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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Michael Graves

The Portland Building, Portland, Oregon, 1982, Michael Graves.
Although most of us have seen examples of Postmodern architecture, few people think of it in that light. It simply looks "modern" with perhaps a few weirdly eclectic twists. I suppose that's not all  that bad a definition, but lacks something in terms of being definitive of the style. In essence, Modernism tended to reject the past and embrace the phrases "less is more," and "form follows function." As broadening as those traits might appear, they have turned out to be rather limiting. The plethora of urban glass boxes in all our major cities, for example. Tired of glass, architects turned to marble or granite panels polished to seem like glass. Still, the rectangle dominated, whether soaring to great heights or clinging closely to California cliffs. Modern became booooorrrring.
Team Disney Headquarters, Burbank California, 1986, Michael Graves.
Postmodern gargoyles, or are they caryatids?
Postmodern architecture came riding in like the cavalry to the rescue around 1970. Robert Venturi in designing a new home for his mother in 1962 may have started it all but he was quickly followed by Phillip Johnson (a convert from Modernism) with his AT&T Building in New York (now Sony) in 1984, as well as Frank Gehry, John Burgee, Cesar Pelli, and Micheal Graves, to name just a few. Michael Graves was at the forefront of this charge to prove architecture had life after Modernism. It's important to note that none of these architects rejected Modernism as their predecessors had rejected the swarm of architectural "isms" which had preceded it. None of them reverted to Corinthian columns or gargoyles (though Graves came close with his Seven Dwarfs holding up the roof in his Team Disney Building, above). Instead, they simply looked back and admitted to themselves that Art Deco, and Art Nouveau, the Gothic style, even Palladio and Morris Hunt all had certain elements which, used in moderation, could lighten up, add spice, and even humor to the staid rectilinear cubes to which Modernism had devolved.
Hyatt Hotel, San Diego, California, 1990, Michael Graves.
Humana Building, Louisville, Kentucky,
1982, Michael Graves
The architecture of Michael Graves does not "WOW" the viewer. Even his famous 1982 Portland Building (top), though certainly a striking departure from Modernism, does not propel anyone into the 21st century. His Hyatt Hotel in San Diego (above) displays much the same restraint. It seems friendly, warm, and familiar. Graves seems to be the favorite architect for both Disney and Hyatt, having designed multiple structures for both. Graves has thrown off Modernism's addiction to glass and polished stone, embracing curves, color, symmetry, even optical illusions in their place. At first glance, the main body of the Hyatt San Diego appears to be three jutting "faces" when it fact, they are but one. The mass is monumental without being intimidating. His windows look like what they are, not massive, mirrored facades. In fact, Graves has sometimes been criticized for "obstructing the view" from inside his buildings. Graves' most visually complex building, the Humana Headquarters (above, left) may also be his most Postmodern. At first glance it looks like a giant throne with a curved, cantilevered "headrest." However, from that point the viewer abruptly exhausts his "looks like" vocabulary. It looks like nothing ever seen before (or since) in architecture from any era. One might even call it an architectural "sampler."

Alexander House, Princeton, New Jersey, 1971, Michael Graves.
The round windows framing a square central pane have become a Graves trademark.
The famous Graves Tea Kettle  (1964) was
 but the first in a long line of domestic
products from the architect's drawing board.
Graves domestic works, his houses designed mostly during the early years of his career (as is the case with most architects) bear the familiar Graves traits. They tend to be symmetrical, understated, yet grand without being pretentious. Graves also designs (or approves) the interiors of his houses. His architectural firm, Michael Graves and Associates offers a full line of design services, even down to the teapot on the table (left, available exclusively at JC Penney's).

The Michael Graves Patient Chair in various ergonomic configurations.
The story of Michael Graves, the architect, or Graves, the designer, closes with what might be considered by some as a tragic note. In 2003, the architect contracted what's thought to be bacterial meningitis. It left him paralyzed from the waist down. Now confined to a wheel chair (which he redesigned and franchises), he makes it clear he is not paralyzed from the waist up. Born in 1934, Graves is now 79 years old. Though no longer designing buildings with round windows or high-end teapots, he still plays an active role in managing his architectural firm. He's also taken up painting, having recently directed his first one-man show.

Michael Graves surrounded by his art.



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