Singled out as a landmark in architectural history even before it was built, Michael Graves’s Portland Building, known only through drawings, was considered an icon of postmodernism and immediately became a fixture in architectural history texts. Since it exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s, it has been heralded as one of the most controversial, published buildings in architectural history. But little has been written about the building itself, how it came to be, how well it functions, and how it has stood the test of time over the past thirty years. In Michael Graves’s Portland Building: Power, Politics, and Postmodernism, Meredith L. Clausen argues that despite the voluminous critical literature of theorists and critics focusing on its meaning, symbolism, associations, and reinterpretation of classicism, a decidedly different picture of the building emerges when viewed through the lens of historical documents. The focus here is on the dynamics of the competition, the conflicting civic priorities, the powerful role of the media, and politics both local and in architecture.

Ornament is no longer equated with crime. In fact, anything goes—provided it breaks modernist strictures, and the more shocking the better. (Shock value, alas, is short-lived.) The range in architecture today is from a completely private and hermetic esthetic, which may be just plain difficult or totally inaccessible, to the most blatant and boring populism. The only requirement is that it be turned into a fiercely intellectual exercise at the drawing board. Everything has to be seen as a set of signs and symbols or metaphors for something else in art or society.

Ada Louise Huxtable, “The Present: The Troubled State of Modern Architecture”1

The Portland Building (Figure 1) marked a defining moment in the emergence of postmodern architecture. Michael Graves’s first major building, it crystallized the movement in the eyes of the public, as well as literary theorists, critics, geographers, urbanists, and journalists. Published widely as a drawing when it first appeared in 1980, much about it is well known—its break with modernism and Graves’s embrace of history, classical ornamentation, and color. But despite the plethora of literature on it, little is known about its historical circumstances and the politics that brought it about.2

Figure 1

Michael Graves, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 198082 (photograph by Gervais Reed).

Figure 1

Michael Graves, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 198082 (photograph by Gervais Reed).

With its painted pilasters, overscaled keystones, and grid of tiny windows, the building was an instant media sensation, appearing in popular newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Time, and Newsweek.3 The major architectural journals ran articles on it almost immediately.4 While still only a drawing, the building was included in standard art history texts such as Hugh Honour’s and John Fleming’s The Visual Arts: A History, followed by major texts in architectural history from Spiro Kostof, William Curtis, Kenneth Frampton, Dennis Doordan, and Diane Ghirardo, to Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman.5 Critical theorists and essayists discussed and analyzed the building, citing it as a salient example.6 Among Graves’s most zealous promoters were Charles Jencks, a young journalist-cum-historian/critic, and Vincent Scully, a seasoned professor of architectural history at Yale University. Backed by Architectural Design in London and Rizzoli in New York, they and others published countless prefaces, essays, articles, and books devoted to Graves, the Portland Building, and the postmodernist cause.7

When his project was approved in spring 1980, Graves was still a little-known professor of architecture at Princeton University. Celebrated for his exquisite, colored architectural drawings, he had built little aside from several houses and small remodels, mostly in the Princeton area.8 Beating out his two competitors, well-known modernists Arthur Erickson and Romaldo Giurgola, with his radical proposal for the new civic building, Graves, with the help of the press, became an instant celebrity and a household name. The building launched Graves’s career and rejuvenated Portland’s image, at least briefly, as a hotbed of progressive artistic activity, after decades of stagnation. It also placed postmodernism at the forefront of architectural discourse, focusing public attention on the still-inchoate trend in the arts.

But how Graves’s small private practice was able to land a major commission for a large-scale, publicly funded municipal building on the West Coast, winning out over the far more experienced Erickson and Giurgola, has remained a mystery, even, it would seem, to Graves himself. Only after months of negotiation with his unwieldy, hydra-headed client, the Portland City Council, and heated exchanges with Erickson in a second runoff, confrontations with local critics, and ultimately Graves’s threat of a lawsuit, was the project finally approved in April 1980. Construction began the following July, and the building was completed in October 1982, on time and on budget. None of this would have happened without Philip Johnson, éminence grise of the emerging movement and outspoken promoter of postmodernism, with its emphasis on style and splash.9

The Context: Vision versus Fiscal Conservatism

The city of Portland is known for its majestic snow-capped mountains, fertile soil, and frequently gray, overcast skies (Figure 2). Its roots were conservative—independent-minded New Englanders, among them strong leaders of business and industry. With a tradition of distinctive architecture established as early as the 1880s by followers of McKim, Mead and White, more recently the city had also acquired a reputation for progressiveness and environmentalism.10 In 1972, Portland had received a major award in urban excellence for its new Downtown Plan.11 Catalyzing the plan was concern that since World War II, Portland had lost ground to its fast-growing suburbs and would soon cease to be the economic, social, and cultural hub of the region. The aim, embraced by its ambitious young mayor Neil Goldschmidt, was to revitalize the city by creating an attractive, pedestrian-friendly downtown. Renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was asked to design a transit mall along Fifth Avenue, one of the city’s main north-south arterials; a new landscaped waterfront park extending from the downtown core to the river was laid out; and new design guidelines were adopted, with building heights descending from the city center down to the river. The new plan also called for buildings with walls that defined the street, and stark, bare modernist walls were banned for their dehumanizing effect. All new structures were required to have visually engaging, pedestrian-enticing shops or services at street level; historic preservation was promoted.

Figure 2

Portland, Oregon, skyline with Mount Hood (Bruce Forster Photography).

Figure 2

Portland, Oregon, skyline with Mount Hood (Bruce Forster Photography).

Still a pressing concern was Portland’s lack of a major municipal office building. One had been proposed as far back as 1911, when the Beaux-Arts City Beautiful planner Edward Bennett drew up a master plan. Another proposal from the 1920s included a public service building, and, in 1929, a project for a new city-county-state office building was drawn up, calling for a thirty-story tower stepped back from a broad, stately colonnaded base (Figure 3).12 No action had been taken, however, and the situation became calamitous. City agencies were scattered across the city, resulting in glaring inefficiency, and a shortage of office space was forcing the city to pay for costly rental space. Faced with Portland’s legendary fiscal conservatism, efforts to revive the project foundered. But by the late 1970s, savvy politicians were pointing out that the money spent on rent would easily cover the cost of a new municipal building in several years.13

Figure 3

Project for City-County-State Office Building, Portland, Oregon, 1929 (Oregon Historical Society, # bb010750).

Figure 3

Project for City-County-State Office Building, Portland, Oregon, 1929 (Oregon Historical Society, # bb010750).

There had been new construction in Portland, mostly modernist, in recent years. Catalyzed by Pietro Belluschi’s widely acclaimed glass-and-aluminum Equitable Building (Figure 4), the first postwar modernist metal-and-glass tall office building in the country, three new high-rise office buildings were built in the 1960s, all by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which had bought out Belluschi’s practice after he left Portland to become dean of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1950s; another modernist tower by Charles Luckman was added in 1972.14 With the exception of the 1948 Belluschi building, all were standard modernist steel-and-glass buildings; their bare walls and entrances lacked visual appeal and contributed to a pedestrian-alienating downtown. Affluent people were moving to the suburbs, and the number of downtown housing units was plummeting. By the 1970s, people talked of the city center as a “wreck.”

Figure 4

Pietro Belluschi, Equitable Building, Portland, Oregon, 1948 (Ezra Stoller copyright Esto).

Figure 4

Pietro Belluschi, Equitable Building, Portland, Oregon, 1948 (Ezra Stoller copyright Esto).

Then things changed. Elected in 1972, Neil Goldschmidt, an idealistic legal-aid attorney steeped in Jane Jacobs’s urban studies, vowed to change the existing course of affairs.15 While focusing on the need for public transit to draw pedestrians back to the city, he was also eager to build the long-needed city office building. Goldschmidt also wanted a landmark building—an architectural wonder that, like the Centre Pompidou in Paris, would draw worldwide attention and reinstate Portland on the cultural map.16 Hindering his vision, however, were budgetary restraints. One of Goldschmidt’s senior staff members, aware of the political backlash and financial repercussions of cost overruns from the city’s previous projects, suggested a single contract of design/build. This was an increasing popular method whereby architect, engineer, and builder operate together under a unified contract to save time and money; the client hires a team that designs in collaboration and is collectively held to a bonded bid. Since the principal cost of a project is construction, the contractor bears primary responsibility for the job and operates as team head; the architect is subcontracted, serving as a design consultant.17 Design/build’s main advantage is that it guarantees completion of the project with a set budget and by a specific date; the price of any delays or cost overruns are borne by the team, not the client. Another advantage is that if an architect lacks experience, the more seasoned members of the team can compensate. In Portland, with design/build, Graves gained credibility as a competitor by associating not only with Hoffman Construction, one of the biggest and most experienced contracting firms in the Pacific Northwest (hence familiar with local resources and the building industry as well as building codes), but also with Emery Roth & Sons, one of New York’s most successful architectural firms, responsible for many large-scale, high-rise office buildings in downtown Manhattan.18

Playing a rarely acknowledged but critical role was Portland architect Edward Wundram of the project management firm Dielschneider Associates.19 Shortly after being hired in February 1979, Wundram recommended combining design/build with a nationally advertised design competition. To realize Goldschmidt’s vision, he reasoned, the city would need to reach beyond local architects to secure a nationally known architect. Without an independently adjudicated competition, the Portland City Council might be politically pressured to hire a local architect, who most likely would be selected on the basis of past work and reputation and thus would have little incentive to do something truly bold.20 The issue of a regional versus a national name was to crop up repeatedly in the Portland case, as the press (often encouraged by Graves himself) consistently pitted local architects against Graves, the lone outsider. On Wundram’s recommendation, the city council approved the design/build approach in conjunction with a national competition, a first for a major civic building. Design competitions themselves were not new, but after initial interest in them at the turn of the century, they had only became popular again in the United States in the 1960s, especially after a 1978 Architectural Record article outlined their advantages.21 One benefit of holding a competition is that it generates the kind of broad publicity the mayor sought, promising to draw the public into architectural discourse and highlight the new building as a major cultural event. Young, lesser-known architects would be able to compete on equal terms with larger, more established firms. Moreover, the winner would be selected not on the basis of past record or reputation but solely on the design itself—how well it met the programmatic requirements and expressed the client’s aesthetic tastes. To that end, competition procedure required a clearly written program specifying space requirements, site restrictions, circulation paths, other operational needs, and a budget. The principal disadvantage of the competition system, as the city of Portland was to discover, is its limited opportunity for the finely tuned negotiations between architect and client that are typically involved in realizing the client’s goals beyond those explicitly spelled out in the competition program.

