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Michael Graves and his unending drive to design


Michael Graves: Design for Life

Princeton Architectural Press

304 pages, $30

Ever since Vitruvius in the 1st century B.C., architects have written books to promulgate their ideas and their buildings but biographies of architects are a relatively recent development, a manifestation of the influence of the media-driven cult of personality that emerged in the twentieth century. The fundamental requirements of an architect’s biography are that the work must be significant and the life story of the architect should be worthy of interest. Ian Volner’s "Michael Graves: Design for Life" certainly fills the bill and then some.

Volner opens Graves’s story with a chilling account of the mysterious bacterial meningitis that attacked the architect’s spinal column in 2003 and so ravaged his central nervous system that it precipitated a long physical decline that culminated with his death in 2015.

Readers are then flashed back to Graves’s drawing-obsessed childhood in Indianapolis, undergraduate study at the University of Cincinnati, and  forward to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design where he ran afoul of the late modernist Dean, Jose Luis Sert.  Following Harvard Graves won the Rome Prize that provided two crucially important years of study at the American Academy. Thus equipped, Graves was hired to teach at Princeton where he designed several houses that earned him inclusion in the Colin Rowe and Kenneth Frampton book, "Five Architects" (1975), along with Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier – leaders of “The Whites,” an influential group that variously riffed on the International Style modernist architecture of Le Corbusier.

Graves, a talented colorist and draftsman, didn’t quite fit in with “The Whites.” With his Plocek House of 1977 and the Portland Building of 1982, he shed the reins of Le Corbusier and “The Whites” to embrace Post-Modernism. PoMo, as it was known, involved a rejection of modernism in favor of an ironic re-imagining of Classicism that enabled Graves to make creative use of his experience in Rome, his seductive pastel color sense, and an exceptional ability to assemble bold building forms.

According to Volner, who interviewed Graves extensively during the architect’s final three years, Graves’s principal concern lay in finding a balance between figuration -- as opposed to Modernism’s abstraction -- and a certain ambiguity that would make his buildings engaging and accessible to his audience. With the Portland and Humana buildings of 1982 and 1983, Graves achieved international recognition and was inundated with commissions world-wide, some one hundred major buildings over the following 20 years.

Given this volume of production Volner made interesting critical choices regarding which buildings to include. The Portland and Humana buildings receive special attention for the audacity of their rejection of the ubiquitous modernist glass tower, but there were also failures. Notably Graves’s designs for the expansion of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum (1981-85) in New York was defeated by a public outcry that lead to its eventual acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and renamed the Met Breuer Building.  In the Denver Public Library Volner recognized “a rare moment in which Michael’s formal intention to project a communal, village-like image is born out by the program…” In 1986 Graves undertook hotel commissions for the Disney Corporation in Orlando, Fla., in which his concern with figuration was so extreme with their vastly oversized swans and dolphins that Volner described them as “a breathtaking shrine to the unreal” and critic Paul Goldberger added, “More big than beautiful.”

Ten years later Graves waded deeper into the world of commercialism by signing on with the Target Corporation to design a line of household goods for which he was roundly criticized by journalists and his architectural peers as a form of selling out. Columbia University’s Mary McLeod identified Grave’s commercial turn with Reaganism. Graves’s overreach in the 1990s coincided with the first indications that Post-Modernism was giving way to new ideas grounded in literary deconstruction leading to the ascendancy of Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid. Graves’s momentum was such that his firm continued apace right through 2003 when he was first stricken with a form of meningitis.

Confined to a wheelchair, he continued to operate his office, but retreated from teaching and traveling, and turned his attention to the design of wheelchairs and other devices to facilitate the lives of others who were, like himself, infirm. Michael Graves’s final turn to a concern for others seems noble, but it may have been a manifestation of the extraordinary drive to design and build that he couldn’t simply turn off. Maybe it was something of both. Whatever it was he left a legacy of powerful and distinctive Post Modern buildings, and objects that we all can use.

Jack Quinan is the former curator of Buffalo's Darwin Martin House.






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