Portlandia, the icon that isn’t

by | Mar 21, 2016

Portland Building image taken by MaccoinnichIn 2014, Michael Graves’ postmodernist Portland building almost became another casualty in the trend to renew downtown.


Update: The Portland Building was reconstructed and reopened in 2020.

What would Wall Street be without its massive charging bull? Probably just another New York City street among the concrete canyon of gray skyscrapers. Michael Graves’s postmodernist Portland Building stands out as a strong recognizable symbol in that city because it has cool colors and an iconic statue guards the west entrance. So why would the city want to tear down the Portland Building, their defining image? To fix shoddy construction, says the city. The wrong-headed idea was short-lived. The city of Portland dropped the plan when Graves stepped in to defend the building. Still, architectural historians were shocked by the proposal and  Architect’s Newspaper| blog  and ArchDaily both covered the story. The Building and the  38-foot-hammered copper sculpture hovering over the west entrance, Portlandiaare the symbols of postmodernism. Raymond Kaskey, created the statue, and I’ll get to how he fits into the story in a moment. Demolishing the building could have been a double tragedy.  If  people recognize the building, they probably aren’t as familiar with the statue that holds a trident over the west entrance. She was commissioned by the city of Portland as a work of Public Art. Her image would be a logical choice for police cars and the city seal, but it’s not used for either of those purposes, although a female figure is on the city seal. Who owns Public Art? The story of why we see so little of Portlandia brings up an interesting debate about who owns public art. Sculptor Raymond Kaskey owns all rights to the image of the statue he created and he  guards the use of her iconic likeness as fiercely as she guards the building.  He has sued  several people for using pictures and drawings of his Portlandia. Tourists won’t find many postcards with her image. So, I provided a link to the image rather than posting it here. John Locanthi, in his story, So Sue Us, explains why Portlandia hasn’t become an icon for Portland. He examines the unintended consequences  that result when artists hold complete control over the use of images they created for a  public space. Even the  IFC cable sitcom Portlandia starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein does not feature the image prominently —  Kaskey gave permission for the statue to appear only briefly in the opening. What would Portlandia be without her building?  Who destroys the city’s iconic image? So, the city has an icon it wants to destroy? In 2014, the city wanted to demolish the building that is  the first major structure designed by a member of the postmodernist school, Michael Graves, and it is as significant as “Bauhaus was to Modernism, ” says architectural critic Charles Jencks.  In 2011, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Those two pedigrees should be enough to protect its place within the city fabric, right? No. The city of Portland debated  demolishing it just 14 months ago. Modernist buildings are getting the foundations knocked out from under them all over the country. It looks like postmodernism is under attack too. Postmodernists intentionally used a mash-up of old and new styles, adding bold ornaments such as the figure Portlandia, and bright paint colors, on the government building. Decades later, the bold colors of postmodernism have faded and some of those buildings are targets for destruction. The complaints have a familiar ring: the interior of the building is dark, leaky, and claustrophobic, say city workers. After Michael Graves traveled to Portland to express his outrage at the idea of tearing down the building,  the city council was convinced to renovate it instead. It looks like Portlandia has won the battle to save her building.  But if you want to use an image of her defensive stance,  you better get permission from the artist before you use a picture.   SaveSave