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Landmark leaking

Age, design flaws turn postmodern Portland Building into city money pit
by: JIM CLARK, The Portland Building — roosting spot for Portlandia as well as employees of most of the city’s bureaus — spurred an aesthetic ruckus when it opened in the early ’80s. But that’s nothing compared with the maintenance bills.

Pietro Belluschi, the renowned Portland architect, once called it an “oversized, beribboned Christmas package.” But in the early-’80s uproar over the Portland Building’s pink columns and blue tiles, talk of whether its style would endure overshadowed questions about its structural integrity. Flash forward 26 years, and the current hubbub over the building — a one-of-a-kind postmodern design and the first significant building by New Jersey architect Michael Graves — is addressing that basic concern: How well was it built? Today, the building is plagued with recurring problems that will require at least $2.5 million in repairs. Roof leaks and water problems, similar to ones that first prompted costly repairs seven years after the building was built, have occurred again. As a result, within about two weeks, planning will begin to waterproof the building’s tiled exterior, its lower roofs and its tinted windows, all at an estimated cost of between $2.5 million and $5 million. The 15-story Portland Building also needs about $135,000 in paint, $114,000 in light bulbs and $240,000 in carpeting and doors, rails and other items. Overall, inspectors rate the building’s condition as good. It’s structurally sound and in no danger of falling over. But the major deficiencies noted in a September survey are the same as those first reported when a leaking roof trashed a carpet on the building’s top floor in 1989: The Portland Building lacks waterproofing behind its tiled, exterior skin, and maintenance will be key to staving off significant water damage. John Acker, a facilities manager for the city, said the problems are both the result of age and a design flaw. “You might not design a building today whose exterior skin is the only barrier between the building and moisture,” Acker said. Inside the building, home to employees of most of the city’s bureaus, city officials are proposing an increase in the maintenance budget to fund ongoing needs. The Portland Building will be paid for in April, so debt savings are expected to cover the cost of repairs. Gamble brings controversy Jeff Joslin, who oversees reviews of landmark designs, said that as the Portland Building ages, locals think less about its celebrity and more about its function. In the beginning, Joslin said, the Portland Building was more of an obsession. Designed by Graves in 1981, at the time a 46-year-old professor at Princeton University, the Portland Building was the winning design in an international competition sponsored by the city. On the hunt for a spectacular building in which to house Portland’s bureaus, city officials wanted a design that could beat a $32 million budget and also cause a stir on the block next to City Hall. They gambled on Graves’ postmodern design, passing on ideas from some of the top names in architecture. Graves, until then, had yet to commission a large building and test his theories about designing buildings with humane qualities and casting off the boorish grays of traditional facades. Architects nationwide speculated as to whether the Portland Building — the first major postmodern design in the United States — would set the stage for the future of postmodern architecture or help it fall hopelessly out of fashion. Architect goes worldwide By the time it opened in 1982, the Portland Building was the subject of some fame. The initial fuss involved speeches at the Portland Art Museum by Graves, visits to town from curious architects and international media, and also local votes on sculptures for the building, according to media reports. Graves went on to become a major force in architecture, designing buildings all over the world. Today, he owns his own architectural firm and touts designs from the Trump International Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to luxury condominiums in Beirut, Lebanon, and the National Automobile Museum in The Hague, Netherlands. Many border on the fantastical, such as the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel. Graves also is known for his home furnishing and teapot designs, primarily for Target. The Portland Building, Joslin said, “is still a building that architects and citizens alike either live to love or love to hate.” Its structural issues don’t take away from the historic role it played in architecture, propelling the postmodern movement into the mainstream. “It still is a building people notice, it still is a building architects come here to seek out,” he said. Interior finishes expire In 2006, when the Portland Tribune surveyed 30 to 40 architects and planners for a story on the city’s architecture, the Portland Building made the shortlist of ugly buildings, ranked No. 2 among the worst in the city. Workers in the building decry its lack of light, blocked by small, tinted windows, and the limited views from inside. The pastels that once made the design unique fell out of fashion, and the walls were re-covered in more traditional tones. Flashy floors and other accouterments were replaced with more durable, comfortable materials. Today there is less metal and plastic, Joslin said, and more wood. Over time, city officials have been less inclined to consult Graves on changes to the building. Though he personally tended to a lobby remodel in 1991, a spokesperson for Graves said he has no involvement in ongoing maintenance at the Portland Building and is not aware of the water intrusion problems. On his Web site, the building has fallen off a list of choice projects. A few years after its construction, in fact, Graves told a reporter that the Portland Building contained flaws he would not repeat. Those flaws will have ongoing costs for Portland, where the first, gambled-on postmodern building has assumed its place in history and on the maintenance list. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.