The Portland Building: Post-modern Strategies for Preserving an Historic Icon
Carla J. Weinheimer, Justice+Civic Project Leader, DLR Group
Erica Ceder, Historic/Preservation Architect, DLR Group
Patrick Burke, Principal, Michael Graves Architecture & Design
LAS VEGAS, NV, June 7, 2019 – While Portland enjoys a healthy arsenal of buildings significant to the evolution of architecture in America and abroad, perhaps none are more famous (or controversial) than The Portland Building. Designed by renowned architect Michael Graves and opened in 1982, the building was the first large scale built example of Post-modernism, completed on an impossibly small budget. It was this budget that was perhaps the prime culprit in the construction of a building that objectively under-performed from day one.
“Even as a new building, we were very critical, “ recalled architect Patrick Burke, Principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design, at a June 7 session at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019 (A’19.) “It wasn’t as good as it should have been. It killed [Michael Graves,] knowing that the building didn’t perform and was falling apart.”
Long time Portlanders may remember the debate the City of Portland had in 2014/15 on what to do with the aging and maligned building. This debate was weighed in on by Graves himself during a discussion held at the Portland Art Museum in October 2014, just months before he passed away at age 80 that following March.
Burke, a former student of Graves’-turned-principal at the Princeton-based firm, recalled Michael’s discussions in the office at that time about how to save the building: “He got a group of us together and said, ‘okay, let’s figure this thing out,’ and we never really could.” Burke noted that because the exterior walls of the building serve as a structural exoskeleton, the facade couldn’t simply be removed and replaced, which was the initial hope.
“I don’t care if it’s made of oatmeal, we’re going to be on budget”
While the building ended up being built with a painted concrete and tile exterior, Burke talked at length about the conversations Graves had in the office regarding the materiality of the building. Intended to be clad in glazed terra cotta tile, the budget didn’t allow for such an expensive material. When Graves’ team offered stucco as an alternative option, officials at the City of Portland balked and rejected the material, setting up a debate of which material to use. “Michael didn’t care about what the building was made out of,” Burke explained, “He cared about the character defining features.” In this debate, Graves was famously quoted as saying, “I don’t care if it’s made of oatmeal, we’re going to be on budget,” he said at the time. “We did not make it out of oatmeal, but very close.”
“The Portland Building in a Portland Building Suit”
The 2014/15 discussion about how to save the building from the wrecking ball was tied closely with the question of materiality and Graves’ indifference to material choice in the original design. The discussion led to what has ended up being the final solution – a $195 million renovation of the building, wrapping the building with an insulated unitized curtain wall system. The renovation also replaces the old glazing (which contained a dismal 7% light transmittance,) with new, more efficient glazing that allows 77% light transmittance – a stark contrast in daylighting inside the building. “Glazing technology has come a long way,” noted Erica Ceder, historic preservation architect at DLR Group, during the A’19 discussion.
DLR Group, along with the contractor and the City, developed a recommendation that would address the project enclosure deficiencies. DLR Group then approached Graves’ office to comment on the unitized panel concept they had devised. Ceder referred to the concept as, “the Portland Building in a Portland Building suit.” “I thought it was great,” Burke remarked. “I passed it to others in the firm to make sure it wasn’t just me, and we all agreed. We were impressed that someone had figured it out.” And with that, the debate over how (or if) to preserve the building came to a close, while a new debate was just beginning: Can it really be called “preservation” if the fundamental exterior material is completely changed?
“There needs to be a shift in preservation thinking…”
“When people ask, ‘what would Michael have thought?,’ well, we know what he would have thought” noted Burke. Erica reiterated Graves’ indifference to material, and referenced a quote from the book Frozen Music, which read, “Paint over material, vocabulary over construction.” The team also referenced successful case studies where materials were changed on historic buildings, and shared Graves’ view when it came to modernizing buildings. “Of course we should modernize it,” Graves was quoted as saying in reference to the renovation of a 1970s era home. “People want modern kitchens, they don’t want 1970s kitchens.”
While the design team is satisfied with the final renovation solution, based on Graves’ philosophy and due to the multitude of solutions the proposal provides, opponents of the project worry that losing the material of the building means losing a large part of what makes the building noteworthy. At the conference, Ceder addressed this: “There needs to be a shift in preservation thinking for this building type. If material is paramount, that makes [renovating the building] difficult. Everything is there, the only thing that’s missing is the tactile experience of concrete. Does that matter in this case?” She continued, “If the original detailing of the building is flawed, should that be preserved, or should [the greater idea of the building] be preserved?”
