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Postmodern Portland

The questionable legacy of a dead-end architectural movement 

The Glickman Family Library at USM. photos/Jesse Denno and Zack Barowitz

If all the world’s a stage, then architecture is the set. The buildings we see and live and work in every day constitute a tangible public record of the aesthetics and values of history. 

In the early 1980s, a new movement sought to enliven Modernism, the  century’s dominant architectural style, which valued functionality and minimalism over ornamentation and variation. The movement’s adherents felt Modernist structures had become cold and dehumanized, but they also saw new possibilities in that style’s slabs of steel, glass and reinforced concrete. Their enterprise was to reinvigorate the streetscape with buildings that were not strictly functional, adding playful elements and design features that alluded to, but did not adhere to, past architectural styles, thus introducing a sense of irony to the art of construction. This new movement was called Postmodernism. 

In 1982, architect Michael Graves revealed the exciting new face of Postmodern office buildings. The Portland Municipal Services Building (known simply as The Portland Building), with its decorative flourishes and  mixture of styles and materials, is now regarded as an important contribution to 20th century architecture, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, Mainers will have to travel to Oregon to see it (though the housewares Graves designs are now for sale at your local Target).

In our Portland we have the Charles Shipman Payson Building, colloquially known as the Portland Museum of Art, completed in 1981 and designed by Henry Nichols Cobb, a founder of I. M. Pei & Partners, who’d previously designed Modernist landmarks like the John Hancock Tower in Boston. The museum expansion embodies the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism, and arguments can be made for its inclusion in either camp.      

Charles Jencks, the prominent theorist of Postmodern architecture, said Cobb’s building for the PMA prefigured the “sort of Post-Modern classicism [that] became the hallmark of large firms and was used in what are euphemistically called prestige commissions.” 

On one hand, the large circular forms atop the façade, as well as the narrow, windy colonnade below, may be seen as decorative, rather than purely functional. On the other, the façade’s uniform brick cladding, and the fact the expansion was part of one of the last “urban renewal” projects in the country (a distinctly Modernest endeavor), make it seem very last-century. Indeed, that project produced not one, but two failed plazas: the perpetually chilly north-facing space in front of the museum’s entrance (the reconfiguration of which has now become another construction disaster) and, across the street, Congress Square Park, which was saved by citizen-activists several years ago after city officials tried to sell most of it to the adjacent hotel, having cited its bare, Brutalist, sunken-concerete design as an enticement to vice.   

Another transitional building is Two City Center, located across from the Nickelodeon Cinemas, on the corner of Middle and Temple streets. Its Postmodern elements are fairly restrained, and its comportment with the style of neighboring buildings pleased Alex Jagerman, who was Portland’s city planner at the time, until a local architect pointed out its “gratuitous arches,” a comment Jagerman found withering. “I guess he was a devout Modernist,” Jagerman quipped of the critic. Such were the ideological battles at the time.

Modernist architecture won that war. In Portland and the rest of the nation, Modernism survives in almost every school, office building, strip mall and firehouse built between 1950 and 1980, as well as many of the glass-and-steel towers that sprang up during the ’80s and ’90s. Today, more recent examples of the International Style of Modern architecture — flat surfaces, bland industrial building materials, no ornamentation — include the city-owned Ocean Gateway ferry terminal and function facility on the eastern waterfront and WEX’s glass-faced global headquarters across the street. 

Postmodern architecture flourished more on the West Coast and in bigger cities before it flamed out in the ’90s. What remains of this movement in Portland? Local preservationists don’t formally consider buildings for protection as landmarks until they turn 50. Will any of Portland’s Postmodern buildings earn that distinction? Are there any historically or culturally significant examples of the Postmodern style worthy of celebration and protection, or are they just curios from a dead-end movement?

One Portland Square 

It’s hard to tell whether this building, which sits across Middle Street from Two City Center and has a spacious TD Bank branch on its ground floor, was conceived as a Postmodern project or as an attempt to design an Art Moderne building in the Postmodern era. The Art Moderne style (a version of Modernism popular in the 1930s) is characterized by rounded corners; the prow-like, rounded corner entrance of One Portland Square reflects that aesthetic, as well as the city’s maritime heritage. Long, horizontally aligned bands of windows are also a hallmark of Art Moderne architecture, as this building has those, too. 

