In 1980, Portland was planning a new building to house many of its public workers, and decided to hold a design competition (a fairly novel ideal at the time). The winner, famed architect (and designer of snazzy Target blenders) Michael Graves, produced what is considered the first major “postmodern” building, the Portland Building (apparently, a contest to name the building was not a priority). At the time, glass curtain boxes with little personality had begun to dominate urban skylines…Graves building was a strong, and many would say ill-considered, reaction to that movement. Using a variety of surfaces, colors and decorative flourishes, the building would definitely not be confused with the modern glass office towers nearby.
I am far from an architectural expert, so I don’t hate the building the way most of them do. The green tile on the first few floors doesn’t work well, and looks a little plain and uninviting from ground level, more like a 60s-era elementary school than a monumental public building. From a distance, though, the garlands and ribbon-like decorative elements actually work for me. They make the building look, well, governmental, if that is actually a word. If nothing else, it is better than another mid-rise black box glass curtain walls, but I might even be in the minority on that. Many of its harshest critics are the workers who inhabit the building, so I’m inclined to take their word for the building’s internal shortcomings.
The star of the show (or it would be if anyone could find it) is the statue of Portlandia, installed in 1985 above the 1120 SW 5th Ave. entrance. The huge statue (it is the 2nd-largest copper statue in the world after the Statue of Liberty) gets relatively little attention, most likely due to its location perched several stories above above the transit mall in a relatively non-touristy area. Few people drive through the transit mall, and even if you do, you really can’t see the statue from the street, especially while in a car (or train or bus). For best viewing, take the southbound MAX to SW Jefferson and SW 5th Ave…the statue is looming over you from across the street, and there is a lot of space to get the best angle on the it and the Portland Building.
The statue is based on the seal of the city of Portland, and was a little controversial itself when it first arrived here, due to the slightly risque nature of the pose. In the end, sculptor Raymond Kaskey won the prestigious Henry Hering Medal from the National Sculpture Society for his work (it should be noted that Michael Graves also won awards for the Portland Building). Personally, I love the statue, though I wish it were visible to more people. The location is very dramatic, but ultimately the statue deserves to be seen by more people. It will take a campaign to educate people on the location, because the sculptor has stated that the statue can not be moved from its current perch, despite a few efforts to do just that.
Together, the Portland Building and Portlandia add another layer to the story of this multi-faceted city. It seems fitting to have a postmodern icon, hated or not, sitting in the midst of historic buildings and gleaming new condos. And the statue is certainly a fitting emblem of the city: beautiful, powerful, full of hope and tucked away in a less-traveled corner, so only those who really want to find it, will. I can live with that.