“The pressure to have this project be successful is intense”
As the discussion of the Portland Building closed, Erica noted the significance of this project and the impact it has on informing future renovations of Post-modern buildings worldwide, as they start to reach an age of maturity and conversations begin taking place about their future. “The pressure to have this project be successful is intense,” Erica said. “If we don’t get it right this time, there’s not going to be another chance.”
The eyes of the preservation world are, indeed, watching Portland’s handling of this project, illustrated by a Chicago architect in attendance at the A’19 talk, who asked what advice and lessons learned could be applied to Chicago’s [1985 Helmut Jahn-designed] James R. Thompson Center, currently under threat of demolition. The building was recently named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“Even if it takes a substantial amount of work to renovate, it’s still more sustainable than tearing it down and building new,” advised Carla Weinheimer, Justice+Civic Project Leader at DLR Group. “Quite frankly, it was simply ‘more okay’ to build things in the 1980s that wouldn’t last. It’s not necessarily the fault of the architect, contractor, or anyone else [for the performance failures of those buildings today,] that’s just how it was.”
Carla tied these thoughts to renovating Post-modern buildings today by noting today’s emphasis on sustainability, and how placing value in sustainability, as Chicago and Portland famously do, goes hand in hand with placing value in preservation.
As the renovations of the Portland Building wrap up and occupants begin to move back in, Portlanders will be eager to assess the success and value of their $195 million investment. So, too, will preservationists, fans, and foes of Post-modernism across the globe. The building is scheduled to reopen in phases between November 2019 and March 2020. Oatmeal not included.
Portland Design Pup traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada for the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019 this past June 6th-9th to explore the influence that Portland architects and designers are having on the national architecture scene. We attended four sessions led by Portlanders, as well as the investiture ceremony for the 2019 Class of Fellows, which included five Oregon architects. We will be sharing images and recaps of each event in a 5 part series of articles, of which this is the first.
About the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019
Every year the AIA Conference on Architecture travels to an iconic city for three immersive days of what’s new and now in architecture and design. Industry leaders and experienced professionals attend A’19 in search of the hottest new products and technologies.
About Michael Graves Architecture & Design
Founded in 1964 by AIA Gold Medalist Michael Graves, MGA&D has a unique multidisciplinary practice that offers strategic advantages to clients worldwide.
Like many of our peers, we design amazing projects. Our differentiators are that our work is a consequence of continually striving to learn, listening to our clients and aiming to deliver the highest level of service possible.
Our clients range from Fortune 100 companies and global manufacturers to start-ups, from the government to cultural, educational and healthcare institutions, and from real estate developers and retailers to homeowners and consumers.
MGA&D has one of the leading design practices in the world, offering services in architecture, product design, interior design, master planning, graphic design and branding. We underpin our clients’ success with design strategy consulting, feasibility studies and research.
About DLR Group
Our promise is to elevate the human experience through design. This inspires a culture of design and fuels the work we do around the world. We are 100 percent employee-owned and aspire to be the most creative enterprise on the planet.
With offices around the globe housing specialized design expertise, your integrated design team is backed by the more than 1,000+ design professionals and the resources of the entire firm. This enables DLR Group to scale teams to meet your challenge and deliver specialized expertise to any location whenever, and wherever, it may be needed.
Core areas of design expertise include Civic, Courts, Cultural+Performing Arts, Detention, Energy Services, Federal Markets, Higher Education, Hospitality, Housing, K-12 Education, Museums, Retail+Mixed-Use, Sports, and Workplace.
DLR Group is a passionate advocate for sustainable design. We are an early adopter of the Architecture 2030 Challenge, and an initial signatory to the AIA 2030 Commitment and the China Accord. We believe sustainability is best judged by disciplined, systematic evaluation of high performance building metrics to measure the effectiveness of design.
The outcome is a high-performance building for a sustainable future.
Images courtesy Timothy Niou Photography unless noted otherwise. Note: Our coverage of the Conference is not affiliated with or endorsed by AIA, AIA Portland, or AIA Oregon.