Frei Otto, 2015. Photo courtesy the Pritzker Architecture Prize / The Hyatt Foundation.


The DESIGN of the future in the grip of the human vortex. All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW.
—Ezra Pound, “Vortex,” BLAST, 1914

THE AWARD OF THE PRITZKER ARCHITECTURE PRIZE this year to Frei Otto was a welcome surprise, though his passing so soon after he learned the news felt a bit like a reproach. Time doesn’t wait for the Pritzker or the Nobel, it’s clear. Otto would have been ninety on May 31. The prize was awarded posthumously on May 15 in Miami. In 1996, Otto wrote that all architects could be divided into three categories: “Arrangeur, Diebe, und Erfinder” (arrangers, thieves, and inventors). He believed that “inventors lay the groundwork for architecture, but they must often wait a long time before their contribution is recognized.” Indeed, Otto was dependent on the collaboration of “arrangers.” And his ideas and inventions were of course freely and frequently stolen (when he wasn’t already giving them away). His two most significant built projects, the main sports facilities for the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1975 roof for the Multihalle in Mannheim, were brought to him after their respective architects, Günter Behnisch and Fritz Auer for Munich and Carlfried Mutschler for Mannheim, had won competitions with concepts drawn from Otto’s work. Otto had himself won an earlier competition for the German pavilion at the World Exposition 1967 in Montreal, with his friend the architect Rolf Gutbrod; the forms and materials of both the cable roof used in Munich and the wood lath roof for Mannheim first appeared in the Montreal pavilion. While the two later projects were widely published and admired, the vector of influence was not in doubt.

At the Montreal Expo 67 both the forty-two-year-old Otto and the seventy-two-year-old R. Buckminster Fuller designed their respective national pavilions. Both structures remain influential. In Fuller’s case, the geodesic dome represented his rationalist philosophy of design science and planning. In the half century since, the dome has been less consequential as a form than as the map of a way of thinking, a metaphor or synecdoche for Fuller’s view of life on Spaceship Earth. In Otto’s case, the form of his work has proved most influential. Despite their rational origin in the minimal surfaces of mathematics (famously explored through soap film models) the Montreal, Munich, and Mannheim roofs are exquisite forms that hover somewhere between landscape and cloud, their airy, immaterial structures belying their size. They are spiderwebs on a kaiju scale. They don’t seem man-made, let alone “authored.” They are “as little as possible and as much as necessary” or, following Jefferson and Pound’s motto, right at the fulcrum of tempus loquendi / tempus tacendi.

Frei Otto, the Germany Pavilion at the Expo 67, 1967, Montreal, Canada. Photo: Frei Otto.


The composition of these structures—the tilt of the masts, the varied sizes and extent of the webs of cable or wood lath—have the inevitable quality of the most carefully contrived landscapes. While the authorship of each of the three projects is spread between the many collaborators, the language is clearly one invented by Otto. He stands at the center in the eye of each vortex as both an attractor and the focus of each collaborator’s anxiety of influence. He is the instigator and inventor, a figure like Pound, Duchamp, or Max Ernst, both charismatic and enigmatic. After all, his built work is quite limited beyond these three great projects, which mark the feasibility and potential of the vast body of research and the many unbuilt projects that have been so widely copied and adapted, from the cable structures, hump tents, and grid shells to the tree structures and pneumatic forms. Entire careers have been elevated by his influence.

The projects even gave birth to two competing methods of form finding through the computer modeling of nonlinear structures with large displacements such as fabrics or cable nets—distinct German-American and English lineages. The Munich and Mannheim projects each brought about new methods in computer-based numerical analysis in order to specify both the precise geometry of the funicular forms and to calculate the element stresses and overall deformations. For Munich, the great German structural engineer Jörg Schlaich, working with the finite-element pioneer John Argyris, developed the first iterative method for analyzing large deformation structures in cables or fabric. For Mannheim it was the Irish engineer and Schlaich’s exact contemporary, Peter Rice, who with Alistair Day created the “Anglo” method for analyzing cables and fabric known as Dynamic Relaxation. These are the two main tools that have been used for analyzing all the large cable and fabric structures in the world, and both were created specifically to overcome the challenges of translating the research models of Frei Otto’s lab into full-scale application. Otto, the son of a sculptor, never liked his role as instigator of the transition from the “tactility” of analog physical models to abstract numerical tools.

