Iconic or Not


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Portlandia, the icon that isn’t

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

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.



Getting lost in the Barbican, or creative strolling

Stairs inside the Barbican; searching for the theatre.

Photo by Katherine Pierson, Inside the Barbican sent to me via text message.


Recently my daughter was in London, so I asked her to go to an architectural landmark and take a selfie. I suggested the Gerkin.  As it happened she went to a play at the brutalist  Barbican.  She forgot to take the selfie, instead she called to complain that she was lost in the  huge building while searching for the theatre. She walked up one flight of stairs and down another and wandered around but still couldn’t find the the theatre. In fact, she missed the play she went there to see.

My research on architecture  taught me that one hallmark of iconic buildings  is that it reorganizes space.


Photo by Katherine Pierson, Inside the Barbican sent to me via text message.

Architects are sort of like traffic cops, directing where people walk by design. They create drama by planning narrow corridors that open into cavernous spaces. Just by virtue of connecting one area, say a lobby, with another, say a theatre, the walker’s path has been predetermined.   My daughter was annoyed by the confusing Barbican.   Jonathan C. Molloy would probably support the random organization of space because it  often fosters creativity.  He found that uncomfortable spaces such as sharp corners,  dead ends, and moveable walls sparked interaction.  I can’t help but picture a maze with rats running around and bumping into each other. Hello mate. Haven’t I seen you here before? Spontaneous conversations happen and before you know it, ideas are flying.

Meandering is what  I.M. Pei  had in mind when he built the Residences (1967) on the campus of New College in Sarasota, FL to encourage community among students.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 7.25.53 PM

The concept is that of a Mediterranean village, with hidden courtyards and entryways that were intended to protect the student body from too many outside distractions. — Harold Bubil, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

It was brilliant. Think about it. The population in a college dorm rotates constantly. Residents come and go every 3 to 4 months. Getting lost is a common experience and it immediately generated sympathy and identification when an anxious first year was forced to ask directions from a seasoned senior.  Almost 50 years later, The daughter of a friend who attended New College in Sarasota, FL and lived in the Residences confirmed that it still works today (even though she could probably use a way finding app.)

She described her experience traveling labyrinth-like turns in  the hallways. My friend’s daughter said she met the student who became her closest college friend. By design, the students exchanged ideas, passions, and probably phone numbers. So, the design of the dorm was uncomfortable at first, a little like listening to someone else’s unfamiliar  ideas.

Update:  my daughter returned to the Barbican four more times to see four wonderful plays. With each visit, she navigated her way through the building confidently. Alas, she still rates the building a failure. She considers herself pretty good with directions, but  ultimately the lack of signs in the Barbican caused her to feel anxious.

Postcards from Surreal Places

Permanent Liberty

Permanent Liberty

Last summer while I was traveling Scan 1 in the Hudson Valley, NY and poking around in antique shops, I stumbled upon this 1986 tear-out book of postcards by Michael Langenstein.  The publisher’s (Dover)  note explains that the postcards combine world famous masterpieces with the surreal. Weirdly, 30 years later, Langenstein could be foretelling  Cassandra-like warnings and predictions about  global warming, a plane crashing into an architectural  icon, and the futuristic construction of the Chinese CCTV building by Rem Koolhaas.

Empire State Building and the World Trade Center at Sea

Empire State Building and the World Trade Center at Sea

Magnitude Manor

Magnitude Manor




In 2015, here are two that lost fight to preserve cultural icons

The bells pealing on New Year’s eve sounded a death knell for two American architectural icons of the 20th Century.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation published the news on their website even before the New Year.    The construction techniques of these two spanned the century — from wood to concrete, from Queen Anne  gables to the concrete flat roofs. The purpose of the Modern building elevates the bureaucratic to the  iconic with its design, while the turn-of-the-century resort harkens back to a the Guilded Age.  The buildings speak volumes about changing American lifestyles within the span of just 70 years.  Neither of these architectural landmarks was iconic enough to preserve it as a monument to their time, place, or history.

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel

People having tea on the lawn of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida. 192-. Black & white photoprint, 4 x 6 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. , accessed 11 January 2016.

People having tea on the lawn of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida, circa 1925. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/271948>, accessed 11 January 2016.

Aerial view looking northwest over the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida. 1983. Color slide, . State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. , accessed 11 January 2016.

Aerial view looking northwest over the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida. 1983. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/242979>, accessed 11 January 2016.


