renderings would be realized as a grossly unrefined, miserable, squat box of a building. Regardless, its significance as a piece of architecture cannot be understated. For this reason alone, I believe the Portland Building and its salient features are worthy of preservation. This is easy for me to say: I don’t have to come up with the money to properly repair and refurbish it. Others agree though, and as of 2011 the building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, unusual for so young a property.(3) 

Short-Sighted Thinking
By opting for a design-build competition, the City of Portland believed it would ensure itself of both a prominent architect and also a new public services building for a predetermined price. Among a number of reasons (chiefly the mayor’s goal of projecting an image of fiscal responsibility and municipal modesty) the cost of the competing designs was the most heavily-weighted criterion. It turned out the design-build proposal submitted by the team of Michael Graves, Architect and Hoffman Construction was the only one of the three finalists (the other two being designs by Arthur Erickson Architects and Mitchell/Giurgola Architects) that met the strict budget without compromising the building program.(4) 

The problem with the Graves design was its consequent cheapness. It’s little more than a painted concrete box, with scant consideration given to the activities that take place within. I attended a lecture delivered by Graves in 1980, shortly after the City of Portland announced results of the competition.(5) During his talk he freely admitted how completely the inadequate budget dictated his firm’s plans for the Portland Building. Additional value engineering further compromised the design after the city awarded the Graves/Hoffman team the contract to build the project. The flowing metal garlands that adorned the sides of the competition model became flattened facsimiles; the village of rooftop structures was consolidated as a single penthouse; the exterior cladding was reduced to paint, and so on. Worst of all, the general cheapening of the design and the hasty construction schedule resulted in a building that today is so flawed its continued viability is being seriously questioned.  

The Oregonian recently quoted Eugene’s own Otto Poticha, FAIA, as saying the City of Portland made a poor decision by using cost as its primary motivation for selecting Graves’ design over the competing entries by Erickson and Mitchell/Giurgola. “A public building should last a minimum of 50 years without needing major repairs,” he said. “Thirty years, a building like that, it's an embarrassment,” he said. “It's an embarrassment architecturally. It's an embarrassment to the city. Why the city let that happen, I have no idea." 

I personally find it bizarre to think a major facility built during my lifetime may be nearing the end of its own. The construction of the Portland Building is too fresh in my memory and I should be considered too young to have outlived it. We should be building to last for many generations, not a fraction of one. Even more egregious is the tale of the Kingdome in Seattle, which enjoyed a mere 24 years of useful life before ceremoniously being blown to bits. What an enormous waste and a sad commentary about our culture. 

Notwithstanding the estimated $95 million price tag associated with the necessary repairs and refurbishments, a total accounting of the cost to demolish the Portland Building and build a replacement must also include the cost of the energy embodied in the extraction, processing, manufacture, and delivery of construction materials to the building site. In terms of carbon footprint and environmental impact, the true cost of a replacement might be many orders of magnitude more costly than a rehabilitation project, regardless of how “green” and energy-efficient a new building would be. 

Portlandia (photo by Raymond Kaskey)
Keep Portland Weird
Need another argument in favor of preserving the Portland Building? I contend the Portland Building is essential to maintaining Portland’s high ranking on the weirdness scale. Other cities can boast their own monuments by Michael Graves—the Humana Building in Louisville and the Denver Central Library come to mind—but the Portland Building was the original. While not ranking up there yet with the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House, the Portland Building is becoming universally recognized as an iconic Portland landmark. Its cheapness aside, the Portland Building’s brand of quirkiness plays well within the dreamy and absurd rendering of Portland portrayed by the TV series “Portlandia” (which not-so-coincidentally borrows its name from the enormous sculpture by Raymond Kaskey perched upon the building’s entrance on 5th Avenue). 

*    *    *    *    *   
The Portland Building is an influential structure, the product of a prominent design competition, a milestone in the history of American architecture, and yet here we find it, in such dire need of improvements that its very future hangs in the balance. Whether you love it or hate it, you must appreciate the Portland Building’s place in the canon of  20th century architectural design. You—and more importantly building owners, developers, and the general public—should also recognize the very real value of investing for the long-haul. All of us cannot afford to continue placing first costs at the top of every project’s priority list; the perils of building cheaply are too great. We cannot afford to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Such a strategy is neither sustainable nor ultimately cost-effective. What we can do is learn from the example of the Portland Building and avoid problems of our own making for which there are no easy solutions.

(1)  Among other trends: Johnson also championed the International Style in 1932 as curator of an exhibit for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and after Postmodernism faddishly dabbled in Deconstructivism. 

(2)  I actually find Graves’ earlier work more intriguing, particularly those projects (mostly unbuilt) he designed during the brief period between his neo-Corbusian phase and the cartoon-like use of classical motifs that have characterized his career since. These transitional projects were marked by a Cubist sensibility, involving the collage-like assemblage of abstracted, allusive forms. An example was Graves’ 1976 design for the Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Center.

(3)  Generally, buildings are at least 50 years old to be considered eligible for listing.

(4)  An excerpt from an excellent paper about the Portland Building’s problems written in 1997 by Meredith Clausen and Kim Christiansen summarized the competing designs by Erickson and Giurgola:

Erickson proposal
"Erickson's proposal consisted of a shimmering, reflective glass structure poised on pilotis, with a series of setbacks at the base freeing the ground floor for public use; on the principal facade facing onto a newly established transit mall, a large monumental arched entry opened into a great, glazed galleria that stretched through the building, terminating in a broad open-air plaza facing onto the park. To provide this amount of open public space and still remain on budget, however, the team had to compromise certain other aspects of the program. 

Giurgola proposal

            “Giurgola, who had argued that a public building of this stature could not, or rather should not, be built for so low a price, submitted a proposal that pulled together the park, adjacent city buildings, and the transit mall by means of a diagonal circulation system, with entrances at each of the four corners of the block; these met in the center of the building to form a light-filled, glazed courtyard, with a major artwork forming the focal point, and providing views onto the park. The building, a 10-story precast concrete building with side walls of reflective glass, maintained the street wall on all four sides, with sloped canopies allowing a transparency at the street level. Their proposal most fully met the specifications of the program, but exceeded the budget by some $6 million.”

(5)  Ironically, this lecture took place in the auditorium of Arthur Erickson’s recently completed Provincial Courthouse and Vancouver Art Gallery complex. Graves poked fun at Erickson’s three-block long, glass and concrete “groundscraper” before contrasting its west-coast modern design with his classically-inspired solution for the Portland Building. Erickson did not attend the lecture.


Specologist said...

This building is indeed weird, Randy. But I find myself on the side of preserving it somehow. Great cities need at least a little weirdness. Chicago would have benefitted if it had been possible to preserve Bertrand Goldberg's equally weird Prentice Women's Hospital.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

John: The Prentice Women's Hospital saga has received a lot of press, to say the least. Preservation of our recent architectural heritage is as important as protecting our older buildings. Mid and late 20th century landmarks will increasingly become the center of debate as their existence becomes threatened. Why is it that humans are always so willing to quickly discard the old in favor of that which is most shiny and new?

Anonymous said...

It never was a good building and the process to build it was flawed. It never was about Architecture, it was about the cheapest way to get a public building. Tear it down and build something that the city can be proud of and will stand the test of time Architecturally. Oh yeah, thanks Randy.

Richard said...

Thanks Randy for your clear insight to a bad building. Tear it down and build a proper public building with a an Architect that knows how to design a public building that we would all be proud of.