As there were no design professionals on the Portland City Council, Frank Ivancie, a fiscally conservative city council member with close ties to Portland’s business community, was charged with the project. To handle the financing, he set up a nonprofit corporation, the City of Portland Oregon Public Buildings Corporation, and named William E. Roberts, a major developer of downtown real estate, its chair.22 Ivancie set the budget at 90 percent of the current market rate for speculative downtown buildings, reasoning that since it was not a seat of government but simply a public service building, a modest budget should suffice. Here, then, was the problem that plagued the project from the start: Goldschmidt wanted an architecturally distinctive landmark building; Frank Ivancie wanted a pragmatic building based on a strictly limited budget.

By June 1979, a small site, a 200-by-200-foot block, was acquired, with a city park on one side and the newly completed Fifth Avenue transit mall on the other (Figure 5). With the exception of two historic masonry buildings on either side, the 1895 Beaux-Arts City Hall and the 1914 Multnomah County Courthouse, the site itself was surrounded by sleek steel-and-glass towers. Directly opposite were SOM’s shimmering Standard Insurance Building and Plaza and the dark, all-glass Orbanco Bank.

Figure 5

Site plan of Portland Building and surrounding blocks, Portland, Oregon (drawing by Erin Anderson).

Figure 5

Site plan of Portland Building and surrounding blocks, Portland, Oregon (drawing by Erin Anderson).

The Jury and Philip Johnson

Given the city council’s reluctance to turn the selection of an architect over to a professional body not beholden to the public, Wundram suggested two juries, one advisory to the council, and a second, the city council itself, which would serve as the final arbiter. He argued against having more than one architect on the advisory jury, believing that non-design professionals were likely to be more open to new ideas; he also thought it was less likely the council would be intimidated by trained design professionals.23 Other members of the jury were to consist of city staff, a city historian, a commercial realtor, and other business contacts chosen by Ivancie, with Roberts as its unofficial chair.

Wundram, charged with selecting an appropriate architect for the jury, initially thought of Pietro Belluschi. Winner in 1972 of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal, the highest honor in the architecture profession, Belluschi had made a name for Portland with the Equitable Building. A modernist famed for his elegant, regionally inflected modern houses and churches, he had left the city for the deanship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950. After a successful career on the East Coast, including the collaboration with Walter Gropius on the design of the Pan Am Building in New York, and scores of corporate headquarters, college campuses, churches, and synagogues, Belluschi returned to Portland in 1973, where, by virtue of his fame, he wielded tremendous power. But he had critics as well as disciples, especially among younger architects. Aware of the politics involved, Wundram considered a lesser-known modernist from Seattle, Fred Bassetti, who might serve as a more impartial adjudicator.

That Philip Johnson was ultimately selected as the architect juror was, it would seem, a quirk of fate. Michael Graves happened to be in Portland on 27 April to give a lecture sponsored by the Portland AIA, after which several members of the community thought to invite him to an informal discussion. Wundram was there. Seated next to the guest of honor at a meal, he mentioned the competition and asked what it would take to get an architect of Graves’s stature involved. Hungry for major work, Graves replied, “Just ask.” Wundram promised to keep him informed.24 A week after his conversation with Graves, Wundram sent the city council a letter formally recommending Philip Johnson as the architect juror, contending that the choice would “set a standard for architectural excellence,” and that Johnson, winner of the 1978 AIA Gold Medal, would provide leadership on a national, indeed, international level.25

Wundram appears to have been unaware of Johnson’s connections with Graves. Former curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the most powerful trendsetter in New York, if not the country at large, Johnson sponsored parties, staged symposiums, and promoted and otherwise provided economic support for his protégés, among them Robert Stern, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves.26 With Graves bidding for the project, Johnson’s appointment as architect juror rendered the outcome all but given.27 Wundram was evidently also unaware of Johnson’s long-standing rivalry with Belluschi, which predated even their well-publicized 1953 debate at Yale University.28 Belluschi had argued that any building that did not serve its purpose could not be considered good, regardless of how beautiful it was; Johnson contended that anyone could build a building that worked, as ordinary contractors proved all the time, but that only men of real talent could rise above the merely pragmatic to create a work of art. Personal as well as intellectual, their enmity bore considerable weight in the Portland competition, as the decades-old quarrel between Belluschi and Johnson over functional needs versus pure aesthetics escalated.

Following recently revamped AIA guidelines, Wundram drew up a request for qualifications and set 3 July 1979 as the deadline for entries. Johnson, however, was still uncommitted to the project, pleading old age and a reluctance to travel.29 Pressed by time and rising costs, Ivancie told him the jury would come to him. Two weeks later, they met in Johnson’s office at the Seagram Building in New York.30 There, Johnson narrowed down their list of applicants to Arthur Erickson, Mitchell/Giurgola, and Michael Graves.31 When William Roberts, a real-estate developer who was chair of the nonprofit corporation managing the finances of the project, balked at including Graves—citing his complete lack of experience on buildings of this scale—Johnson countered that teamed up with Emery Roth & Sons, who were responsible for the spate of modernist high-rise office buildings lining Park Avenue (and there, he waved them to the window for a look-see), it could be a winner.32

Johnson clearly relished the occasion. After the group had consumed the sandwiches he had ordered and was about to leave, they inquired about his fee. Not to worry, he told them; he “was just helping out the kids.” On second thought, recalling their provincial Pacific Northwest provenance, he asked that they send him two Chinook salmon.33 The jury, awed by Johnson’s expansive New York quarters, stunning views, and compelling rhetoric, returned to Portland with their short list: Arthur Erickson, who had teamed with Portland architects SRG and Dillingham Construction, with offices in Portland; Mitchell/Giurgola, with BOORA of Portland, Williams & Burrows, Inc., General Contractors, and Howard S. Wright Construction Company, one of the biggest contractors in the Pacific Northwest; and Michael Graves, with Emery Roth & Sons Architects of New York, and Pavarini Construction of Greenwich, Connecticut. The council unanimously approved the jury’s short list the following week.34

Despite Ivancie’s impatience to get the project moving, the competition stalled for three months when Mayor Goldschmidt left Portland to join the Carter administration, and the city council’s attention turned to finding an interim leader. The project remained on hold until October, when Council Commissioner Connie McCready, a journalist-turned-politician who shared Goldschmidt’s procommunity platform, was appointed successor and promptly resumed the competition.35 In the end, Hoffman Construction, a big contractor in the Northwest originally teamed up with HOK, proposed a joint venture with Pavarini, the Connecticut contractors on the Graves team. With this new arrangement for the competition, Hoffman would handle construction, Pavarini would monitor the design and construction budget, and Emery Roth & Sons would prepare working drawings. They could start as soon as Graves produced the design.36

The Competition

The competition formally opened on 9 November 1979, with a deadline for design proposals of 7 February 1980. This limited time frame gave Graves a decided advantage: having known of the competition since the previous spring and being kept abreast of its progress by Wundram, he had a good sense of what the city wanted. Both Giurgola and Erickson argued that the budget was far too low for a major public building, and in compromising quality, the city would lose in the long run. Wundram advised Graves that to win the job, he had to meet the budget by any means, thus Graves was less concerned, especially since Wundram had also assured him of a contingency fund for upgrades if needed.37 A private construction management firm, Morse/Diesel of Chicago, was hired to oversee the project.38 The city council would weigh the recommendations of the advisory jury, Morse/Diesel’s ranking of the entrants’ projects based on their compliance with the program, as well as public feedback, and declare a winner that spring. Once a decision had been made, construction was to take no more than two-and-a-half years.39

The program called for a 400,000-square-foot public service building that would stand “as a symbol of excellence for the city of Portland, a facilitator of communication between citizens and their government, a display case for the resources and services the city provides for its citizens, an inspiration to the staff, and appropriate to the operations of city government.” It was to feel open and exciting, accessible from as many directions and levels as possible, its retail activities “spilling out at the lower levels,” its design complementing the scale and authority of the adjacent city hall and county courthouse, and finally the rooftop, which could be seen from neighboring commercial towers, was to be a design factor. Spelled out, too, in the program were detailed spatial requirements, site conditions, height restrictions, energy-efficiency goals, and other more specific items.40

The Proposals: Philip Johnson’s Intervention

The three finalists’ proposals were made public before an overflowing crowd in Portland’s city hall the following February. Students from as far away as the University of Idaho were bused in for the occasion, as it offered an opportunity for architecture students not only to see “the big guys,” as Wundram put it, but also to experience modernism on the firing line in one of its first public showdowns with postmodernism.41 Johnson was clearly the main attraction. Once the competition had been approved, he had called the city to convey his “delight as well as surprise” that it had accepted his recommendation for the three finalists, and he volunteered to step in at this point, at no fee. In his element before the crowd, Johnson characterized the three designs: “a classic glass box” (Erickson’s), “a doughnut” (Mitchell/Giurgola’s), and “a temple” (Graves’s). Taking every opportunity to chide the city for its skimpy budget, he made clear his own preference for “the temple”: it was not only the least expensive but also “the most extraordinary, inventive, and original.” Graves’s project, he assured them, would give the city “the biggest bang for the bucks.”42

The Erickson proposal (Figure 6) consisted of a twelve-story rectangular building, stilted on one side to form a broad plaza opening onto the park. Originally fully glazed to maximize natural light, the exteriors were changed at the last moment to precast concrete punctuated by tall, narrow windows to bring the project clearly within the prescribed budget. Allowing 391,000 square feet, only slightly less than the 400,000 called for, it included a grand arcade with a broad view out onto the transit mall on the west and the park on the east, providing expansive public space at street level.43 Giurgola’s proposal (Figure 7) called for a ten-story building containing 383,000 square feet of precast granite aggregate with reflective windows. Square in form with beveled corners and an impressive 100-foot-high interior lobby surrounded by glass, the design created a city square within the building—Johnson’s “doughnut.” Though Giurgola emphasized the design’s low maintenance costs and energy efficiency, he argued that the budget was inappropriately low for the city’s first major municipal structure since the turn of the century. It contradicted, he argued, one of the primary objectives of the program: that the building serve as “a symbol of excellence” for the whole city. His proposal came in at $26.3 million, close to $4 million over budget. He added, however, that if their project were selected, they could significantly reduce costs in further negotiations with the client.44

Figure 6

Arthur Erickson Architects, model, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Arthur Erickson fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture /Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal).

Figure 6

Arthur Erickson Architects, model, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Arthur Erickson fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture /Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal).

Figure 7

Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, model, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Mitchell/Giurgola Collection, Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania).

Figure 7

Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, model, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Mitchell/Giurgola Collection, Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania).