The faux-stone cladding at its base extends, at that rounded corner, to the top floors, above which is a segmental (rounded) pediment surrounding a (somewhat corny) clock face with Art Deco ornamentation. Elsewhere above the faux-stone base the façade is clad with red brick, presumably to integrate this office building with others downtown. 

The ersatz Art Deco theme continues inside One Portland Square’s wood-paneled lobby. Tubular brass handrails of a high shine surround a central stairwell beneath an Art Deco metal-and-glass lamp suspended from a  cupola; a second staircase features an ornamental balustrade in a Chippendale-influenced pattern. 

The design, by Boston-based firm Sasaki, garnered a 1990 Honorable Mention from the presumably esteemed National Association of Industrial & Office Parks. Its neighbor, Two Portland Square, at the corner of Fore and Temple streets, is architecturally similar but, stylistically, much more modest.

 

40 Portland Pier 

This waterfront mixed-use condominium complex is emblematic of Portland’s transition in the 1980s to a late-capitalist economy, as commercial fishing and small-scale manufacturing were supplanted by tourism and luxury real estate. 

The structure’s predominantly red-brick façade seeks to blend in with the rest of the Old Port, even though masonry buildings would have been rare on piers in the past. Its architects — at the local firm Winton Scott — strove for design cred with a grab-bag of Postmodern elements, including such extravagances as teal doors and balcony railings (Miami Vice ruled the cultural landscape at the time), while nodding at traditional styles. 

For example, on the side facing Long Wharf (home of DiMillo’s), the complex is broken into several different components to reduce the overall sense of mass. At the landward end, the elongated gable roofs that top two-and-half floors of three five-story residential segments recall historic New England houses, but the roofs are out-of-scale, and their inclusion seems to prioritize incoherent miscellany over any notions of unity of style or purpose. At the seaward end, terraced balconies make the project resemble a giant ferry, and the façade facing Custom House Wharf, which is much less visible from the street, is featureless and plain by comparison.     

 

Glickman Family Library

The Glickman Family Library on Forest Avenue, part of the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, is perhaps the most prominent example of Postmodern architecture in Portland. The building was originally constructed as a bakery circa 1919, and it housed industrial-supply companies and shoe manufacturers after World War II. Given its ability to support heavy equipment, the structure was deemed adequate to handle the weighty loads of a library; USM acquired the property for that purpose in 1991.

Characterized by its colorful façade of overlapping grids and its innovative use of construction materials, the library’s design stirred controversy when plans were unveiled three decades ago — it suggests an architect with colored pencils tripping out on a sheet of graph paper. 

The building displays a tripartite configuration (the Classical organization of façades), with a base of red brick recalling its industrial past, a middle section clad in brightly colored paneling, and a capital rendered distinct by its green cladding and unique fenestration, with corners standing proud, suggesting castle turrets. The translucent cladding is a product called Kalwall, insulated fiberglass panels designed to evoke the marble grid of Gordon Bunshaft’s Modernist masterpiece, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, at Yale University, and to serve a functional purpose by allowing light to diffuse inside. Sadly, recent inspection reveals the fiberglass cladding has poorly withstood the elements. (Graves’ Portland Building was also plagued by structural and design problems requiring costly renovation and remodeling.)  

The Glickman Library still inspires strong love/hate reactions, but it does stand as a visual landmark for the university (especially from Interstate 295) in a way the nearby University of Maine School of Law’s Garbrecht Law Library, which resembles a dirty white rook, does not.  

39 Forest Ave. 

The late-’80s façade conversion of this century-old industrial building, located just down the street from the much larger building that houses Portland Stage, gave designers at the architectural firm SMRT, whose offices were once here, a chance to flex their Postmodern muscles. Originally built as a garage, or perhaps an early auto dealership, the structure had large windows that were substantially reduced in the conversion, and the front entrance was moved to one side and given a diagonal orientation to the street. Now each of the three window bays contain ribbons of tile between the original brick pilasters, and you’ll also spot a geometrical white-tile mosaic, green metal work, circular turquoise medallions, beige panels, and pink grout. Overall, it was a successful facelift that, like the UMaine Law Library, could nevertheless use a good wash.