Frei Otto, Roofing for main sports facilities at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, 1972. Photo: Christine Kanstinger.


And yet there is no question that Otto has been influential both as form maker and instigator. What is striking though is that his influence was largely achieved without any of the conventional vehicles of authorship in architecture. “The search for the minimal in architecture is simultaneously a search for the essence of material form” he wrote in 1990. Peter Rice in his An Engineer Imagines (1994) wrote of Otto: “In one way I see him as a twentieth-century Brunel. Think of the way Brunel worked and the kind of things he did, the broad range of activities he covered. He must have worked similarly to Frei. Frei uses intuition backed up by physics rather than mathematics. He has a strong physical sense. . . . We should call him an inventor.” Otto’s means of construction were drawn from the nomadic vernacular of the tent, and his influence could be likened to that of the peripatetic Socrates.

It is fitting that with Richard Rogers on the jury the Pritzker should be award to Otto. It was Rogers that put Ove Arup and his then associates Edmund Happold and Peter Rice in touch with Otto for the Mannheim project. And it was Rogers who, with Renzo Piano, would be deeply inspired and influenced by Otto in multiple ways; these two architects would also become Rice’s principle collaborators. The vortex or vortices of Frei Otto’s influence have begotten a great many threads of contemporary architecture, and one hopes that the Pritzker will carry on with more and wide-ranging forays into the primal grounds of architecture and engineering. The choice of Frei Otto, even if it is in many ways too late, opens up a rich set of questions about the role of collaboration and authorship in architecture. Perhaps it will spur better inquiry and theory so that architecture can catch up with art, music, and film and develop a more nuanced and sophisticated theory of its production and its many mothers.

Guy Nordenson is a professor of architecture at Princeton University and a partner of the structural-engineering practice Guy Nordenson and Associates.

Betty Churcher speaking at the launch of Notebooks at the National Gallery of Australia, 2011. Photo: National Gallery of Australia.


FAMOUSLY, THE NEWSPAPER ANNOUNCEMENT for Betty Churcher’s appointment as the new director of the National Gallery of Australia in 1990 ran under the headline “58-Year-Old Mother of Four Gets Top Job.” That the media ignored Churcher’s major achievements was not surprising: There was then small appreciation of the arts and few Australian women in leadership roles. In contrast, her passing this March was remarkable for the reverence and affection broadcast by both journalists and the general public.

Elizabeth Ann Dewar Churcher (née Cameron) was born and educated in Brisbane. She was drawing from the moment she could hold a pencil but, on her first visit to the local art gallery, she truly “discovered the magic of art.” Her drawing skills and her native wonder in the power of art launched her on a trajectory that would last a lifetime. She won a scholarship to study abroad, first at the South West Essex Technical College, then at the Royal College of Art. There she excelled, graduating in 1956 and taking a rare first-class pass, the prize for drawing, and a bursary to travel in Europe.

Her new husband, Roy Churcher, was happy to stay when they visited Australia. Betty put her career on hold when she had the first of four children. “I really did desperately want to be an artist,” she later recalled. “But the arrival of the children somehow shifted all that emotional energy that had earlier gone into painting. I decided then that if I was not going to be an artist, the next best thing would be working with art.” With the youngest child at school in 1971, she relaunched her career, teaching art full time, becoming art critic for the national newspaper, The Australian, in 1972, and publishing her first book, Understanding Art, in 1974. She took a year’s sabbatical from teaching in 1977 to earn a master’s of arts from the Courtauld Institute, University of London. Betty’s energy and enthusiasm in evangelizing for the visual arts attracted attention, and she was called to teach at the Phillip Institute of Technology (now RMIT University) in Melbourne, soon becoming dean of art and design. In 1982, she was persuaded to become the director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the first woman to head an Australian state gallery. She vitalized the institution but had to navigate an inevitably tense relationship with the gallery’s imperious chairman, Robert Holmes á Court. “I don’t think that I have ever tried to please anyone more—or pleased anyone less,” she later remarked. Her appointment to the National Gallery in Canberra in 1990 saved her from further frustration.