The Graves proposal (Figure 8) was clearly the most radical. It was a fifteen-story stuccoed building of 412,000 square feet with a regular grid of 3-by-3-foot-square windows. Stepped back at the base with an arcade containing small street-level retail shops, it would be accessed by a flight of monumental stairs facing the transit mall. Brightly colored in hues of muted Tuscan blues, warm terracottas, and creamy beige, it had a series of painted “pilasters” capped by “free-floating” fiberglass garlands on two sides, paired painted columns bearing oversized keystones, and a series of rooftop pavilions, providing what Graves called a “Mediterranean village.” It was a building that, according to the architect, “captured some of the fragments” of Portland’s architectural history and recalled older, traditional buildings that had been demolished to make way for modernist towers. With its decidedly low-cost finishes, especially on the interior, Graves’s design was unquestionably the least expensive of the three projects.45 It also provided more square footage than was called for in the program, at no extra cost.

Figure 8

Michael Graves, model, original project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

Figure 8

Michael Graves, model, original project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

The proposals were given to the city agencies slated to use the building as well as to other city departments, such as the Fire Bureau and the Traffic Engineering Bureau, for feedback. Their reports came back equivocal, and little affected the council’s decision.46 Several days after the public presentation of the proposals, Johnson sent his recommendation to Roberts, chair of the advisory jury. While all three projects were strong, Johnson maintained, Graves’s design was exceptional. It drew on Portland’s traditional Beaux-Arts architecture and acknowledged the new Downtown Plan by providing pedestrians a street-level loggia, and the imagery of its polychrome monumental elements was appropriate, given the building’s scale. While faulting the design for its vehicular entrance facing the park and for the mean finishes in public spaces and on the exterior that would need upgrading were it chosen, Johnson predicted it “would be a landmark from inception, watched and studied by the public as well as architects around the world.”47 All of this resonated with the city’s stated objective of an “aesthetically exceptional structure.” Project manager Morse/Diesel concurred. Giurgola’s design guaranteed the earliest completion date, had the highest rental-income potential, and offered the best quality, but patently exceeded the budget. The Erickson proposal provided the clearest documentation and promised the lowest operating cost. Graves’s building offered the least rental income, as the commercial space at street level was neither very visible nor accessible; exterior walls and interior finishes might need upgrading; and the street-level retailing spaces would need greater accessibility to appeal to tenants and to attract customers, but its flaws notwithstanding, Graves offered substantially larger size at lower cost.48 Their report avoided aesthetic issues, which Morse/Diesel explicitly left to others. Soon after, Roberts, as spokesman for the jury, filed a report to the council. Based on the Morse/Diesel report, which relied on “reasonably measurable factors” immune from “the emotional reaction that the design itself will generate,” they found Graves to be the leading competitor. As for the design itself, not easily quantifiable as “in the final analysis it becomes highly subjective,” Roberts acknowledged that the jury had leaned heavily on Philip Johnson, and in the end they recommended, with one abstention, that Graves be given the job.49

Public and Local Architects’ Response

The next day, the jury’s vote made headlines in the Oregonian, Portland’s daily newspaper. The press variously described the design as “neoclassic,” “postmodernist,” “temple-like,” and “a fortress.” The lone dissenter among the citizen’s jury, the president of the Portland Planning Commission, was quoted as calling the whole process “a charade,” a matter of local politics and the bottom line. Roberts’s rhetoric aside, she maintained, aesthetics had played no role in the jury’s decision.50

Public reaction, however, was all about aesthetics. Letters poured into the city council and to the press protesting the “so-called temple design” on the grounds that it lacked beauty. One letter writer argued: “The very concept of ‘temple’ implies worship. … The whole plan becomes an affront to our religious sensibilities and our idea of good taste. We strongly urge you to reconsider in favor of a design more appropriate for a civic government building.” Another letter from two faculty members at Portland State University’s School of Urban Affairs emphasized the need for “a long-range perspective and sense of history.” They objected to the Graves design in that it failed to relate to adjacent buildings. Noting that its stucco exteriors would wear poorly in the Northwest climate and that the building was nothing more than a huge box with superficial embellishment, they concluded that, if built, Graves’s design would prove “little more than a guinea pig for an experiment in architectural fad and fashion.”51

Roger L. Schultz, the president of the Portland AIA, in response to an explicit request from the council for input from the architectural community, which had deliberately remained silent to avoid influencing the council’s decision, weighed in. Historically, he pointed out, public buildings served as symbols for the community; beyond function, they had to satisfy economically unquantifiable requirements. Buildings affect how people view their governments, and Portland was proud of its open form of government, which the design should reflect. Citing the objections of the city staff as well as two of the three bidders, Schultz expressed concern that strict adherence to the budget would be used as the sole basis for judging the winner. Respecting the budget was important, but, so too was providing a building with decent working space and one that roused public pride as well as architectural delight.52

On 12 March, the council met to discuss the jury’s recommendation, get more information on costs in the Graves design, hear public feedback, and come to a decision.53 It was a long, contentious, confused meeting. At the start of the meeting, the council had stated that it would refrain from making a final decision, as one of the commissioners was absent. Moreover, Mayor McCready wanted firmer figures on specific costs, including long-term energy consumption and maintenance. Council members, meanwhile, demanded changes to the Graves project, including removing the “free-floating” garlands and rooftop pavilions (which they found “silly”), enlarging the windows (which everyone agreed were much too small), altering the stuccoed exteriors to load-bearing concrete, lowering the building to make it more accessible to people in wheelchairs as required in the Downtown Plan, and upgrading finishes on the interior. The mayor was concerned that if the council’s changes pushed Graves’s budget over the limit, then he too would be disqualified. Rather than face the potentially disastrous consequences of having to rerun the whole competition, the council sidestepped the issue and asked Morse/Diesel to reevaluate the projects based on their proposed revisions.

The meeting continued with public comment. First to speak was Pietro Belluschi, on behalf of the Portland Fellows of the AIA, who expressed dismay over the Graves project, believing its brash colors and spirited decoration better befitted “a large jukebox or beribboned Christmas gift.” Graves’s design, Belluschi contended, contradicted Portland’s deeply rooted respect for its architectural past as well as the city’s distinctive genius loci, the importance of which Johnson himself had emphasized in his recent AIA Gold Medalist speech. Belluschi acknowledged having known Johnson for decades, seeing him rise to become “the high guru of a coterie of young, gifted people,” including Graves, with their collective embrace of “visual chaos” and the ethos of “anything goes.” His allusions to Robert Venturi, the current state of turmoil in architecture, and specifically to New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s recent essay, “The Present: The Troubled State of Modern Architecture,” for the most part soared over the heads of council members. But that he was no friend of Philip Johnson or admirer of Michael Graves was patently clear.54

Other architects voiced concern about “the social acceptability” of the building’s aesthetics. One, however, reminded the council of a mural he had designed twenty years ago for the city zoo, deemed at the time too abstract, too “modern,” but since then accepted. Graves was, as Portland architect Willard Martin assured them, “a serious, dedicated artist and architect,” and, if built, his building would ultimately be recognized and accepted as a major contribution. Then Robert Frasca, a colleague of Graves’s at the University of Cincinnati in the early 1950s, spoke. After getting his degree, Frasca had relocated to Portland, where he associated with Belluschi on a series of projects before joining the Zimmer/Gunsel firm.55 In what many saw as a volte-face, Frasca spoke of how Portland had sought a fresh idea for the important downtown site and would achieve it with Graves’s design. Responding to criticism of modernism’s often mute, inarticulate buildings, he pointed out that Graves’s building had a bottom, a middle, and a top; it met the street directly; it was colorful, hardly bland; it was energy conscious; the plan seemed to work; and it was within budget. “If the materials aren’t the best, neither is the budget,” Frasca concluded. Finally, it was eye-catching, the first thing out-of-towners would want to see.56 Cecil Drinkward, the president of the Hoffman Construction Company and the official head of the Graves team, summarized the situation. He saw two issues: “the building itself—the body, heart, and lungs, the things you need but don’t see,” and second, “its suit of clothes.” Most of the discussion he had heard was about the “clothes,” which admittedly were not conventional; he assured them, however, that the city would be getting a first-class structural frame and heating, ventilation, and mechanical systems—for which their consultant, Morse/Diesel, had provided the figures. If some things needed upgrading, he added, they could do that and still meet the budget. The tough question the city faced was, “Is this suit of clothes suitable for Portland?”57

One of the commissioners responded by stressing that the design of the public service building was one of the most important decisions the city council would make that decade. He underscored their responsibility to ensure that it was aesthetically pleasing, tailored to the downtown, and symbolic of how Portland citizens felt about their city. The Graves building, in his opinion, was “totally unacceptable. It is not Portland, does not symbolize Portland, and does not belong in Portland. Symbolically, in reality, the Graves building is a fortress; it says that government is monolithic, imposing, and remote, rather than open and accessible to the public. It excludes pedestrians, ignores the park, and focuses on itself to the exclusion of its downtown neighbors.” He felt that the council must exert leadership. “We must not be trapped into making a decision primarily on cost, which is what is happening. I believe we should trust our own sense of art, aesthetics, and good taste and select a building pleasing to Portlanders.”58

All this discussion left the council in a quandary: here were two internationally renowned AIA Gold Medalists emphatically opposed on the question of design, and local architects and the public were equally polarized. The initial Morse/Diesel evaluation had also left them stymied; with two of the three competitors effectively disqualified on programmatic technicalities, Graves would win the competition by default, an unacceptable outcome.59 Paralyzed by the issue of aesthetics and seeking safety in the verifiable matters of program and money that they hoped to find in Morse/Diesel’s second report, the council postponed their decision for another week.60

The Oregonian reporter covering the story noted that although local architects had refrained from voicing opinions, the Graves project “flies in the face” of Pacific Northwest regional architecture, which had been shaped over the course of decades by architects such as Belluschi and was characterized by clean lines, natural textures, and native materials.61 Critics complained that the Graves building was out of place, designed by an outsider, the product of a collusion between an out-of-town advisor and an East Coast architect; still others saw it as “ominous and inhumane,” a throwback to “the worst kind of government architecture that expressed power rather than a government by and for the people.” These arguments were countered by the contention that the downtown could use a bit of poetry; unlike the glass boxes of the International Style, the Graves design was human, and brought joy, color, and decoration back into architecture.62

The Second Competition

In an effort to come to a resolution, Roger Schultz, the president of the Portland AIA, proposed that since, in fact, none of the proposals had technically met the program requirements, and all three would require modification, each should be allowed to revise its scheme and make a presentation for a second time.63 In accordance, the council agreed to rerank the teams on 2 April and select a final design using a new Morse/Diesel report. The notion of allowing Giurgola’s team back into the race was quickly dismissed, however, as his proposal had clearly exceeded the budget.64 As the council continued to juggle conflicting demands at the 19 March meeting, a Portland architect pointed out that the fault really was not with the architects but with the procedure. The design/build method was aimed at coming up with a workable building at the lowest expense; design competitions, on the other hand, aimed at a distinctive, memorable design; combining the two approaches had invited the conundrum the council now faced.

