The Legacy of Michael Graves. FAIA

April 24th, 2015  |  Published in April 2015

Michael Graves, the most celebrated graduate of the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture, died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, March 12, 2015.  Graves, who was 80, became widely known as a visionary architectural designer in the 1980s.  His so-called Post Modernism style, along with Philip Johnson’s, electrified the public and started a shift away from the then-established tradition of International Modernism.

Graves was an Indianapolis native, who demonstrated great talent in sculpture, painting, drawing, and design from an early age.  He was considered a painter as well as an architect and industrial designer. A 50-year retrospective of his firm’s works just closed in New Jersey. Not surprisingly, he liked to incorporate the visual arts, especially sculpture, into his building designs.

After graduating from UC with a degree in architecture in 1958, Graves practiced in Cincinnati with the modernist firm of Carl Strauss and Ray Rousch, where he worked mainly on small architectural projects. For a residence in Westwood, Graves created an abstract sculpture for the outdoor entry court and a panel painting for an interior wall.  From the beginning of his practice, Graves infused his architecture with color and whimsy, qualities likely to provoke positive psychological reactions in owners and users.

Graves earned a M.A. at Harvard in 1960 and won the Prix de Rome to the American Academy in Rome, where he studied in 1962.  It was a transformative experience, which encouraged him to see architecture as a continuum from past to present.  He realized that symbolic and historical allusions enhanced formal considerations and suited his aesthetic vision.

Graves begin teaching at Princeton School of Architecture in 1962 (he took emeritus status in 2001) and founded Michael Graves Architecture and Design in 1964.  The firm produced more than 400 buildings and 2,000 household and furniture products, beginning with the iconic whistling bird teakettle for Alessi in 1985. (I confess to being one of the groupies who scooped up Graves’s kitchen tools when they appeared in Target.   Scrubbing vegetables became a joy with a Graves’ ergonomic blue-handled brush.)

Graves’ penchant for classical references, color, and sculpture were evident in his first major commissions: He won an international competition for the Portland, Oregon municipal building (1982).  The design, with its oversized keystones, columns, and figure sculpture is a highly personal statement, which draws upon memory and two-dimensional visual art movements like Cubism and Futurism, as much as antiquity.  The design was not universally admired (A few modernists architects protested then, and some have continued to do so.)  What’s worse, some city employees complained the building was dark and dreary inside.  But it acquired instant celebrity as one of the first built examples of the post-modern movement, and Graves became a star with choice offers.  The Whitney Museum in New York City retained Graves to design an addition, although it was never built. But Cincinnati businessman and arts advocate C.Lawson Reed, who was on the Whitney board, was impressed by Graves.  When the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra proposed to build an outdoor summer performance space on the Ohio River at Coney Island, Reed persuaded the selection committee to offer the design job to Michael Graves in concert with his old friends Carl Strauss and Ray Rousch.  The result, Riverbend Music Center, was an imaginative structure that recalled the Teatro Olympico in Vicenza by Italian Renaissance-Mannerist architect Andrea Palladio. The Olympico, which was completed by Vicenzo Scamozzi, is based upon Greek and Roman prototypes.  (The Vicenza theater was constructed inside an earlier building, but it reflected the formal language of ancient outdoor theaters, such as the Roman one in nearby Verona.) Because classical theater began in outdoor performance spaces, it made sense to look back to the form for inspiration.   But Graves expressed his contemporary sensibility and the informality of the riverside, amusement park setting with color, skeletal towers, metal banners, and whimsical, abstracted figure sculptures.

Similarly, Graves looked to classical and popular modern sources when executing the commission for the Disney Team building (1991) in Burbank, California.  The Disney building was intended to evoke smiles from executives arriving at work. Graves achieved this by creating caryatid columns, which depicted Snow White’s allies, the seven dwarfs.  His Swan and Dolphin hotels for Disney World in Florida feature sculpted representations of their namesakes on the rooftops.  The stylized creatures are said to be inspired by Bernini’s Triton Fountain in Rome.

Architectural historian and critic Jayne Merkel writes of Graves, “the work I admire most is that based upon cubism. But I loved the lively human spirit in everything he did. He was a wonderful guy.” Merkel is the author of a monograph published by the Contemporary Arts Center to commemorate the opening of Riverbend Music Center in 1984.  Speaking of Riverbend’s place in contemporary art history, Merkel observes that it is “absolutely unique, a great asset for the city, and a building beautifully adapted to its wonderful site.” Unlike other outdoor venues, Riverbend makes the river and landscape an integral part of the viewing experience.

The Engineering Research Building at the University of Cincinnati is the last public building Graves completed in Cincinnati.  It is a sensuous composition of traditional brick and sandstone in rich deep reds with a copper roof crowned by curvaceous smokestacks. The building frames the eastern approach to the “Main Street” in the old campus. It is an admirable bridge between old and new.

Michael Graves became acutely aware of the need for intelligent healthcare and hospital design when an infection left him paralyzed from the waist down.  Since 2003, he was deeply involved in the design of facilities and furniture for healthcare, including a home for wounded warriors in Virginia and a convalescent hospital now under construction in Nebraska. His designs, which are patient centered, blend functionality and aesthetics. In 2013, President Obama appointed Graves to the U.S. Access Board. Although Graves said he came to the healthcare field as a reluctant expert, his dedication to improving the patient environment is consistent with his long-professed belief that good design should serve mankind, bringing comfort, inspiration, and joy. Some critics have suggested that this emphasis on creating nurturing healthcare environments may be the greatest contribution Graves makes to architecture and design.  If so, it is indeed a worthy addition to his impressive legacy.

–Sue Ann Painter

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