Churcher inherited a new museum, but one that was experiencing financial cutbacks. She was able to ride out the disenchantment with objective administrative acumen, an articulate appreciation of art, and extraordinary people skills. Her warm smile, coupled with an unusual candor and honesty, won converts first with the staff and then the press. There was nothing pompous about her: She was able to communicate her passion for art with visitors, collectors, and politicians, and turn them all into supporters.

Betty was never a micromanager. Her approach was always strategic and invariably people-oriented. When talking about herself, Betty credited her achievements to good luck. However, I recall that in the week after she started at the gallery there were a large number of boards in her office covered with images and details of all the staff so that she could get to know them all by name. Betty worked hard at her “good luck.” She instituted aggressive marketing strategies to promote the gallery and make its collection and exhibitions known to a broader audience. A series of groundbreaking major exhibitions, for example “Rubens and the Italian Renaissance” (1992), “Vision of Kings” (1995), and “Turner” (1996), attracted people from all parts of Australia and did wonders for the National Gallery’s profile. There were also a number of significant firsts: “Age of Angkor: Treasures from the National Museum of Cambodia” (1992) assembled breathtaking work from Cambodian museums for the first time since colonial rule; “Surrealism: Revolution by Night” (1993) showed Surrealism as a world movement, bringing together and contextualizing a phalanx of Australian practitioners; and with the bittersweet 1994 exhibition “Don’t leave me this way,” Canberra became the first national gallery anywhere in the world to tackle the challenging topic of HIV. And of course she instigated the construction of a new extension to house these many exhibitions. Her drive and brio made her a national figure, and the parade of well-publicized exhibitions earned her the sobriquet “Betty Blockbuster.” And all this while bringing up four children! “My determination to do things has been grounded in the fact that I was told very early and very firmly that I couldn’t,” Betty said in 2002.

Betty left the gallery in 1997 at age sixty-six, but this was hardly retirement. Her television series Take Five (1998), quick investigations of favorite works of art, screened immediately before the news for seven years. She was never intimidating and shared her personal enthusiasms in a way that could be appreciated by regular gallerygoers and newbies alike. The series confirmed her as the face of Australian art, the go-to person for all media questions on aesthetics; she became a much-loved cultural icon. Other art documentaries followed, including Hidden Treasures (2006), examining rarely displayed works in the national collections. That year, her worst fear was confirmed when she became aware her eyesight was deteriorating: “The thought of near-total blindness plunged me into black despair.” But she was determined to continue her obsession with art, researching, writing, and producing a trio of Notebooks illustrated with her own sketches (a lifetime habit, always drawn in front of the original to better understand the work) and comments analyzing her favorite paintings. The last of the Notebooks was finished in her hospital bed. She died on March 31.

Michael Desmond is a Canberra, Australia–based independent writer and curator.

Judith Malina at the Lillian Booth Actors Home, Englewood, NJ, 2014. Photo: Gaia Squarci/Redux.


JUDITH MALINA WAS INTENSELY COMMITTED to her vision of a better world, an avant-garde combatant who used words and gestures, a thespian agitator for the causes in which she believed. Although theater was her stage, she led her actors as a tribal family into a world of inequality and injustice where she was often ignored in the silences of the age or rebuffed by authority. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone so determined to make her voice heard, and I’ve rarely come that close to anyone quite so passionate, so brimming with the desire to cause change and affect consciousness.

Artaud and her teacher Erwin Piscator taught her to stress the sincerity of the actor, who could become a semaphore in an age of denial. Julian Beck, her first husband, called it the “Ice Age,” and the late 1940s and early ’50s, when they formed the Living Theatre, was crowded with sleepwalkers. Judith’s purpose was to wake audiences with what Valeska Gert, another of Judith’s models, called the “unspeakable cry!” Whether she was harassed by the agents of legal systems in New York, Europe, or South America, or incarcerated for free expression on a stage, she remained resolute, ready to continue. To the end, she was an ideological warrior of song, dance, and poetry.

Although I had been to the Fourteenth Street theater in the early ’60s when I was an undergraduate to see plays such as Many Loves (1958), The Connection (1959), and The Brig (1963), I got to know her better in the early ’90s when a poet named Ira Cohen persuaded me to write the history of her theater. Judith had read my book Naked Angels (1976) and admired The Solitary Volcano (1987), my biography of Ezra Pound.