Ignoring his point, the council proceeded to request that the Erickson team replace two reflecting pools on Main and Madison Streets with planters and seating, and also relocate several internal functions to improve public access and efficiency; the plaza was also to be reworked to accommodate commercial space. This resulted in a revised net floor area of 324,236 square feet and a bid price of $22,020,000, which was under the statutory budget of $22.4 million.65

The changes demanded of Graves were far more substantial. The exterior walls were to be of concrete, not stucco, the window size increased, the statue and garlands removed, the rooftop pavilions eliminated, the color softened, the monumental stairs taken out, and the building lowered to sidewalk level to accommodate accessibility. The council requested still other changes, especially on the interior, totaling twenty-six in all.

The meeting was finally adjourned, allowing the competing teams two weeks to revise their schemes. According to the Oregonian the next day, the council’s opinions were divided over the design, with two commissioners leaning toward Graves’s “Art Deco” scheme, another denouncing it as a fortress, the others uncommitted. It was clear that although the discussion had focused on budgetary matters, the real concern was aesthetics.66

Threats of a Suit and Countersuit

In response to the request for such extensive changes, Hoffman Construction’s Cecil Drinkward, head of the Graves team, threatened to sue.67 He contended that allowing their competitor, who had been shown to be noncompliant to the program, to revise their proposal violated all procurement regulations governing the bidding for and awarding of public work.68 His team was willing, however, to comply with the council’s request for the changes, four of which, he emphasized, would involve significant redesign of the project, but only on the condition that if the council found the changes acceptable, Graves would be declared the winner.69 What this meant, of course, was that if the council approved the changes it had demanded, Graves would automatically win the competition, skirting the whole contentious issue of design.

At the council’s next meeting on 2 April, the city attorney responded to Drinkward’s threat. He saw two courses of action: to accept the Graves project despite the council’s reservations, or to declare both bids as noncompliant with the program and start the competition all over again, giving the competing teams the opportunity to revise their schemes.70 Before their vote, Morse/Diesel weighed in with its second evaluation of the revised schemes. Both projects now met the specifications, and while again pointedly not addressing aesthetics, they recommended the Graves project on the basis of its lower cost. They also suggested retaining the square footage of Graves’s original proposal, because with the larger building, the city would be getting an extra 40,000 square feet at approximately $27–$28 per square foot—a bargain. Aside from the issue of aesthetics, they concluded that the Graves proposal made the most sense.71 The drama mounted when the president of Dillingham Construction and head of the Erickson team threatened a countersuit if the council awarded Graves the job on the grounds that the Erickson proposal was nonresponsive, as he declared that their project was just as responsive as Graves’s. Where theirs fell short was in the specifications, which he said was also true of Graves’s, citing as specific evidence the failure of the Graves team to allow four months for construction inspection, a programmatic requirement.

At the 2 April meeting, the architects gave their revised presentations. Erickson began. Recognizing the building’s intended longevity and the importance of cost, he said that his team had deliberately avoided the frivolous and trendy. Public amenities were paramount: it was to be a public building, a meeting place within the city, which the design should reflect. To accommodate the sloped site, they had raised the building, providing an open but protected porch that looked out onto the park on one side and the shopping street on the other, with a broad arcade connecting the two. They were also keenly aware of the Northwest climate with its overcast skies, and wanting to avoid dark, damp spaces, they had opened up the building, allowing as much natural light as possible throughout. Erickson’s final point was that since most people walk or drive by downtown buildings, his team had focused on the lower portions of buildings experienced by ordinary city users, and he urged the council to visualize the building within its urban context.72

Then Graves spoke. Beyond the changes the council had demanded, his scheme was basically unchanged (Figure 9). Square footage was reduced to facilitate comparison with Erickson’s proposal, but it could be restored at bargain price, as Morse/Diesel had indicated. The main change, Graves said, was at the street level (Figures 10, 11). In response to criticism that access on the Main and Madison façades was inadequate, by reducing space in the coffee shop and restaurant, they were able to accommodate “a kind of continuous colonnade” around three sides of the building, providing shopping on Fifth, Main, and Madison under a protected arcade. Graves then pointed out the “rather grand lobby,” a two-story space opening onto an art gallery in a mezzanine above that also provided access to the public meeting rooms, the elevator lobby, and the café and restaurant in the back. He described how they had tried to open up the lobby and articulate the stairs to make circulation clearer. He also pointed out minor changes in the floors above to accommodate the reduced size of the building, now thirteen rather than fifteen stories.

Figure 9

Michael Graves, model, revised project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

Figure 9

Michael Graves, model, revised project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

Figure 10

Michael Graves, drawing, base, original project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

Figure 10

Michael Graves, drawing, base, original project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

Figure 11

Michael Graves, drawing, base, revised project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

Figure 11

Michael Graves, drawing, base, revised project, Portland Public Services Building, Portland, Oregon, 1980 (Michael Graves & Associates).

Graves then set aside pragmatics. His building, he explained, should be seen “as an object in the landscape.” Like Erickson, he had attempted to design a contextual building, and he spoke in particular about echoing the square grid of city streets with the grid of square windows, the colors blending with the neighboring park, and the legibility of the building’s features from the street. He described how his team had accommodated the commercial life of the city, adopting “a classical attitude” by situating shopping on the street level with offices above, and how the building reflected the city government housed within, with the first nine floors for city offices, and four floors above that for rental space, all clearly expressed on the exterior. He emphasized, above all, the humanism of its classicism:

As we have moved from the primary identity of the machine, as it is expressed in buildings, we are at last returning to the identity of the human being as it is seen in classicism. The sense that we classify the attitudes to the building’s plan, and surface, and our own approach to it by virtue of the way that it represents us, not the way that it represents its making. That it is an enormous break with the tradition that has been called Modernism for the past fifty years. There is an argument outside, not on this street necessarily, but in the world today, about the direction of architecture. You find yourselves very interestingly in the middle of it. You find yourselves having to choose between schemes that represent on one hand the human attitude, the way we see ourselves represented in our buildings, or on the other hand, the craft or traditions of making the building. It’s your choice. We feel, however, that to give the city its legibility, to give comprehension to the park and the understanding of this particular and rather glorious site, between the city-county building and the park itself, with the rather neutral backdrop of Standard Plaza and Orbanco, we have an enormous opportunity here to not only say something about city government, but to say something about any building in the city.73

Graves’s long, convoluted address was met by stunned silence. When one commissioner finally spoke, she began by applauding the removal of the garlands, then, finding no other response to his lofty rhetoric, asked if they could go back to the original fifteen stories. Another commissioner expressed his regret that local architects had taken so long to come forward. “I hold their opinion in high esteem because they understand the language that you were speaking a moment ago, and I don’t,” he said. “I appreciate your eloquence, but I didn’t understand a whole lot of what you were saying. They would.”

The council’s decision at this point seemed to hinge on whether Graves’s project had in fact met the programmatic requirements and could be considered “responsive.” After prolonged debate over waiving Graves’s “irregularities,”74 the need for more public input, the continued questions about the estimated costs, the city’s original vision of an attention-drawing building, and the resistance of local architects to whom the whole procedure was “pretty much a slap in the face,” the mayor asked the city attorney to summarize again their options, and reminded them of the threat of the two lawsuits, either of which would jeopardize the bond sales on which financing depended. The council finally agreed to declare both bids responsive and pay the $40,000 promised to each team in the competition program. They would begin negotiations with Graves, but not declare him the winner unless and until they approved his design revisions; if the council were still unsatisfied, they would turn to Erickson as runner-up.75 The commissioners were clearly uneasy about the design but felt boxed in because of the threatened lawsuits, the pending deadlines, the rising costs, and the uncertainty of the bond market.

A Winner?

The city hall reporter tried to summarize the 2 April meeting in the Oregonian the next day. After a long discussion and a split vote, the council had tentatively approved the Graves project. Unless there was a major impasse, Graves’s “decorated box” would probably prevail. The decision had followed “a wild, often confusing” debate, during which the mayor had said she was “totally opposed to what was passed” but voted for the action anyway, admitting she had lost track of the process; another commissioner contended that the council had not really made a decision, only postponed it.76 As a result of further negotiations with staff and jury members, to whom copies of letters from the public had been sent,77 the Graves team submitted more revisions for the 30 April council meeting.78 Gone were the Portlandia statue Graves had originally intended, the garlands, and the rooftop pavilions; the color was softened; the original square footage was retained, resulting in a fifteen-story building as originally proposed but with exterior walls of concrete rather than stucco; the monumental stairs were eliminated, with the Fifth Avenue entrance now at sidewalk grade; windows were now 4-by-4-foot, single-glazed, and fixed; basement parking was revised to include a single entrance in the Fourth Avenue façade facing the park; the ground floor could now accommodate retail businesses along the Main and Madison façades, with the café and permit center pushed to the far corners on Fourth Avenue. The budget for the revised project was $22,420,000, as long as construction started on 1 July and continued uninterrupted. After undergoing a few other “refinements” based on the jury’s suggestions, the revised proposal was sent to the council.79

On 30 April, they met a final time to hear the jury’s report on their negotiations with Graves over the proposed changes. Given Councilman Frank Ivancie’s eagerness to get the project moving, his focus on the bottom line, and his assurance that this action was not declaring a winner but only a first step in getting the ball rolling, the jury’s recommendation endorsing the Graves project came as no surprise. The revisions had responded to the council’s concerns, the art budget was now available to be used at the city’s discretion, and the building had been restored to its original fifteen stories, all while keeping the budget fixed at $22.4 million. It was Ivancie’s recommendation that, assuming they approved Graves’s revisions, the city move ahead with the project. Interest rates were low and the building price firm until 1 July, giving them two months to work out the design. With the mayor absent, there was no further discussion, and with a unanimous vote, the council accepted the jury’s recommendation that Graves’s revisions be approved.80 After a three-month debate, Graves’s “temple-like design” had finally gained council approval. Construction would start July 1980, with completion scheduled for October 1982.81

A winner was apparently never officially declared, and after all the controversy, there was surprisingly little fanfare, at least in Portland. Once the city council voted to accept Graves’s revisions, it was left with few politically acceptable alternatives, and matters simply took their course. The aesthetics of the design itself were, in short, never up for vote.82