Back Bay Tower

Clad mostly in red brick to fit in with the downtown scene, the 16-story Back Bay Tower on Cumberland Avenue is mainly remarkable for being one of the tallest buildings in Maine. Sasaki again took inspiration from the city’s seafaring past, giving this Titanic luxury apartment building a prominently rounded corner.  

The façade is broken up mostly by setbacks and associated bump-outs, with tan pediments around windows in the middle and at the top that suggest a series of small peaked roofs. Glass brick, green metal work on the balconies, striations of lighter-colored brick, and green tiles set along the top of the building’s base comprise the rest of this tower’s measured indulgences.

Gateway Garage

The Gateway Garage is the city’s only real example of Postmodernism’s high style, and appears to be a conscious rejoinder to the cold, gray, Modernist extension of the grand old Eastland Park Hotel (now named the Westin Portland Harborview) next door.  

The garage itself is unremarkable, but down High Street, along Cumberland Ave., and back up along Forest, the parking structure is wrapped with a single-story structure that’s a veritable orgy of unrelated, if not clashing, elements, including green metal and multiple brick claddings (mostly red, but also glazed bricks with a greenish hue and some mottled black-and-white bricks set in apparently random places). There’s even a Classical portico (of un-Classical proportions). 

The wrap-around structure includes a midblock walkway accessed through Doric-styled archways adorned with plastic-coated, faux-marble orbs (now in varying states of decay) that branches to an (awkward) connection to the breezeway leading to the hotel’s High Modern back entrance and somewhat sophisticated Japanese garden. Unfortunately, for all its efforts to engage the street, the wrap fails. Rather than shops and cafes, the commercial spaces are all occupied by offices inaccessible to the general public. 

Custom House Square Parking Garage 

This parking structure on Pearl Street in the Old Port is a fine example of what architecture critic Michael Sorkin called “Modernism with a hat.” The brick-clad stair towers are capped with peaked, green, metal roofs (implying oxidized copper, which they ain’t), and there’s (yet another) prow-like, rounded corner at the intersection with Fore Street. The project’s design is more cohesive than the Gateway Garage’s mishmash of styles, but the dark glass façade wall shielding anonymous office space likewise fails to engage with life on the street, falling well short of one of Postmodern architecture’s goals. 

27 Pearl St. 

At first glance, this stout brick box just west of the Custom House Garage appears to be just another contextual building in the Old Port. But the wave-like roofline (concealing a roof deck, and echoed in the railing of a small balcony below) and stick-figure crucifixes etched into either side of the entryway suggest that the architects sought to be at least somewhat au courant. Preservationist Julie Larry suggested that inspiration for the dynamic roofline may have come from an energy-consulting firm that once had this address. In any case, it’s a decent piece of urban renewal.

Lib’s Dairy Treats 

Located on a traffic triangle where Washington Avenue and Auburn Street diverge, Lib’s Dairy Treats is a living relic. What might otherwise be considered an urban dead zone has become something of a time capsule preserved not in amber, but in sugar. 

Lib’s is an example of what could be considered “folk Postmodernism,” in which the eclectic arrangement of forms is more the result of ad hoc decisions than a grand design. Six columns support an open-gabled breezeway, the triangular roof of which is set perpendicular to that of the main building. The columns subvert the very definition of columns by breaking just about every rule of form, proportion and style established in the Classical era. Their bases are bulky red-brick rectangles from which protrude shafts of turquoise steel (“Hey, Crockett and Tubbs, your shakes are done!”) leading up to (very) roughly Doric capitals. Naturally, the whole building is trimmed out in bubblegum pink.  

