In October 2011, Michael Graves’ Portland Building, at the sprightly age of 29, was named to the National Register of Historic Places. In ways somewhat reminiscent of Boston’s own City Hall, the building was the first major commission for the architect, the result of a competition for a major city-services building, and entirely divisive in its reception. “People either love or hate the Portland Building; there’s no middle ground,” said Portland architect Peter R. Meijer, whose staff wrote the building’s nomination. “But whether you love or hate it, it is still significant on a national level.” Completed in 1982, the building itself is full of overscaled historic references, including whimsical nods to a Greek pedestal, and plagued by issues of accessibility and an underwhelming, underscaled lobby.
The building needed this designation because of increased calls for its demolition — repairing the building’s structural and functional issues had been estimated at $95 million — even though the listing alone does not guarantee protection. As the world speeds up, the pace at which we question the relevance of buildings is accelerating, partially due to the economic pressures of preservation but also because of fashion and taste. What used to be preservation decisions about thousand-year-old structures are now asked of buildings well short of 50.
Graves was subsequently shortlisted for a competition in 1983 for the design of a museum on the campus of Ohio State University. Contenders included Cesar Pelli, Arthur Erickson, our own Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, and Peter Eisenman. Of the five, Eisenman’s amalgam of fragmented urbanism, hermetic architectural theory, and awkwardly flayed turrets fought for relevance within an emerging framework of architectural “deconstruction;” the remaining four were heavily historicist, with Graves’ mash-up of Egyptian and Ledoux-esque symmetry each gunning for the populist vote. Eisenman won, and the resulting Wexner Center came to symbolize the striking differences between the two competing sides of Postmodern architectural thought. The Wexner opened its doors to the public in 1989, a year after the Deconstructivist exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
Why is this relevant, this short tale of two buildings? Essentially, in tackling the preservation of Postmodernism, you have to first determine how you define what constitutes “Postmodern.” Many would assume the mere appliqué of historic reference signifies the era, but that narrow definition belies the complexity of how the Postmodern period has been theorized. As cultural critic Frederic Jameson observed in his landmark book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, there are two loosely framed positions in the production of Postmodern culture: the linguistic, interested in the framing of an argument through theoretical language, and the stylistic, interested in looking to a simulation of the past to frame solutions. All of this is a way of saying that most buildings produced in the late 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s can be characterized as Postmodern in a series of increasingly schizophrenic historicizations.
Boston’s dalliances with Postmodernism mark themselves clearly in the historicist tradition but with outbursts of differentiation (Philip Johnson’s Boston Public Library addition of 1971 might be the ur-building of Boston’s Postmodern turn, marrying Mies with overscaled, vaguely classical, and heroic exterior forms). How else could one assemble such a diverse group of buildings, including Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s International Place (1985) with its Palladian windows, the same team behind the clumsy 500 Boylston Street; Robert A. M. Stern’s 222 Berkeley Street (1991); Frank O. Gehry with Schwartz/ Silver Architects’ 360 Newbury Street (1989); Graham Gund Associates’ Boston Ballet (1991); Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Rowes Wharf (1987); Architectural Resources Cambridge’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (1984); and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum (1984) by James Stirling, Michael Wilford Associates with Perry, Dean, Rogers and Partners?
Arthur M. Sackler Museum
James Stirling and Michael Wilford, 1985
Boston Public Library
Philip Johnson addition, 1971
500 Boylston Street
Philip Johnson and John Burgee, 1985
It is important to note that the buildings here are decidedly not a shortlist — and perhaps not even the exemplars or the worst offenders. Moreover, they are dominated by commercial addresses, sprinkled with the occasional cultural project. Postmodernism, taken strictly, was a commercial game or, as Jameson says, “the extraordinary flowering of the new Postmodern architecture grounded in the patronage of multi- national business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it.”
Building on the successes of the New Boston, private investment flooded the architectural market, and large, multitenant office buildings began to dominate Boston’s skyline. In that sense, issues of preservation become mired with issues of real estate speculation and the going price per square foot for Class A office space, and also the costs of construction, which were essentially at the mercy of markets and pro formas. It seems unlikely that many of these buildings will be under the same threat as the Portland Building, whose function as a civic structure makes it as susceptible as our own City Hall to prevailing attitudes about public investment in our cities, but they were also built for short life spans, which makes their preservation argument more complex.
The decision, therefore, must be made on the basis of whether these buildings are considered ugly, nonfunctional, or historically significant, and what their legacy should be to the importance of understanding the inexorable ebbs and flows of architectural production. Or, as Rem Koolhaas eloquently stated when asked recently about the need for preservation of the recent past, “We should preserve some of it. It would be madness for an entire period of architectural history — that had a major influence on cities around the world — to disappear simply because we suddenly find the style ugly.”
The implicit question raised, then, is how do we qualify the historic and cultural significance of any given building, shedding subjective arguments about taste and aesthetics? We have to be able to argue relevance for things that we personally consider ugly; otherwise, prevailing forces will relegate them to the dustbin of history. Do we have that capability? Only time — a briefer time than we might like — will tell.
Chris Grimley is a graphic designer and curator with an education in architecture. He is a principal of OverUnder and codirector of pinkcomma gallery, which has produced several exhibitions about Boston's legacy of Modernism. His book with Mark Pasnik and Michael Kubo, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, will be published by The Monacelli Press in October.