A month after the competition closed, a separate request for proposals was issued for the interior. Graves, known as much for his interior design as his architecture, competed for the job but lost, and the contract, which included the rental office spaces, furniture, and equipment, but not the public spaces, was awarded to the Portland firm of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, of which, ironically, Robert Frasca, one of Graves’s strongest supporters during the competition, was a partner.83 And once the event was over and his contract with the city expired, Edward Wundram, who had initially set up the competition, was hired as a member of the Graves team.84

The Press

Nationally the press had followed the competition closely. In May, just after the final vote, Progressive Architecture’s executive editor James Murphy published a news item describing the competition, the negotiations with the city council over issues of aesthetics and budget, the charges that Philip Johnson had swayed the council even as competitors presented their projects, and the mounting concern among the local architectural community over what increasingly appeared a fait accompli. Aside from several supporters who had defended the Graves scheme on the grounds of its novelty, the majority of Portland architects, led by Pietro Belluschi, wrote Murphy, “screamed in protest.” He quoted Belluschi’s testimony, which was in fact notably soft-spoken, to the council, including his catchy description of Graves’s design, its unsuitability for Portland, and Belluschi’s contention that Johnson had influenced the jury (which clearly Johnson, by his own admission, had). Describing the council meetings as chaotic, leaving the public “thoroughly and unfortunately confused,” Murphy promised to keep readers informed. Progressive Architecture’s article was followed by another, more comprehensive story on the Graves design in the August issue of Architectural Record.85

That summer, news of the Portland Public Services Building went viral. Across the country, daily newspapers and magazines, books and articles, and popular as well as professional presses featured it.86 It quickly crossed international borders, with a drawing of the project included in the Venice Biennale’s Architecture 1980: The Presence of the Past, and its image blazoned across the cover of Charles Jencks’s just-published Post-Modern Classicism.87 Immediately upon opening in October 1982, the building spawned a spirited debate at the Architectural League in New York, and the following January, Skyline focused an issue on it, with an article by Kurt Forster, and additional commentary from others including Arthur Drexler of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Vincent Scully of Yale University; Alan Colquhoun, Rosalind Krauss, and Anthony Vidler, as well as Paul Goldberger of the New York Times.88 This was just the first of a series of hot debates about the building that, over the next several years, became emblematic of postmodernism.

The Building: Construction, Opening, and Reassessment

Ground was broken on 7 July 1980, and construction of the new municipal office building, its name shortened to “the Portland Building,” began on a fast track, as the job was to be finished by 1 October 1982.89 As Lisa Lee, spokesperson for the Graves team at the city council meetings and job captain on the project, later described it (her account is corroborated by documents in the city files), construction proceeded smoothly, and the structure topped out according to schedule in July 1981.90 In the meantime, Frank Ivancie, who had defeated incumbent Connie McCready in the May mayoral election, had second thoughts about the bare medallions left by the elimination of the garlands and asked Graves to draw up new designs. The garlands—now flattened, stylized, and of glass-reinforced concrete—were approved by the council in December.91 Adding $275,000 to the cost of the building, they were hoisted into place on the façade in the spring of 1982, although not before an Oregonian cartoonist had fun, prompting a puckish Portland Picasso to paint a Happy Face in one of the blanks (Figure 12).

Figure 12

Cartoon, the Oregonian, 5 Apr. 1982 (Arthur Bimrose, copyright the Oregonian. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission).

Figure 12

Cartoon, the Oregonian, 5 Apr. 1982 (Arthur Bimrose, copyright the Oregonian. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission).

Par for the course in most construction, there were other change orders, the first coming in August 1980. Beginning with ceramic tiles added to protect the base of the building on street level, change orders amounted to over $1 million by the end of December 1981.92 Then as the building neared completion, and tenants began moving in over the summer of 1982, complaints poured in. Like change orders, most new buildings face them, but these were both predictable and preventable. “How humane is this working environment?” one tenant complained. “The windows are small, ceilings low, ventilation hot and noisy, and the dividers grotesque and insulting.” Others complained about the cramped lobby, low lighting, the smoked glass in a gray climate, and “white noise,” a low murmur piped into the building to blanket other noise.93 A consultant found that the building violated a number of state and federal accessibility regulations: the doors were too heavy for the physically disabled to push open and too narrow to accommodate standard wheelchairs; moreover, a ramp or lifting device was needed to handle the 25-foot floor level rise to the restaurant behind the lobby.94 Other problems were less easily solved, such as false columns blocking visibility of the lobby and elevator doors at the security guard’s station and also interfering with sight lines from the side of the auditorium to the stage. “In the final analysis, while Michael Graves is lionized in the rest of the country,” an Oregon Magazine article marking the building’s completion concluded, “he’ll be ducking tomatoes in Portland for a long time to come.”95

After the fanfare of the opening in October 1982, the grumbling continued. In 1984, there was already talk of remodeling the building’s public spaces. Visitors found the lobby to be “depressing,” “atrocious,” “dark,” “dingy,” “unwelcoming,” and like “the inside of a swimming pool.” It was “a tortuous way to start a visit,” maintained Robert Frasca, who initially had supported the Graves project. “My personal feeling is that lobbies of public buildings should be special, distinguished spaces in the inventory of the city,” he opined, citing as a counterexample the light, spacious lobby in Belluschi’s nearby 1932 Portland Art Museum. “This one is not.” The building’s flaws ranged from minor to insurmountable, starting with the doors: heavy, black, barred, making the locus of city business seem like a jailhouse. The black terrazzo floor absorbed light, but not enough to conceal cracks in the plaster walls. Many described the lobby’s dark floors and walls, the plain plaster surfaces, and the worn and scratched half-rounds of oversized molding as second-rate. The only window in the lobby was relegated to the back in a raised dining area at the far end, the signage was poor, and the circulation unclear, especially to the mezzanine art gallery. The retail spaces suffered from lack of business, with four operations already having quit the two restaurant spaces and Dalton’s bookstore closing its doors.96

Nearly a decade later, in a May 1991 article, Oregonian art critic Randy Gragg zeroed in, faulting the building—touted for its “legibility”—for any sign of identifying clues. He found it “largely mute,” with plain metal doors and unmarked stairways leading to unknown destinations; at one end of the lobby, steps ascended to a stage with a chorus of mostly unoccupied white plastic chairs, and a security guard peering down from a deep, foreboding recess maintained surveillance over the other end. Gragg likened the scene to “a dark alley with awaiting muggers.”97

Public attitudes changed little over the years. “What is dark, ugly and looks like the interior of a police booking station? The lobby of the Portland Building,” an Oregonian article asked the following year, in reporting on the council’s agreement finally to have it remodeled. The lobby was to be warmer and more inviting, with lighter colors and enhanced illumination. The security and information desk were moved to a more accessible location, and a snack shop replaced by a small “preview” space to draw the public’s attention to the art gallery upstairs.98

But in addition to functional problems, there were major structural snags. City officials contended that design and construction flaws had resulted in a leaky roof, plaguing the building from the start; then, too, moisture had accumulated behind the blue-green tiles on the exterior of the building’s lower floors, which weakened the grout. With the city threatening legal action over the repairs, which were expected to amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hoffman Construction agreed to cover costs.99 And there were still more problems. In 1995, cracks in the concrete slab of the top floor were reported, some as large as 1½ inches wide. While employees were assured that the structure would not collapse but only continue to sag, twelve diagonal metal posts were inserted to prop it up (Figure 13). According to the structural engineer who did the inspection, it was a design error, not a construction flaw, as the cracking had appeared shortly after the building was completed, thus predating a 1993 earthquake.100 Repairs were expected to run about $3.5 million.

Figure 13

Temporary bracing, the Oregonian, 23 Jan. 1996, “Cracks in the Concrete” (photograph: Brent Wojahn, copyright the Oregonian. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission).

Figure 13

Temporary bracing, the Oregonian, 23 Jan. 1996, “Cracks in the Concrete” (photograph: Brent Wojahn, copyright the Oregonian. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission).

Talk of demolition followed. “Why spend vast amounts of money on a rotten building?” asked one Portlander in February 1996. “The decay of the structural integrity of the Portland Building should be the final wake-up call to finally implode this deplorable piece of public architecture. To enter the building is to enter a state of depression. … Architecture is meant to uplift the human spirit. It is time to put the Portland Building out of its—and everyone else’s—misery.”101 An Oregonian editorial assumed a historical perspective: “Paying now to fix up the Portland Building appears to be the city’s least unhappy choice. It would be nice to be able to change history and wipe out the chapter containing the ugly and expensive Portland Building. But we can’t. Neither can the city of Portland. We’re stuck with its cell-block windows, shower-room foyer, and now, its inadequate protection against earthquakes.”102 This last comment was in response to a recent Oregonian article stating that the building’s design had not met city seismic codes even at the time it was built. The cost of this and other repairs was $13 million, which prompted the mayor to declare that the city should simply abandon the building.103

Architecture for Art’s Sake: The Perils and the Promise

In her prescient 1980 article, Ada Louise Huxtable had written of the emergence of postmodernism: “Architecture for art’s sake threatens the all-important relationships of architecture to social needs and social purposes: the perils are as great as the promise.” She concluded by saying, “Two factors disturb me deeply: the danger of architects’ increasingly addressing each other, with a widening comprehension gap between the professional and the public, and the sharp trend away from sociological to exclusively esthetic concerns.”104 Drawing on the classical tradition then in vogue among a small group of East Coast academics, Michael Graves pointedly employed in the Portland Building a language of architectural erudition. Its color, decoration, classicism, and symbolism marked a clear shift in twentieth-century architecture, and are essential in understanding the building’s iconic stature today. But equally important is an understanding of how this major public building came to be built and how it has fared over time. The tortuous debates in the Portland City Council tell much about competitions, hydra-headed clients, public versus professional voices, conflicting aims and values, as well as strategies for success; the city council debates underscore, too, the importance of the jury members and who selects them, raise questions about whose “expert” judgment should be trusted, and say much about aesthetic trends, shifts in artistic values, shaping of public taste, and manipulation of these major cultural forces. Graves’s lofty ideas about classical urbanism and architecture as a language of signs and symbols challenged Portland’s deeply rooted regional architectural tradition. A clear postmodernist statement, pitted as it was against a hegemonic modernism, the Portland Building drew instant attention, with the media seizing its story, and architects, critics, and historians using it to spark fierce debate about postmodernism in years to come. Their words and images, rather than the building itself, made and sustain the building’s fame. Graves, who won an AIA Gold Medal in 2001, has since drawn presidential recognition for his accessible designs for people with disabilities. But the building that launched his career and made his name famous, though added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and consistently cited in scholarly discourse as a preeminent example of postmodernist architecture, has fared less well.105 Beyond the images and the rhetoric, the Portland Building, promoted by Philip Johnson, has fallen short on both Vitruvian principles of utilitas and firmitas; venustas, fickle and subjective as it always is, won out against the odds. A landmark in architectural history, the building is loathed in Portland, considered despite its iconic status, a “noble failure.”106



I want to thank my colleagues Dean Heerwagen and Patricia Failing of the University of Washington for their contributions, and Elissa Favero for her finely honed editorial skills and invaluable research assistance. This article would not have been possible without the generous support of the Victoria Reed Architectural History Fund, University of Washington. I want also to thank the Graves Office for its gracious help in providing images for this article.

