Ranging from the Portland building to a scrubbing brush, Michael Graves’ diverse body of work enables Paul Davies to arrive at a diagnosis of Postmodernism as a whole
‘The alternative to political romance is to be an architect’ said Arthur Drexler in the preface to Five Architects, the launch pad for Michael Graves’ career. Ten years later he was Charles Jencks’s ‘king of infinite space’ on TV, with a title from Hamlet comparing him to Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a sign of the times and we shouldn’t take it too seriously, since real tragedy bites; Graves has been paralysed from the waist down since 2003.
Presently his landmark Portland Building (1982) is under threat. Nobody wants to use the word Postmodernism any more so it’s easy to forget its significance. Philip Johnson judged the competition, which Graves won twice on points. His floorplate was economically more viable (the ground floor plan is rather cramped) and the small windows made it cheaper. Today the design and build contract is seen to be full of holes, and the windows make Portlanders SAD. The joke is that Postmodernism was supposed to be redemptive.
Before that he had made his name as member of the New York Five, the group that admits it wasn’t, and he was the ‘Cubist Kitchen King’. Robert Stern attacked the excesses of this neo-Corbu period exemplified in the design for the Rockefeller House (1969); collages of gestures (‘not rooms’ as Graves would later agree) that mash up all Le Corbusier’s four villa types at the same time. Perhaps it was rebellion; Graves having been force-fed L-C by Sert at Harvard. Colin Rowe noted a certain ‘politically critical pedigree’ was rather absent in the USA.
Abandoning principle and adding swimming pools it was impossible to ignore the phenomenological relation paper-card-matchwood, for it was blow-away balloon frame that made wall and floor indistinguishable and allowed a content of ‘floating signifiers’. What seemed missing from this frontier white architecture was stasis. The projects appeared gyroscopic; without facades at all, merely frames or cages, with vast areas of holes, indeed windy, cold and intellectual. The fact this was done manipulating ‘high code’ Corbu and De Stijl rather than ‘low code’ Queen Anne set the ‘Whites’ apart from Venturi. While Rowe and Frampton sang that great art was always difficult, some hearts sank, for this was Postmodernism: when journalism took command. Ada Louise Huxtable accused him of being a mere painter, inventor of paper architecture, but Graves went on to build and build big. There are four hefty volumes of buildings and projects to date.
By 1977 Graves had bought a ‘Tuscan’ Princeton warehouse and appeared more at home. At the same time he got tired of the illusions and allusions to early Modernism. He’d been a Rome scholar and the experience was haunting. He realised what you could do for Corb you could do for Ledoux, and the same year we were presented with the landmark Plocek House and entered what Scully lyrically explained as the eternal battle with the keystone.
With Portland, Scully believed Graves might have genuinely pulled therapeutic Postmodernism off. Graves’ own discourse began to revolve around taking tea rather than lunch, the importance of door knockers and letter boxes and keeping out of the rain, and his poetics extended, in gentleness, to sets for the ballet, where nymphs danced and satyrs hoofed. Architects donned fedoras and became citizens in pursuit of the distinctly agreeable, and clients no longer just enjoyed wine, they owned wineries and dreamt of sculpture gardens. Graves even drew hayricks! Busts were made!
It got embarrassing. However his library at San Juan Capistrano (1982) was considered almost critically regionalist, even if (as the AR admitted) there was still far too much architecture in it. Then one evening Graves ran into Michael Eisner at the opera (again Philip Johnson was instrumental) and Graves settled down to work for Disney in 1986.
As Robert Maxwell pointed out; if the buildings began to look childlike it was because they had to seduce the consumer. The phenomenologists deemed the buildings more meaningful to the public, but these two groups are not quite the same, and generally of a different class. Graves played both sides by being voted GQ Man of the Year in 1997.
New Jersey (1977)
Portland Public Service Building (1982)
Library, San Juan Capistrano (1982)
Team Disney Building, Burbank (1986)
Swan and Dolphin Resorts, Orlando, Florida (1990)
‘If I have a style, I am not aware of it’
When Graves began designing kitchenware for JC Penney and Target his democratic credentials were revealed. Meanwhile freshly high-concept Graves architecture meant the Seven Dwarfs supporting the pediment of Disney HQ and a city block resembling a citadel for the Denver Central Library (1991).
Michael Graves is not so much a progenitor, but a symptom of a seismic shift, almost a counter reformation, to demonstrate the superiority of phenomena over principle. Individual ‘brands’ thus appear, even brands based on apparent enduring principles. Meanwhile architecture became less something facilitated by money, but absolutely reflective of it. The latter corporate work can make you queasy and it didn’t make Graves feel much better. Perhaps his story should flag up the horror that is running what ends up a global brand of architectural style. It’s not easy to market the agreeable when you are stranded high in a Beijing hotel room rather than at home with the essence of your being. Janet Abrams noted his wry description of his ‘so-called life’ in 1995: the paradox being that architects who pursue drawn arcadia may experience hell in real life.
Michael Graves was born in Indiana. His father drank; it wasn’t easy. As a kid he wasn’t great at school but he drew all the time. When the practice needed it, he sold his beautiful drawings. Graves was drawing all night while his wives waited at home, while his kids were sleeping, and while they drove off into the horizon. At home, when he couldn’t afford a Corot, he painted six of his own, for real.
It’s clear this empathy with Corot is significant; Graves has the same romance, and has made similar sacrifices. Eventually he provided our most excellent scrubbing brush (but not that kettle). A superb colourist, he’s even provided our kitchen colour scheme. He’s readily admitted that his Postmodernism infected every mini-mall in the USA, however we got what we deserved. There was no reason to assume Modernism was boring in the first place unless the mechanisms were in place to deem it so.
So much has been written about Graves by Rowe, Frampton, Colquhoun, Carl, Scully, Norberg-Schulz, Jencks et al he assumed a mantle of faith. But Wolfe was right; it is possible to read essays on Graves where you hardly understand a single word. Today it’s gone, he readily admits he’s an ‘old fart’, critics say his buildings are ‘dull’. He doesn’t believe in contemporary wobblitecture at all, and you can side with him; so many illustrious people have. But the problem with Postmodernism is that it hasn’t seemed to work even on its own terms, that the redemption never happened. His career well illustrates the greater forces at work.
But perhaps time will tell. These days when Graves isn’t repainting The Bridge at Narni, he is a much-respected activist. Last year President Obama raised him to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, to be concerned with access for the disabled, and principle.
‘Architects donned fedoras and clients no longer just enjoyed wine, they owned wineries. Graves even drew hayricks! Busts were made!’