For the public at large, Michael Graves first came to prominence with the considerable hubbub that surrounded his Portland (Oregon) municipal building—first the model, then the completed fifteen-story, blockfilling structure itself. The Portland structure was Graves’s first “big” commission to be completed. (The bureaucracy took possession of it in 1982, after more than a decade of well-publicized design activity.) The barest recital of its ingredients calls up issues central to Graves’s design. Moreover, given the building’s prominence just now, it calls attention to some important aspects of the present situation in architecture as well.

If the description of the Portland building reads more like a list than an amalgam, that is because the design stacks one entity or motif on another, much as a child might make a “building” of architectural blocks. As...


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