  Ada Louise Huxtable, “The Present: The Troubled State of Modern Architecture,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 33 (Jan. 1980), 31, reprinted in Architectural Record, Jan. 1981.


The Portland Building and the pivotal role of Philip Johnson were the substance of a talk given by the author at the Society of Architectural Historians annual meeting, St. Louis, 16 Apr. 1996.


Paul Goldberger, “Where Are the ‘Form-Givers’ of Today?,” New York Times, 22 Mar. 1981; Ada Louise Huxtable, “Classicism in a Contemporary Context,” New York Times, 6 Sept. 1981; Dan Hortsch, “What’s Doing in Portland,” New York Times, 16 May 1982 (the first three articles of many in the Times); Paul Gapp, “Controversy Is Building over Portland Edifice,” Chicago Tribune, 29 Apr. 1981 (the first of five articles); Cynthia Saltzman, “Architect Michael Graves: Changing the Horizon,” Wall Street Journal, 1 May 1981; Wolf Von Eckardt, “A Pied Piper of Hobbit Land,” Time, 23 Aug. 1982 (the first of two articles); Tom Wolfe, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” Harper’s, June/July 1981; Moshe Safdie, “Private Jokes in Public Places,” Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1981, 668; Carter Wiseman, “Why Is Everyone Talking about Michael Graves?,” Saturday Review, Mar. 1982, 44.


Among articles appearing initially were James Murphy, “Portland Competition a Very Public Issue,” Progressive Architecture, May 1980, 25–26; Eleni Constantine, “The Case for Michael Graves’s Design for Portland,” Architectural Record, Aug. 1980, 96–101; Fulvio Irace, “The Return of the Repressed,” Domus, Sept. 1980, 8; Dolf Schnebli, “Der Architekturwettbewerb,” Werk Bauen + Wohnen, Mar. 1981, 12; Lance Knobel, “Public Service Building, Portland, Oregon, USA,” Architectural Review (London), Nov. 1982, 60.


Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (New York: Prentice Hall, 1982); Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); William Curtis, Modern Architecture since 1900 (New York and London: Phaidon Press, 1996); Diane Ghirardo, Architecture after Modernism (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996); Jonathan Glancey, 20th-Century Architecture (London: Carlton Books, 1998); Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman, Architecture from Prehistory to Postmodernism (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,2002); Dennis Doordan, Twentieth-Century Architecture (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2002); Kenneth Frampton, Critical History of Architecture, 4th ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007); Marian Fazio, Michael Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse, Buildings across Time, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).


See, for example, articles in Skyline, Metropolis, Harvard Architecture Review, Perspecta, Oppositions, Archetype; Paolo Portoghesi, Postmodern: The Architecture of the Post-Industrial Society (New York: Rizzoli, 1984); Heinrich Klotz, History of Postmodern Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984); Stanley Trachtenberg, The Postmodern Moment (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989).


Robert Bruegmann, “Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas and the Vox Populi: A Context for Controversy,” in The Critical Edge: Controversy in Recent American Architecture, ed. Tod A. Marder (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 16.


On Graves’s early work, when he was known primarily as a designer of interiors and furniture, and on his paintings and drawings, see Martin Filler, “The Man Who’s Rewriting the Language of Color,” House and Garden 152, no. 3 (Mar. 1980), 132–35, 197; Peter Papademetriou, “Sunar Houston: The Allusive Language of Michael Graves,” Architectural Record, June 1980, 88–94; Peter Papademetriou, “Sunar the Better,” Progressive Architecture, July 1980, 29, 32. After becoming a brand name with the Portland commission, Graves was asked to design products for high-end companies like Alessi and Steuben, and later became product designer for Target, one of the first brand-name designers to create a line for the mass-market chain. Among scores of articles on Graves and his product designs, see Phil Patton, “For the Mall Rats, a New Piper,” New York Times, 14 Jan. 1999; on his trajectory from two-dimensional painter to architect, then product designer, see Herbert Muschamp, “Graves’s Progress from Paper Visions to Giant Teakettles,” New York Times, 14 Jan. 1999; on Graves as a brand name, see Peggy Deamer, “Branding the Architectural Author,” Perspecta 37 (2005), 42–49. On Graves as “the architect who ushered in the design democracy,” see Camille DeFevre, interview with Michael Graves, FAIA, Architecture Minnesota 20, no. 4 (July/Aug. 2004), 21, 59–66; on Graves’s work as a designer, see Alex Buck and Matthias Vogt, eds., Michael Graves, Designer Monographs 3 (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 1994). On Graves’s colored drawings, which were clearly influenced by the drawings in the exhibition The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts, 1975, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, see David Gebhard and Deborah Nevins, 200 Years of American Architectural Drawings (New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1977); and Deborah Nevins and Robert A. M. Stern, The Architect’s Eye: American Architectural Drawings from 1799–1978 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), which featured Graves’s Fargo-Moorhead Bridge on the cover.


The major source of material for this article comes from the City of Portland archives. This primary material was supplemented by taped interviews with architect and professional advisor Edward Wundram; Earl Bradfish, director of the Office of General Services; and others on the city staff; Joan Smith, the only commissioner on the city council who did not endorse Graves’s proposal in the end; and David Milliken, “The Portland Building Design/Build Competition: The Consequences of Competitions for American Architectural Design” (senior thesis, Reed College, May 1983). Milliken’s careful documentation and interviews with Wundram proved invaluable. “Éminence grise” was the term Richard Plunz and Kenneth L. Kaplan used to describe Johnson’s role in the promotion of the new trend in their highly provocative, largely eclipsed, and greatly revealing article “On Style,” Forum Voor Architectuur en Daarmee Verbonden Kunsten (Amsterdam) 29, no. 2 (1984), originally published in Précis, Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, Columbia University, Fall 1984.


Neal R. Peirce and Robert Guskind, Breakthroughs: Re-creating the American City (New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers, 1993), 51–53; Meredith L. Clausen, Pietro Belluschi: Modern American Architect (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), 20.


This was the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence. Peirce and Guskind, Breakthroughs, 52. The Downtown Plan was drawn up in consultation with the Zimmer Gunsul Frasca architectural firm and Pietro Belluschi. For specifics of the plan, see Portland Development Plan, 1977, Portland city archives.


Kimbark E. MacColl, The Growth of a City: Power and Politics in Portland, Oregon, 1915–1950 (Portland: Georgian Press, 1979), 320–21; Foster Church, “After 51 Years ‘Portlandia’ Still Seeks Temple,” Oregonian 17 (Mar. 1980). On the Bennett plan, see Carl Abbott, Portland: Planning, Politics, and Growth in a Twentieth-Century City (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 62.


Portland, Office of General Services, Public Service Building, 1977; supplemental report, 1978, city archives.


Richard E. Ritz, FAIA, An Architect Looks at Downtown Portland (Portland: Greenhills Press, 1991). On the Equitable Building, see Meredith L. Clausen, “Belluschi and the Equitable Building in History,” JSAH 50 (June 1991), 109–29; Clausen, Pietro Belluschi, 162–72.


On Neil Goldschmidt and his involvement in downtown development, see Abbott, Portland. Abbott, a faculty member in the planning department, Portland State University, was one of those to speak out against the Graves proposal in a city council meeting.


Goldschmidt’s interest in a new, tourist-attracting building was part of a growing international trend. On the “Beaubourg Effect” that morphed into the more widely known “Bilbao Effect,” see Joan Ockman, “New Politics of the Spectacle: ‘Bilbao’ and the Global Imagination,” in Architecture and Tourism: Perception, Performance and Place, ed. D. Medina Lasanky and Brian McLaren (New York: Berg, 2004), 227–39. It should be pointed out not only that the media played a critical role in drawing international attention to the new Beaubourg but also that Philip Johnson was a jury member on the competition.


The traditional approach involved the client’s choosing and working closely with an architect to come up with an appropriate design, sending it out for bid, then hiring the contractor who came in at the lowest price; each stage took place in timely succession, with each agent commanding his own fees, and the architect operating on behalf of the client handling pricing negotiations with the contractor. On design/build, see Dielschneider Associates, Design- Build-Bid Procedure, Portland Public Service Building, City of Portland, 5 Apr. 1979, city archives.


Emery Roth & Sons had been singled out by architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable in one of her first articles in the New York Times on the modernization, or “Rothscaping,” of Park Avenue in the 1950s. It was also, ironically, the architectural firm known for efficient, economical, but uninspired buildings, which had associated with Gropius and Pietro Belluschi on the Pan Am (later MetLife) Building. On Roth and the Pan Am Building, see Meredith L. Clausen, The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).


Dielschneider Associates had been recommended by the Portland Firm Campbell Yost. City of Portland, Bradfish files, city archives.


Edward Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996; Milliken, “Portland Building Design/Build Competition,” 35.


Lois Craig, “Competitions: In Search of Quality,” Architectural Record, Dec. 1978, 88–99; see also Paul D. Spreiregen, Design Competitions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979); and the series of articles on competitions by John M. Dixon, Progressive Architecture, 1980–81.


The corporation was to sell bonds for the construction of the building and to serve initially as its legal owner, thus avoiding a public vote on the issue and a federal tax on public buildings. The corporation was to sell $32 million in bonds, holding some $3 million in reserve while setting $22.4 million aside for the construction budget; the remainder would be held in a contingency fund. The city would rent the building from the nonprofit corporation until the bonds were paid off, at which time ownership of the building would revert to the city. Spencer Heinz, “City Seeks Tenants to Fill Building,” Oregonian, 3 Oct. 1982; Milliken interview with William E. Roberts, president of the board of directors, City of Portland Oregon Public Buildings Corporation, 7 Apr. 1983.


Edward Wundram, “Design-Build-Bid Procedure, Portland Public Service Building,” City of Portland, 5 Apr. 1979, city archives; Wundram/Milliken interview, 11 Mar. 1983.


