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Michael Graves (1934-2015)

The great architect remembered by his friend and collaborator throughout the heyday of Postmodernism, Charles Jencks

Michael Graves complained in the 1970s about being branded the Cubist Kitchen King because it led to more and more kitchens and Cubist drawings that didn’t pay. ‘It’s a Catch 22,’ he told me, ‘only big buildings beget big buildings. Somehow you’ve got to have luck, or whatever it takes to get over the hill.’ Soon thereafter he stormed the hill, built over 350 (mostly big) buildings, had an architecture school in New Jersey named after him, won the AIA Gold Medal in 2001, and designed more than 2,000 everyday consumer objects, ‘housewares’, for Alessi, Target, and other major brands. Peter Eisenman, his sometime friend and co-founder of the New York Five, publicly chided him for being populist and ‘PoMo’ (the degenerate version of PM) and, never missing a good pun-down, wrote a critical article titled The Graves of Modernism. Michael always smiled benignly through these good times and bad, even when he got the spinal cord infection, in 2003, that rose up his back almost killing him.
Michael and I were good friends, and comrades in arms, from 1975 to ‘85, after which we drifted apart. But during our friendship we worked together at UCLA, and lectured all over the world pushing forward differing arguments for Postmodernism. His favoured a new figural abstract representation, which led to the iconic building, mine favoured pluralism and symbolism, but we agreed on many points.

One reason for his becoming a global voice of PM in 1980 was the way his beautiful drawings synthesised the insights of Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi and Leon Krier; and the contextual urbanism of Colin Rowe and Oswald Mathias Ungers. Graves could pull together ideas with his Free Style Classicism, his line drawings, watercolours and paintings. These were sometimes the equal of Le Corbusier, a tradition of graphic work that is still very rare among successful architects, though carried on today by a few such as Steven Holl. Such a synthetic vision took unremitting hard work. Not only did it develop, as he said, from the Synthetic Cubism of Juan Gris, but it may have led to a condition of Strabismus which affected his eyesight, as it did with Le Corbusier (who painted too much at night). Rather like Picasso he could knock-off convincing pastiches of previous masters such as Ledoux. Yet this facility was later his undoing.

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Charles Jencks and Michael Graves speak in the Warehouse, Graves’ Princeton residence and studios

His first two creative periods were the complex, Late-Modern houses of the early 1970s; and then the pioneering PM buildings, and schemes such as Fargo-Moorhead, which led to the Portland Public Service Building that opened in 1982. The Humana skyscraper, finished in 1985, with its engineering touches attached to an anthropomorphic frame, was the last superlative flourish in this dynamic trajectory. Then he was captured by the Disney Corporation and its ‘Entertainment Architecture’, just as Leon Krier was captured by the Prince; and most of his subsequent over-production succumbed to what I have recently slated, in these pages, as self-forgeries.

‘Michael Graves turned down the chairmanship of UCLA architecture saying that he couldn’t come to a school which had a smaller library than his own’

Heavy, predictable, somewhat bulbous at the bottom, they blew up Mickey Mouse details in a deceitful way that many of us condemned as the reverse of Postmodernism. We agreed with Umberto Eco’s view of how to handle tradition and the ‘already said’, especially in the age of lost innocence when symbolic media had become dominant. The difference between truth and lies had to be signalled ironically, especially when Late-Modernism had itself become such a commercial imposture, a High-Tech luxury item served up as working-class liberation. I am sure there is much good work to be found among Graves’ 350 buildings, but Eisenman is generally right about Graves being consumed by consumerism. Because of his repetitive stereotyping, Robert Stern called him ‘the Paul Rudolph of PM’; it is easier for an unemployed paper architect to get into the kingdom of architecture, than an overemployed one.

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Elevation drawing of the Portland Building which featured on the cover of Post-Modern Classicism edited by Jencks

But, at this time, let us remember the better Graves and his many worthy projects in hospital design, his colourful and useful objects which he said ‘make you smile and make you think life is not as bad as that operation you [just] had’. Like Mozart, Graves could spin many colourful tunes from his pen, and set themes against each other in charming and vigorous counterpoint. His best work, like the private residence where he worked and lived in Princeton, called the Warehouse, was a beautiful interweaving of building and landscape, architectural promenade and industrial background. Like many experiments that architects subject themselves to, it was a utopian project of what he wanted for society. A convivial, generous and amusing background for the good life, and the life of the mind. Graves turned down the chairmanship of UCLA architecture saying he couldn’t come to a school with a smaller library than his own.

Being from Indianapolis, seeking his fortune in the East Coast establishment he was, like Le Corbusier coming to Paris, the country mouse arriving in the big city. I think of Michael with his broad, amiable, Midwestern grin, if that is what it was, a generous disposition. Behind it was an American dream, to bring the ritual and centredness of previous ages to an exploding landscape of incessant change, of uprootedness, where much of the population moves every four years in their life. His first existential decision, at 13, was to shift from a Presbyterian to an Episcopalian faith. When I asked him why, he said it was not over a point of dogma, but ritual. In the new ceremony he could help with Communion and, as a social practice, it was more understandable. He said this, emphasising the word recalling that the root word ‘religio’ means to bind. I imagine Gravesian architecture was meant to re-bind a secular society in some new ritual; perhaps a vain belief, but it helps explain the tenacity of carrying on his monumental, personal style.

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Graves’ triptych mural from 1979 expresses the colourful layering of themes and optimism that characterised his work

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