On the Florida Gulf Coast, in Belleair, the Belleview Biltmore Hotel  sits on 21 lip-smacking acres on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor. Built in 1897, its a monument to the Guilded Age.  The fictional Earl and Countess of Grantham of Downton Abbey, Lady Mary Crawley, Lady Edith and their entourage of butlers and maids would have settled for nothing less than a stay in the “White Queen on the Gulf” for their holiday in America. In reality, the Duke of Windsor  vacationed here.  The hotel was the last of railroad magnet Henry B. Plant’s monuments to exotic destinations for the upper class. Now,  a new generation of the well heeled  will be the “stewards of the heritage” (so says developer JMC Communities). Despite its distinguished past, and that it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, it will be torn down and plans are underway to build  Belleview Place, “luxury carriage homes and condominiums,” to replace it.  Lord Grantham  of Downton Abby would understand. A strong storyline in the current  Downton Abby saga is that the Granthams can’t keep up the  estate.  If one is forced to sell off parcels when maintenance is too expensive,  there are  “stewards  of the heritage” who will  pay higher condo fees.

Paul Rudolph’s Orange County, New York  Government Center

Orange County Government Center, Goshen, New York. Interior. Courtroom

Orange County Government Center, Goshen, New York. Interior. Courtroom

Paul Rudolph’s 1970 Government Center in Orange County, Goshen, New York has has been clinging to life since 2011 when Hurricane Irene drove wind and rain into every crack and seam in the  roof. Porous roofs are often the first reason cited for tearing down the whole building. But, really, what roof doesn’t leak? I wrote about this important building  and the campaign to save it earlier this year. The building is noted for Rudolph’s imaginative use of space and a symbolic trend toward openness of design in public architecture. The picture above shows the interior of the building, a less recognizable view of the building. The distinct boxy exterior is usually the profile featured in pictures. I chose the this shot of the courtroom to show the natural light, and  warm orange  glow reflected on the concrete walls.  Brutalist buildings look stern on the outside, but can be surprisingly soft and light on the inside. The Orange County Government Center was added to the World Monuments Fund Watch  List.  However, this designation  didn’t protect it, and in 2015 Orange County won a legal battle to gut the interior.

Here’s a link to The World Monuments Fund Watch List for 2016


Beijing, cultivate trees for blue skies

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

When breathing the air in the city becomes a health risk, something has to be done. Beijing might be the site of the next great architectural experiment to bring nature back into the city.  On Monday (Dec. 7), The Chinese issued a red alert warning that the air toxicity was beyond the index for safety.  Creative architecture could be part of their shining hope to  again inhale deeply  and breathable architecture could be part of the answer.

Before we in the West start feeling smug about our clear blue skies (most of the time),  we should remember that Beijing is experiencing what troubled European and American cities a century ago — smoke so thick it choked residents and sent them fleeing indoors.

A hundred years ago, French architect LeCorbusier,  and English landscape designers Sir Ebenezer Howard, and American Fredrick Law Olmsted  fought the problem of toxic smoke by planning  greenbelts around the core of industrialized urban areas. The plan became known as The Garden City movement and cities such as Buffalo, NY  became livable again thanks to urban parks developed by Olmsted. Today, green space in cities quickly becomes the heart  of the city. It’s a good investment.




Breathable architecture for a sustainable future

Breathable architectural skin should be part of the conversation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference his week. This innovation looks exciting as part of the solution for reducing carbon emissions in the air.

When I stumbled upon the term “breathable architecture,” my first reaction was, is this for real? And, tell me more. Architects, such as Doris Kim Sung, are asking how can we use the height of a building to make it breathe? It’s a great question for urban dwellers living in highrises. Instead of being energy consumers,  tall buildings in cities may help reverse the effects of carbons emissions in the air. Sung built a model using thermo-biometal tiles that curl, expand, or contract in response to air temperature. Chambers direct air through aperture-like fins that curl as warm air passes over them and unfurl as the air is cooled, thus moving air. Sung hopes to use biometal tiles to reduce or replace the need for air conditioning.

Doris SungThis isn’t a new technology; in fact it is an old one. I discovered that directing air flow in buildings has existed since the time of the Pharaohs. The Egyptians built “wind catchers” that cooled the inside of their houses by forcing wind into a tower that pushed it down a chimney-like chute into the living space below. The tower acted as a ceiling fan, moving the air to cool the rooms. So the idea isn’t new. It’s just that architects are revisiting this concept to reduce energy consumption and to make architecture more sustainable into the new millennium.



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