Randy Gragg, “Graves: Back to the Beginning,” Oregonian, 5 May 2002; Wundram/Milliken interview, 14 Mar. 1983; Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996. As Graves himself put it, if he did not get a major commission in short order, he’d “be toast.”


Wundram to Mayor Goldschmidt, 9 May 1979, city archives.


On Johnson and “his boys,” see Plunz and Kaplan, “On Style”; Charlottesville Tapes (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), transcript of the conference, University of Virginia School of Architecture, Charlottesville, Nov. 1982; John Brodie and George Lange, “Master Philip and the Boys.” Spy, May 1991, 50–58. Given how broadly it was known, it seems hard to believe that neither Wundram nor Milliken knew of the Johnson/Graves connection; neither, however, ever mentioned it.


The issue of Johnson and jury impartiality was to crop up repeatedly throughout the competition process, especially in the press. See, for example, Paul Gapp, “Architectural Design Competitions: There Are Times When No One Wins,” Chicago Tribune, 10 Apr. 1983, where Gapp notes that with the “Postmodern high priest” Philip Johnson unsurprisingly recommending Graves, “the deed was done.” See also Gragg, “Graves: Back to the Beginning,” where Graves acknowledges Johnson played a pivotal role. Without Johnson, Graves acknowledges, “I would not have gotten to the table.” On juries and judging guidelines, see Spreiregen, Design Competitions, 231–33, 249–50.


On the Johnson/Belluschi debate, see Yale University, “Studio Discussions,” Perspecta 2 (1953); Clausen, Pietro Belluschi, 216.


Milliken, “Portland Building Design/Build Competition,” 41; Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996.


Present were Ivancie, Roberts, Bradfish, and Wundram, in addition to members of the advisory jury. Bradfish files, city archives.


Wundram and a member of the city staff had winnowed down the original list of applicants from 150 to 11, based on their qualifications: among them were Gunnar Birkerts, Erickson, Gehry, HOK, Mitchell/Giurgola, NBBJ, Welton Beckett, and Graves. Bradfish to Ivancie, memo, 13 July 1979, city archives; Milliken, “Portland Building Design/Build Competition,” 47–48; Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996.


Joan Smith/Clausen interview, 11 Nov. 1995.


Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996.


Correspondence between Ivancie/Bradfish, city council, 25–26 July 1979, city archives.


Steve Jenning, “Public Service Building Designers Considered,” Oregonian, 29 Sept. 1980; Ivancie’s “Position Paper,” press release, Commissioner Ivancie’s office, 2 Nov. 1979, city archives. Eyeing the mayorship, Ivancie realized he would lose political support unless competition guidelines required a local contractor. This made Graves uneasy and suspicious, as both the Erickson and Giurgola teams already had West Coast contractors on their teams; if the competition rules were changed, he told Wundram, he was dropping out; Wundram urged him to “hang in there.” Documents, Office of General Services, July 1979, city archives; Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996.


Lisa Fleming Lee, “Building the Building,” Leading Edge (Sunar publication), Oct. 1982, 66; Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996.


Wundram/Milliken interview, 11 Mar. 1983; Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996.


Roberts to city council, memo, 27 Sept. 1979; Christopher Thomas, City Attorney to Interested Persons, re: Cushman & Wakefield Contract, 14 Dec. 1979, city archives. Initially it was assumed that Wundram’s company, Dielschneider Associates, which specialized in construction management, would serve in this capacity. Convinced they were too small and regional and lacked the experience for a project of this size, Roberts persuaded the city council to approve Cushman & Wakefield of New York. Halfway through the competition, they withdrew, and the job was turned over to Morse/Diesel. In light of their relationship with Emery Roth & Sons, and with them as project manager charged with ranking their proposals, the potential for favoritism was clear, as Erickson, for one, was very aware.


Design-Build-Bid Procedure, 5 Apr. 1979, prepared for City of Portland by Edward C. Wundram of Dielschneider Associates, city archives.


Program of Facility Requirements, prepared for City of Portland by Edward C. Wundram of Dielschneider Associates, 23 July 1979, city archives.


Wundram/Clausen interview, 9 Feb. 1996. According to Wundram, the custom of hiring architects from outside the region was rare at that time; as a case in point, he cited the University of Washington’s first building designed by a nonregional architect, Mitchell/Giurgola, in 1975. The hiring of “outsiders” paralleled the rise of “starchitects” and architectural tourism, the commissioning of buildings by star architects specifically as tourist attractions. On architectural stardom, see Mary McLeod, “Architecture,” in The Postmodern Moment: A Handbook of Contemporary Innovation in the Arts, ed. Stanley Trachtenberg (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985); Denise Scott Brown, “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” in Architecture: A Place for Women, ed. Ellen Perry Berkeley and Matilda McQuaid (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 237–46; Ockman, “New Politics of the Spectacle: ‘Bilbao’ and the Global Imagination”; and more recently, Architourism: Authentic, Escapist, Exotic, Spectacular, ed. Joan Ockman and Salomon Frausto (Munich: Prestel, 2005). Behind both the practice of hiring outsiders and the rise of “starchitects” was the globalization of practice, begun in the postwar years but not becoming widespread until the 1980s and 1990s.


Steve Jenning, “Designers Present 3 Building Plans to Jury of Citizens,” Oregonian, 16 Feb. 1980.


Ibid. Originally Erickson’s design had called for fully glazed exteriors, putting estimated costs at slightly above budget; learning on the eve of the presentation that Graves was determined to come in on budget, which would have given him a competitive edge, the Erickson team revised their design, changing the exteriors to precast concrete, to bring the price down to within budget. Erickson proposal, Public Service Building, Feb. 1980, city archives.


Jenning, “Designers Present 3 Building Plans to Jury of Citizens”; Mitchell/Giurgola proposal, Public Service Building, Feb. 1980, city archives.


Ibid. Jenning described the garlands as being of masonry, an error perpetuated elsewhere. Graves’s proposal, Public Service Building, Feb. 1980, city archives. As radical as the Graves project seemed, its radicalism was mainly on the surface. In light of the extraordinarily low budget, Graves realized at the outset that the building was going to be “a rather Plain Jane arrangement,” as he put it, and left it to the contractors to come up with the most efficient form. They proposed a box whose height, number of floors, and available square footage were the maximum the program allowed, with a stepped-back configuration dictated by seismic factors, the cheapest solution for which was a large stable base with a stepped-back tower. The design team simply used this elemental form as their point of departure and took off from there. Lee, “Building the Building,” 65–72; Susan Doubilet, “Conversation with Graves,” Progressive Architecture 64, no. 2 (Feb. 1983), 110. Ironically, this was exactly the same elemental form that city engineers had proposed for a public-safety building on the same site only a few years earlier. See City of Portland Public Safety Building, Dec. 1976, city archives.


Most of the concerns addressed items such as the computer and heating systems, solar versus other energy conservation measures, and compliance with the requirements of the Downtown Plan. While fault was found in all three proposals, criticism was hardest on the Graves project. See Art Abela, Bureau of Facilities Management, memo, 14 Feb. 1980; Toby Fairbanks to the jury, 20 Feb. 1980; Rodney O’Hiser to Bradfish, memo, 22 Feb. 1980, city archives.


Johnson/Burgee to Roberts, chair of the jury, 22 Feb. 1980, city archives.


Morse/Diesel Evaluation of Design-Build Bids, Portland Public Service Building, 25 Feb. 1980, city archives.


William E. Roberts to Mayor McCready and members of the city council, 29 Feb. 1980, city archives.


Steve Jenning, “Templelike Design Gets Nod for Office Building,” Oregonian, 29 Feb. 1980; Steve Jenning, “ ‘Temple’ Building Design Gaining Ground in Council,” Oregonian, 5 Mar. 1980; Editorial, “No Double Standard for Building Design,” Oregonian, Mar. 1980. Commissioner Joan Smith was the lone dissenter. Smith/Clausen interviews, 11 Nov. 1995 and 31 July 1996.


Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Nissila to City Council Commissioner Mildred Schwab, 9 Mar. 1980; Carl Deters of Standard Home Insurance to Mayor McCready, 10 Mar. 1980; Stefano Zegretti and Carl Abbott of Portland State University to Commissioner Schwab, 12 Mar. 1980, city archives.


Roger L. Schultz, president of the Portland AIA, “Public Statement on Public Service Building,” Bulletin, Portland AIA, Mar. 1980, city archives.


Minutes, city council meetings, 12 Mar. 1980.


Belluschi’s testimony, minutes, city council meeting, 12 Mar. 1980, transcript, 234–35; Huxtable, “The Present.”


On the Frasca/Belluschi association, see Clausen, Pietro Belluschi, 351–52; 381–82; on the Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, 348–52, 389–91.


Frasca testimony, minutes, city council meeting, 12 Mar. 1980, 246; Jenning, Oregonian, 16 Mar. 1980.


Minutes, city council meeting, 12 Mar. 1980, 246–47.


Commissioner Mike Lindberg, minutes, city council meeting, 12 Mar. 1980, 462–66.


Minutes, city council meeting, 12 Mar. 1980, 248.


Ibid., 464.


Steve Jenning, “Design for Public Service Building: Chaotic or Poetic,” Oregonian, 16 Mar. 1980.


Ironically, the Portland Building, which poignantly speaks of the struggle to reconcile regional values with the growing influence of national or international trends, was under way at the same time Columbia University’s Kenneth Frampton was formulating his thoughts on a theoretical level for his seminal article “Critical Regionalism,” published in 1983. In a footnote, Frampton briefly mentioned the Portland Building, citing it as a leading example of the scenographic as opposed to tectonic approach to design. Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983), 16–30. On theory and its disconnect with practice, see Jorge Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Reinhold Martin, Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).


Schultz to Mayor McCready, 18 Mar. 1980, city archives.


Minutes, city council meeting, 19 Mar. 1980, 466.


Erickson/SRG/Dillingham to Bradfish, 31 Mar. 1980, city archives; Millken, “Portland Building Design/Build Competition,” 82–83.


Steve Jenning, “City Stalls Decision on Project,” Oregonian, 20 Mar. 1980.


C. W. Drinkward to city council, 31 Mar. 1980, city archives.


As specific evidence, Drinkward cited a letter of 26 Dec. 1979 from Edward Wundram of Dielschneider Associates, the city’s project manager at the time, in response to their question of what would happen if a bid were submitted that was higher than the budget limit. He quoted from Wundram’s letter: “One very important requirement of the Bid Documents is that the Base Bid Contract Sum shall be $22,420,000. … Any bid which modifies this Base Bid Amount shall be deemed unresponsive, and the bidder not entitled to any compensation.” By their calculations, their bid was the only one that met that requirement. Drinkward letter, 31 Mar. 1980, city archives.


