I originally wrote this post in October of 2014. I am reposting it now, with minor edits, in acknowledgment of Michael Graves' passing today.
After achieving fame in the 1970s as a Modernist with just a few extra pastel shades in his otherwise white Modernist palette, Graves took a hard turn toward the post-Modern, on his own, and in comparison to the other members of the New York Five (group of Modern architects including Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, and John Hejduk, but that’s another story).
He fairly burst on the popular culture scene with his design for the Portland Civic Building in 1979-83. Its pastel-colored palette and figural historical references in both architecture and sculpture were also often articulated in a seemingly wry very flat version of curtain wall enclosure. It was as if Graves was saying, this isn’t real architecture. It’s paper architecture. It seemed full of the flimsiness and momentary architectural in-jokes for which people disdained the architecture of the style and period.
Fewer people seem to recall his Humana building in Kentucky, which was less ironic and more architectural than some other works. More people remember his Dolphin and Swan Hotels for Disney, as if cartoon architecture had finally found its proper home.
Right now, the Portland Building is in bad condition, requiring potentially many millions of dollars for repairs, and no small number of possible organizational changes to make it work. Also, at 30 years old, it is pretty deeply out of fashion, on a cycle of hip and unhip that many if not most varieties of architecture go through (to oversimplify the issue just a bit). To imagine what sort of popularity swings Graves has yet to endure, look at Morris Lapidus and Frank Furness.
So imagine the surprise that onlookers have to see that Michael Graves recently came out with a brand new building that shares with his 1980s lightning rod some of the same characteristics. In an era of angular geometries and blobular undulations, or, at the very least, Bauhaus asymmetries, this building is rigidly symmetrical. Indeed, while some might say its lack of columns and capitals indicate a lack of classicism, it really is very classical indeed. Beyond the mirrored organization, it has a willful articulation of base, middle and top. Also, the roof, which purports in a way to be purely geometrical, is, in true Gravesian fashion, a reference to historical mansards and dormer windows–classicism yet again.
You could argue that classicism is one of the many approaches in architecture from which designers choose, and you might be right. It seems, though, that the best classicists of memory, more specifically, the best abstracted classicists (which is what Graves is these days, not simply a Post-Modernist), are individuals such as Paul Cret, whose smoothed profiles and streamlined shapes tend toward nuance through understatement and smoothing. Graves, on the other hand, tends toward enlargement and exaggeration. Cret tends toward subtlety in shape and profile, Graves tends toward reduction to elemental forms that lead to an exaggerated sense of contrast and composition. The entry is not a sophisticated volume, it is a cube. The cover is not a dome or mansard, it is a cylinder. The articulated rustication, whether actual or represented, is huge in a way that contradicts the apparent thin skin of the building. The windows are square, not golden section. The detailing and ornament are minimal. The reveals are deep and flat. And those roofs. The perfectly semi-circular profile evokes a desire to make work out of a child’s compass and protractor.
Le Corbusier made reference to composing architecture out of fundamental geometric shapes, but he never actually did so himself.
All of this is a careful way to say that, yes, this building does look like a cartoon, with all of the abbreviated detail and exaggerated form that such a thing implies. It’s not a flung insult, it’s a characterization based on a long list of observations. It pains me to say so.
I met Michael Graves a couple of times over the years. (I wrote an essay on Hornbostel that accompanies his comments in the book, Invisible Giants). Also notably, he gave a series of lectures at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there in the 1990s. His knowledge of architectural history was encyclopedic. His ability to make sophisticated observations about space and procession in buildings was remarkable as well.
Indeed, as we descend into a specific critique of exterior features of his buildings, it is instructive to note that one of the most dramatic and elegant processions in a building that I have experienced, dollar for dollar (it’s a small, cheap building) is in Graves’s building at West Virginia University. It’s a Dryvit covered pile fairly hanging off the side of a hill. Still, the architect understood how you would arrive at the top, walk over an elegant little interior bridge, descend a well-proportioned staircase, and arrive in a monumental gathering hall with both a sense of ceremony and a breezily transparent relationship to the other side of a tricky site. Talk about design in three dimensions.
Of course, the exterior of the building was flimsy in construction with bad colors and articulated with a few pointedly referential abstracted columns too many. I think of Graves’s building at the University of Cincinnati. It is a bit overburdened with pastel colors and geometrically heavy-handed roof elements, but the interior has some unexpectedly poetic sequences of spaces in contrast.
Some to many of the buildings are truly substantive and better than you expected in the sophistication of their spatial and site design. The exteriors tend, with consistency, to have qualities in palette, symmetry, and geometric form that tend toward oversimplification in ways that are unsatisfactory to eyes in search of subtlety.
My first reaction to the Wenzhou building was that I couldn’t believe this is a current design. My second reaction was that it has all of the formal characteristics that are unpopular in Graves’s architecture. My third thought was that as I look at the interior shots, I bet it includes a more sophisticated and complex composition of spaces than you usually find these days.
I spoke with Michael Graves only briefly a couple of years ago when agreed to appear in a documentary on Henry Hornbostel, for which I was acting as historical consultant and on-camera expert. Graves loved Hornbostel, an architect of similar paradoxes, but perhaps greater nuance in much of his work. Graves built his Michael Carlos Art Gallery as an addition to a Hornbostel building. He gave a deeply insightful assessment of what Hornbostel does well. He also loved Plecnik, a heroic Slovenian architect of the Secessionist era, a chess master among players of Popamatic Trouble.
In fact, Graves was also an architect with capacities for great complexity and artifice. The question is why he clad his buildings in enclosures which create such a convincing portrait of elementary components and crass contrasts.
The news of Michael Graves' passing has come out today. I am lucky to have learned from and spoken with the man whom so many people describe as a brilliant mind and great educator. His legacy of designs and built work will survive for decades to come if not longer, inflaming controversies among casual observers and stimulating subtantive debate among those who are willing to look and think more carefully.