Iconic or Not


Tag: Landmark (page 1 of 4)

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.



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.




Inside Russel Wright’s Manitoga

In my previous post, I focused on the grounds surrounding  Manitoga, Russel Wright’s garden. In this post, I’m taking you inside his house.

tablesetRussel Wright (1904-1976) believed so strongly that Americans should find their own cultural identity through architecture that he built an experimental house. He chose a cliff overlooking a granite quarry (later turned into a man-made lake). He saw no reason why Americans should copy European architecture; instead, he challenged us to  find our own style.  In 1942, Wright  purchased 75 acres situated between the Hudson River and the Appalachian Trail  in the town of Garrison, and he began building  Manitoga,  The name pays homage  to the native Algonquin people and the word translates loosely as “a place of great spirit.” His American home is hidden among the ferns and moss-covered rocks. One sort of stumbles upon it.  Continue reading

Russel Wright’s Manitoga Garden

ManitogaplaqueScientists say the sense of smell has the strongest power to bring back memories. That was true for me from the minute I stepped off the plane in Albany, New York. The air in the airport carried the scent of a familiar place. I can’t describe the aroma except to say I detected the trace of grassy hills nearby. That’s the kind of magic landscape can work on a person. Industrial designer Russel Wright surely felt that pull when he built Manitoga on 75 acres in nearby Garrison, NY.

Settlers had originally deemed the steep hillside unsuitable for farming so they harvested the trees for firewood and mined the abundant granite on the property. Thus, industrial hooks and cables were left as artifacts from the mining days. Wright took advantage of the leftovers by positioning granite boulders as sculptures in the garden and leaving the hooks where they had been abandoned.

Docents, like my friend Debbie Klein, try to correct the common misconception that Wright built his house without altering the landscape. That isn’t the case. He designed the site to flow into garden rooms. He followed the contours of the land as a palette and he enhanced what he liked. He added a lake, and he noted what type of native plants clung to the hillsides. He watched as dogs, deer, and rabbits tunneled through the grass making trails. He followed the wisdom of the animals when deciding where to locate the paths leading to his garden rooms.

Professionally, Deb is a curator of visual resources for Bard College; in her free time, she’s been a docent and/or volunteered for several historic houses around Hudson including Manitoga. She loves Russel Wright’s Manitoga and is helping to preserve this early example of a Modernist’s love affair with the land. Recently, Manitoga has been rediscovered as an under appreciated gem, as is evident in this Dwell article published August 2015.



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