Portland Building

1120 SW 5th Avenue

Portland, OR



Michael Graves 1982


In 1979 a team led Michael Graves submitted the winning competition entry for the City of Portland's new municipal offices. Their proposal received national recognition, and, on its opening in 1982, became the first major completed postmodern building in North America.



Occupying a full block in Downtown Portland, the building is unlike anything around it, or that had came before it. Rejecting the 'less is more' ethos of the modern movement, the building is highly decorated, and makes numerous references to classical architecture. The facade is vertically divided into a base, a body section, and an 'attic', or head. A green tile-clad arcade runs along three sides of the building, and the most public functions are located at the ground level, including the permit center, restaurant and shops. Large decorative columns adorn each side of the building, with four-storey-high trapezoidal capitals above them on the east and west elevations.



Originally, the City occupied the middle section of the building, with the upper section leased to other agencies, symbolically represented on the facade as the city government 'supporting' its citizens. The north and south sides have garland ribbons draped across the columns, intended as a classical gesture of welcome. The original drawings show these as more free and flowing; cost-cutting led to these becoming somewhat two-dimensional. At the fifteenth floor, balconies offer views to Mount Hood to the east, and to Portland's commercial center to the west.


Most famously, there is a large copper statue above the entrance, depicting Portlandia, a goddess based on the Lady of Commerce on the city seal. The statue formed part of the original concept for the building, and a competition was launched to find a sculptor. Eight jurors, including Michael Graves, selected a design by Washington, DC-based artist Raymond Kaskey. Portlandia was installed in 1985, following three years of work by the artist, and is the second largest copper repoussé statue in the nation, after the Statue of Liberty.


Since its completion, the building has received a great deal of criticism. Other architects reportedly couldn't work out how to do a building within the low budget, and Graves' design offered the most useable square footage per dollar. The result is that despite the stylistic moves on the facade, the building is essentially a decorated box, with standard office space on the interior. The small windows and low ceiling heights make for a dark and unpleasant internal environment. Even the location of the front doors has been faulted: unlike City Hall, one block to the north, the main entrance is located on 5th Avenue, and instead a number of loading bays front onto the park on 4th Avenue.



More fundamentally, a number of structural problems emerged after the building's completion. While these were the result of poor construction, and not a problem with the design, they required expensive repairs.


Graves gained a number of high profile commissions after the Portland Building, and the style of postmodern architecture it typifies became briefly popular in the 1980s. However, this style has few adherents today, and in 2009, Travel + Leisure magazine named the building as one of the world's fifteen ugliest. Whether one loves or hates it though, the Portland Building remains an important landmark in the history of architecture.


Iain MacKenzie 2011


How to visit


The Portland Building is on the east side of SW 5th Avenue in Downtown Portland, between SW Main and SW Madison. TriMet bus and light rail serve the transit mall on 5th and 6th Avenues, with MAX Green and Yellow lines stopping one block south, between SW Madison and SW Jefferson.


There is a free public gallery on the second floor (shown above), showing the work of the Regional Arts & Culture Council. The rest of the building is not open to the public.




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