Symmetry in Symbolism - Portland Building
Symmetry in Symbolism - Portland Building

The Portland building was forward with a mission to hold the city’s municipal offices. It was uniquely located next to City Hall, the County Courthouse, and the Chapman Square Park. The design was done by Michael Graves. Here he put in his aspirations and ideas through a sponsored competition for the design of the Portland Service Building. It is located on a 40,000 square-foot block in downtown Portland in 1979. The building was opened in 1982 and is also called the Portland Municipal Service Building.

Symmetry in Symbolism - Portland Building
Exterior view of Portland Building

Language of Portland Building

The symbolism shown here parallels the both interior and exterior expressions of the building. The exterior conveys the inventions of culture at large, is grounded in a figurative, associational, and anthropomorphic attitude. The building shows time and space through the hierarchy of spaces and architectural elements according to their composition.

Symmetry in Symbolism - Portland Building
Facades of the Portland Building

Portland Building Characteristics

  • It’s special block like design and square windows
  • A symmetrical block with four off-white, stucco-covered rectangular facades. It features reinterpreted Classical elements, such as over-scaled keystones, pilasters and belvederes.
  • A building set on two story base and reminiscent of a Greek pedestal. This divides it into the Classical three-part partition of base-body-top.
  • Use of sculptural forms and ornaments.
  • Anthropomorphism (Anthropomorphism is the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non- human creatures and beings. A natural and supernatural phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts.)
  • The roof of the building is covered with a green roof which is installed in 2006. This is an experiment through Oregon State University to test Sedum spathulifolium as a water-absorbing plant for the northwest. The new roof will help the building’s heating, cooling, and storm-water runoff systems.

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A sketched view


Cubical facades, treated in the classical three-part division or tripartite form with the base, shaft, and cornice anthropomorphism. It forms the basic element as surface texture, due to its proportion and repetition.

Interior view of the windows


The facade of the building shows the use of columns as surface treatment. So this defines the cornice or the head of the building and entrance. The symmetrical and linear facades, broken by adding vertical bands of colors and windows. The use of square windows tries to achieve the principles of neoclassical style. It has a typical symmetrical façade which was at the time prevalent throughout Postmodern buildings. The façade is a symbolic picture of a house, looking back to the 18th century. This is partly gained through the use of symmetry. Playfully excessive forms and the humor of the meanings of the buildings show.

Symmetry in Symbolism - Portland Building
The extravagant facade of the Portland Building

Sculptural Elements in Portland Building

These forms are sculptural and somewhat playful. As a result, they are not reduced to an absolute minimum. However, they are built and shaped for their own sake. The building units all fit together in a very organic way. This builds up the effect of forms in the building.

The Renovation of the Portland Building

Reconstruction And Restoration

First Floor

The entrance front doors restored to the style and essence of the original doors replicating the history of the lobby. All finishes of the lobby refresh to reflect the original design intended by Michael Graves. Following to the right, the users have access to public services. As well as the guidance from the customer service all at one point without going all over the building. Meanwhile, the event space on the left leads the users towards the catering pantry and the restrooms.  The entrance from the exterior, which makes it accessible for after-hours open houses that show public displays. Space is also used to host any other city-related event.

Symmetry in Symbolism - Portland Building
First Floor Plan

Heading towards the elevator lobby is a grand new staircase. It leads the public users directly to the conference center on the second floor. Moreover, the historic elevator lobby refinishes to embrace and reflect the original colors and finishes that have been used in the building. Visions through the elevator lobby allow the visitors to see new pre-function space. This will service the new large event room. It is perfectly complete with comfortable seating. Also, the space has large windows looking through, beyond the park.

Second Floor

The users can access the second floor to experience different features provided such as the conference center and gallery. Here, runs the displaying of historical building ephemera and a rotating local art exhibition. The design visually connects the interior as the public area to the exterior by opening views to the outdoors. This increases public meeting areas for all the users. There is a two-story window opening along the 4th Avenue elevation. It allows the flow of dramatic views of Chapman Park. This view is from both the first and second floors. One additional advancement is the removal of raised floor platforms. This is to increase floor-to-ceiling heights while remaining accessible to everyone.

Staff Space

On the 15th floor, the employees can have a visual connection between the transitional experience as well as various enclosures as well as enjoy the city skyline. Collaboration space includes a lot of meeting spaces. It includes sufficient furniture plug-ins for an office atmosphere in the most medieval way. Areas for private working create a buffer between the collaboration area and the hoteling stations. This space is located at the south end of the building. Apart from the private working spaces, there are extra rooms where they have focus rooms. As well, for a relaxed work or meeting environment, employees can use the lounge space. It consists of soft seating and an electric fireplace.

Workplace Floors

The layout in the upper floors, designed to standardize programming similarly increase departmental efficiencies. Each floor shares two medium-sized conference rooms. It consists of one large conference room, and six focus rooms. These are for heads-down work, phone calls, or one-on-one conversations. The Rooms and different spaces at the core of the building. This acts as the main block to the spine of the building huddle room, a private office, or bureau storage. The workstations set up are on a variety of layouts. So the storage aligns with the number of workspaces on every floor.

Symmetry in Symbolism - Portland Building
Building Section

Despite its faults, the Portland building marks an undoubted departure from the monotony of Modernism.

“The design of the building addresses the public nature of both the urban context and the internal program. In order to reinforce the building’s associative or mimetic qualities. The facades are organized in a classical three-part division of base, middle or body, and attic or head.”

— Michael Graves. from Michael Graves. Michael Graves: Buildings and Projects 1966-1981

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