October 02: Hello, Po-Mo

2016/10/02 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1982 the Portland Building opened.

The Portland Building did for Post-Modernism what the Centre Pompidou did for High-Tech: brought the movement out of a few offices and seminar rooms and into the public sphere.  They are also similar in being targets of significant criticism, both stylistic and functional, but from opposite ends of the critical spectrum: Pompidou was excoriated for being an aggressively anti-contextual building within one of the world’s most cohesive (and beautiful) cities, Portland for daring to break from the box-o’-glass-and-steel that had become de rigueur in practice since mid-century and replace it with a cartoony, architecturally-scaled tchotchke.

Designed by Michael Graves (b. 1934), the building quickly became the poster child for Post-Modernism.  A goofy term, the “Post-” suggests that its practitioners are after (or maybe over) “Orthodox Modernism” (as Robert Venturi so splendidly described it in 1972).  But there is more than a lingering sense of Modernism in Po-Mo, Portland is a case in point.  It’s still a pretty standard box with a warren of little offices, but its tricked out in a big fancy party dress that made architects like Pietro Pietro Belluschi completely lose their junk.  In his efforts to reinvest modern architecture with insta-symbolism, Graves hoisted his office cube onto a tiered base, like the three steps on Greek temples, and concealed the requisite rooftop mess under an Acropolis’ worth of primitive huts.  On the facade, the world’s biggest keystone is freed from structural duties, blown up to an outrageous scale, and “supported” by two tall stripey things.  Are they wannabe pilasters?  Sections of a car grille?  Nobody knows.  But they repeat on the sides, where they are linked by flattened-out swags.

The Portland Building failed on many counts, but it succeeded brilliantly on a very important one: getting people to talk about architecture.  Not just schmancy studiophiles nor the nattering nabobs in graduate programs.  And when those people talked, they realized that while the Portland Building didn’t do everything right, it reminded them of what architecture used to do: it had ornament that somehow resonated with shared ideas about beauty, prompted memories of dignity and optimism, had color and interest, got noticed and marked a place as different, possibly even special.  Portland paved the way for more skillful Post-Modernism (although it’s just not fair that when Time ran a cover story on new architecture in the late 1970s they felt the need to get some New Yorker to represent the movement with a building that was only in model form, and that would be finished two years after Portland).  It stirred the architectural practice out of its Modernist slumber, in which it had passed the previous decades in a functionalist-inspired swoon.  It was also a boon for stealthy traditionalists who could point to attention-grabbing, but somehow unsatisfying Po-Mo buildings and  say really, please, let us show you how to do it. It led many contemporary architects to reconsider the role of ornament in architecture, sometimes to the great and good, sometimes to the hesitantly ho-hum.

Most importantly, Graves’ building got people talking–talking about what they had lost with all those  years of Modernist hegemony, and more importantly through all the demolition that paved the way for all those glass boxes.  And any talk about architecture among people who get the idea that architecture is maybe for them too, and not just the result of specialist argument and theoretical debate that condescends to provide shelter for their humble activities. And that’s never a bad thing.

Image: drawing of the Portland Building (from this source)

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