Drinkward testimony, minutes, city council meeting, 2 Apr. 1980, 868, city archives.


Minutes, city council meeting, 2 Apr. 1980, 848–49.


Peterson of Morse/Diesel, minutes, city council meeting, 2 Apr. 1980, 852; memo, Morse/Diesel to Bradfish, Public Services Building—Scope Clarification Bid Analysis, 1 Apr. 1980, city archives.


Erickson, minutes, city council meeting, 2 Apr. 1980, 863–65.


Graves’s presentation of revised proposal, minutes, city council meeting, 2 Apr. 1980, 874. On the failure of Graves’s classical details to communicate as intended, see Mary McLeod, “Architecture,” in The Postmodern Moment.


The council debated “irregularities” that Graves had made from the program specifications, such as the type or weight of the carpeting, the window-washing equipment, exterior and core partition wall coverings, wood versus steel doors, fixed versus pivoting windows, and whether these should be waived, as they seemed minor and did not substantially affect the competition. Minutes, city council meeting, 2 Apr. 1980, 886–907.


Ibid., 889–907.


Steve Jenning, “Temple Design Wins Tentative Approval,” Oregonian, 3 Apr. 1980.


Whatever new public input came in evidently was not deemed important enough to change their thinking. A letter from Belluschi was, however, revealing. Acknowledging the project as “a personal search for a very unusual solution,” which Graves considered a work of art, Belluschi was reminded of Alfred Barr’s words on the importance of shock value in developing new expressions in art, on how few works of art survive the test of time, and that in painting, sculpture, music, even poetry, much of it gets hidden in the dustbin of time. “But you cannot hide a building; and if it does not answer the many constraints imposed by use, structure, and custom, and if it is not woven into the fabric of its city … it has little chance of surviving the test of time. Today’s shock value … tomorrow’s drag. … Still,” he wrote, “I am compelled to say that if the project is accepted by the city for whatever reason, neither the council nor your office nor other architects should interfere with Mr. Graves’s ideas. … I say this because one must respect any creative spirit, even if misguided.” Pietro Belluschi to Bradfish, 15 Apr. 1980, city archives.


Summary, Graves/Pavarini/Hoffman revised proposal, 15 Apr. 1980; Chris Thomas, city attorney, to Garry P. McMurry et al., attorneys at law, 24 Apr. 1980; G. F. Fredrickson, vice president at Hoffman Construction, to Bradfish, 25 Apr. 1980, city archives. The legality of the whole procedure continued to be questioned, as indicated in further correspondence in the city archives.


J. W. Mills, vice president at Hoffman Construction Co., to Bradfish, 5 May 1980, city archives.


Minutes, city council meeting, 30 Apr. 1980, city archives.


Steve Jenning, “Council Vote Unanimous: Templelike Building Wins OK,” Oregonian, 1 May 1980.


Even after Graves’s revisions were approved, his project continued to be questioned, particularly the blank walls, the access to underground parking, and the circulation. Patty Mantia, “Plans for City Building Draw More Criticism,” Oregonian, 6 June 1980.


Invitation for Interior Design Services, City of Portland Public Service Building, 17 June 1980; Graves, letter and application materials to Harold Vaughan, purchasing manager, city hall, 27 June 1980.


Brought in as project manager in January 1979 to draw up the competition procedure, Wundram remained under contract with the city. In July 1979, once it was clear that the competition was under way and, by then, making national news, Ivancie, in charge of the project, sought the services first of Cushman & Wakefield of New York, then Morse Diesel of Chicago, to serve as project manager. Wundram, who evidently had been expecting to continue in this capacity, was notified in January 1980 that his services as project manager were no longer needed. He appears to have been retained by the city to see the competition through, though in what capacity is not clear. Once the competition was over and his contract with the city expired, Graves hired him to serve as an integral part of his team. Graves to Harold Vaughan, 27 June 1980, city archives.


James Murphy, “Portland Competition a Very Public Issue,” Progressive Architecture, May 1980, 25–26; Eleni Constantine, “The Case for Michael Graves’s Design for Portland,” Architectural Record, Aug. 1980, 96–101. Graves’s original proposal was on the cover of the issue.


Much of this publicity was documented by David L. Gilbert in “The Portland Building,” in The Critical Edge: Controversy in Recent American Architecture, ed. Tod A. Marder (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 163–74, on the basis of the extensive research of students in an art history seminar and an exhibition at Rutgers.


Architecture 1980: The Presence of the Past: Venice Biennale (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 174; Charles Jencks, ed., “Post-Modern Classicism,” Architectural Design 5/6 (1980).


Arthur Drexler et al., “Portland Building: Other Assessments,” Skyline, Jan. 1983.


Spencer Heinz, “City-County Building Work Starts,” Oregon Journal, 8 July 1980; the name was changed when it was discovered that it was already in use by a local utilities building. Jo Dana, “City Can’t Pirate Name of Old Portland Building,” Oregonian, 27 Oct. 1981.


Lee, “Building the Building,” 65. Lisa Lee, the only woman on any of the three teams, had joined the Graves office just after getting her MA from Princeton in June 1979. Though she had little experience and none on an actual job site, she served as Graves’s representative in Portland during the city council proceedings and then was made job captain of the project. According to Vincent Scully, she had “never in any way been involved in a building before.” Vincent Scully, in Michael Graves: Buildings and Projects, 1966–1981, ed. Karen Vogel Wheeler, Peter Arnell, and Ted Bickford (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 296. Lisa Fleming Lee (later, Lisa Lee Morgan) wrote about her experience on the Portland project in “Building the Building,” 65–72.


Memo, Ivancie to Bradfish, re: garlands, Portland Building, 9 Oct. 1981, Office of General Services, city archives; Alan K. Ota, “$275,000 Voted to Add Garlands on New Building,” Oregonian, 24 Dec. 1981.


Michael Alesko, “City Adds Tiles to Building Plan,” Oregonian, 7 Aug. 1980.


Camille Hamilton, “New City-County Offices Cover Noise with Noise,” Oregonian, 3 Aug. 1982.


Ginny Butterfield, “Inside Out: Outside, the Portland Building Makes a Bold, Clear Statement; Inside, It’s Completely Tongue-tied,” Oregon Magazine, Oct. 1982, 72–73. On Graves, see John Hockenberry, “The Re-education of Michael Graves: Three Years after the Illness That Changed His Life Forever,” Metropolis 26, no. 3 (Oct. 2006), 122–28. Graves’s initial inattention to issues of accessibility at the Portland Building is ironic given his focus on accessible design after he suffered a spinal infection in 2003 that left him paralyzed from midchest down and wheelchair bound. His disability transformed his design practice.


Butterfield, “Inside Out,” 72–73. Problems with the building’s financing, too, continued. See Linda Williams, “Portland Building Controversy Renews,” Oregonian, 10 Jan. 1982, which pointed out that the building, selected because it was the least expensive proposal, was now costing $28 million, after the council approved about $1.2 million from the contingency fund for exterior tiles and redesigned garlands. Another $320,000 was approved the following week for additional expenditures for furniture and interior changes. Williams, “Extra $30,000 OK’d for Portland Building,” Oregonian, 29 Jan. 1982.


Mark Levenson, “Portland Building Assailed as Very User-unfriendly,” Oregonian, 7 June 1987.


Randy Gragg, “Leaves & Roses: A Postmodern Remodel,” Oregonian, 26 May 1991.


Cathy Kiyomura, “Council Votes to Remodel the Portland Building Lobby,” Oregonian, 6 Feb. 1992.


“Legal Threats Loom over Portland Building,” Oregonian, 14 Jan. 1989; “Firm to Pay Portland for Repairs,” Oregonian, 23 Mar. 1989.


Janet Christ, “Portland Building Cracks Right Back,” Oregonian, 15 Sept. 1995. On these structural problems, see Meredith L. Clausen and Kim Christiansen, “Michael Graves’s Portland Building and Its Problems,” Architronic, April 1997.


Terry Samilson, letter to editor, Oregonian, 7 Feb. 1996.


Jonathan Nicholas, “Portland Building: This Dog Must Die,” Oregonian, 26 Jan. 1997; editorial, “The Money Pit,” Oregonian, 29 Jan. 1997.


Peter D. Sleeth, “Building Design Inadequate,” Oregonian, 8 Feb. 1997; Peter D. Sleeth, “Engineer Alerted City about Building,” Oregonian, 9 Feb. 1997. Several months after the articles appeared in the Oregonian, a California-based engineering firm conducted a second analysis and determined that the building did, in fact, meet the 1979 Uniform Building Code in force at the time. My thanks to Karen Nichols of the Graves office for pointing this out.


Huxtable, “The Present,” 36–37.


It is cited, for example, in Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990, ed. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt (London: Victoria & Albert Publishing, 2011); “Reconsidering Postmodernism,” Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, conference, New York, Nov. 22–23, 2011; Martin, Utopia’s Ghost; Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn; François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).


Steffen Silvis, “Reaching for the Sky,” Willamette Week, 25th anniversary issue, 1999; Randy Gragg, “Architecture Series Is Back from Rubble,” Oregonian, 2 Mar. 2002; Randy Gragg, “Michael Graves: Back to the Beginning,” Oregonian, 5 May 2002; Andy Dworkin, “Like It or Not, It’s Yours,” Oregonian, 10 Apr. 2008. In January 2014, the Portland public was confronted once again with a grim choice: to “save a building it really really hates” and pour $95 million into overhauling it, or to replace Graves’s iconic building with one that better meets the city’s needs. Mark Byrnes, “Should Portland Save a Building It Really Really Hates?” Atlantic Cities, 8 Jan. 2014; editorial, “Portland Building Overhaul Is a Public Choice,” Oregonian, 4 Jan. 2014; “Portland Building: $95 Million Price Tag Includes Temporary Relocation, Rent Costs,” Oregonian, 7 Jan. 2014; “Portland Building: Four Commissioners, Four Approaches for Dealing with Portland’s $95 Million ‘White Elephant,’ ” Oregonian, 3 Jan. 2014; Brad Schmidt, “Officials Weigh In on the Portland Building,” Oregonian, 5 Jan. 2014. The Schmidt article quotes Otto Poticha, a Portland architect and an adjunct professor in architecture at the University of Oregon: “Thirty years, a building like that, it’s an embarrassment, an embarrassment architecturally, an embarrassment to the city. Why the city let that happen, I have no idea.” This article may shed light on the answer. I would like to thank Pat Failing, Christopher Smith, and Marga Rose Hancock, who have faithfully kept me informed.