•••

This survey is necessarily incomplete, given the amorphous definition of Postmodernism, which can include anything from chain restaurants to pseudo-Classical strip malls. Consider two old buildings that underwent significant façade renovations during the Postmodern period: the Bayside Learning Center, at 26 Portland St. (near what was formerly called the Preble Street Resource Center), and 562 Congress St., the big building bordered by Oak, Congress and Free streets (home to such retailers as The Sock Shack and Electric Buddhas on the Congress side, and media agency Diversified Communications on Free).    

Both buildings incorporate unconventionally juxtaposed materials and the characteristic pink and teal color elements that once indicated a with-it sensibility. Ironically, both appear rather mundane today, but for different reasons. The Portland Street structure will never be much more than a decorated cake box. The building at 562 Congress was once a beautiful, almost church-like Victorian castle — a masterwork of Francis H. Fassett (the leading Portland architect of his day and John Calvin Stevens’ teacher) — but now the grimy, pink, imitation-stucco cladding shrouds its former glory.

Historically, Portland’s architecture has heavily skewed toward vernacular or “contextual” styles, rather than statement buildings. The homogenizing effect of this makes it hard to identify more recent buildings of stylistic significance when considering candidates for historic preservation. 

That said, the Glickman Library stands out for both its originality and its exemplification of the Portmodern period. Others cited here fall short. Some, like One Portland Square and 40 Portland Pier, are not as distinctly Postmodern. Others, like the Gateway Garage (which is plenty Postmodern), contribute nothing to the streetscape beyond their god-awful garishness. And then there are all those Postmodern-influenced buildings that just sit there, slowly fading from conscious perception like the B-sides of old hit singles.

Modernism never really died. Modernist boxes will continue to be built as long as real-estate development is in the hands of people whose imaginations are as limited as their budgets 

Yet Postmodernism also lives on, perhaps most strongly expressed in the more-the-merrier approach to designing façades, made possible by the availability of new siding products like the fiber-cement planks, panels, and shingles found in the James Hardie catalog. New building materials (and new architectural-design software) have led us into an era in which multiple sidings have become not just possible, but standard, while planning boards continue to sing the refrain, “Can you break up the façade?” 

Today’s playful pastiche of architectural elements has become so common that one might be hard pressed to even call it a style. While some recent projects resemble the original Postmodern buildings, they lack the (admittedly problematic) philosophical underpinnings of their forebears, which rejected Modernism’s dogmatism in favor of the subjective pursuit of beauty. What is left is an architecture that is neither traditional nor innovative, besotted with symbols without meaning, references without contexts, and a streetscape whose language is devoid of significance, which may be the Postmodern movement’s most significant achievement.

 

Extra Credit

Modern architecture was based on the belief that technology and rational thought could be leveraged to provide more people with better, healthier lives. The Postmodernists regarded Modernism (particularly the Bauhaus and the International styles) as not only aesthetically dehumanizing, but philosophically bankrupt, along with all other meta-narratives and theories that sought to define universal truths or give sense to our chaotic world. Postmodernism’s answer was to implode (sometimes literally) Modernist structures and negate the integrity of the whole endeavor. 

The Postmodern movement is closely associated with another “post-” school of thought, post-structuralism. Whereas structuralist theory presented a means of understanding art and culture by “reading” nearly everything as “texts,” and thereby identifying a coherent language of signs and symbols, post-structuralism dismissed this discourse as subjective, rather than universal, and sought to reduce that language to nonsense. For example, a structuralist might “read” one’s physical characteristics to determine one’s gender; a post-structuralist dismisses the existence of meaningful gender distinctions and might take a non-binary view. Post-structuralism’s legacy is mixed: on one hand, it elevated marginalized discourses, but on the other, it opened the door to “alternative facts” and other forms of nihilism. 

Postmodern architects sought to cleanse their work of identifying tropes, opting instead for allusion, pastiche, or even incoherence, which some viewed as the only proper response to a world without meaning. But as with any intellectual movement, the concepts dissipated over time and eventually devolved into derivative frivolity saddled with its own set of motifs — pink stone, greenish metalwork, variably shaped windows, incongruous juxtapositions and reinterpreted Classical elements — prompting architect and author Nir Bouras to conclude,“Postmodernism is Modernism in drag.”

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