At that time, most of the Living Theatre’s archive was located in a small room off the kitchen in her apartment on West End Avenue and Ninety-Ninth Street. The claustrophobic enclosure—called a “maid’s room”—was crammed from floor to ceiling with filing cabinets and boxes. The furniture was sparse: a ladder, a small, rickety wooden table, an uncomfortable wooden straight-backed chair. The only sign of bourgeois comfort was a collapsed, torn, and weathered recliner. I spent a few years in this dusty room (and never found the maid).

With the intuitive certainty of those who know their work will make a difference, Judith had saved every scrap of Living Theatre history, from newspaper accounts to playbills and postcards. This material is now contained in over three hundred boxes in the Beinecke collection at Yale University. In that sprawling apartment, Judith had also stored all the volumes of the daily diary she had been keeping since she met Anaďs Nin in 1950 and the twenty volumes of journal entries that her husband Julian had written before his death in 1985. Judith was willing to explain the significance of every detail, and my queries often led to ramifications and turns of which I had been unaware.

My method was to slowly examine the archive, reading the journals that corresponded, making my notations. After a few hours of this process, I would sit with Judith in her living room asking for clarification. We were surrounded by Julian’s paintings—some hung on the walls, others stacked around the room. I often used a small tape recorder because Judith usually would be smoking marijuana, politely passing the joint to me when she completed her thought. In its way, this became the most stimulating research I would ever experience, an occasion where the flexibility of the mind might lead to fluency and insight.

I saw her last on the margins of Manhattan in her basement theater on Clinton Street a few years ago, when she sponsored the memorial for Ira Cohen, the poet who had urged me to write her history. She was as responsible and bravely defiant as ever, still anxious about funding, concerned with issues of vitality and relevance, with the plays she was planning to direct, with the importance of keeping alive a theatrical company that could explore dissenting political perspectives—one that could hope to do more than merely entertain.

John Tytell is a professor in the department of English at Queens College, City University of New York and is the author of, among many titles, The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage (1995) and most recently The Beat Interviews (2014).

William King in his studio, 1954. Courtesy of Terry Dintenfass, Inc.


I THINK OF BILL KING as an old-fashioned artist, in the best sense: someone whose hand, eye, and mind were always perfectly coordinated and constantly active. Every kind of material—wood, steel, plaster, vinyl, clay, you name it—seemed to give its all under his hand, and every kind of human material—farmers, acrobats, cocktail-party guests, musicians—was apt as subject matter. Somehow, social observation always translated fluently into formal invention. Instead of pushing a preordained style, his visual wit could assert itself through any figurative idiom, from broad realism to near-abstraction; but probably his most familiar works were something like 3-D cartoons of ludicrously elongated figures (the tall, rail-thin King was a rather elongated figure himself, come to think of it), whose instantly legible postures told you everything you needed to know about an attitude. Of me he once carved in wood and painted a portrait relief that I always thought made me resemble a sort of comical Reverend Dimmesdale, if such a thing is possible. With King’s sociable, communicative work, one could feel for a while that the fatal divide between art and everyday life might be far more porous than one had thought.

A Floridian by birth, King came north in 1945 to attend Cooper Union, graduating in ’48. There he met his first wife, Lois Dodd. The couple were among the founders of the Tanager Gallery, a mainstay of the ’50s Tenth Street scene—now mainly remembered as the milieu of the second-generation Abstract Expressionists but also home to many artists (including fellow Cooper alum Alex Katz) who were giving new life to modernist figuration. I got to know Bill around 2000 through his fourth wife, now his widow, the painter Connie Fox. They were united in a Buddhist ceremony in 2003 by the novelist and Zen priest Peter Matthiessen. I remember thinking, “Hmm, a couple in their seventies, who’ve already been living together for twenty years, getting married—what could be more romantic than that?” It must have been in the blood. King once told Ada Katz, speaking of his ancestors, “I imagine there was a streak of Romanticism going through them, like any mid-nineteenth-century Americans, a flaky humor—Mark Twain. I think it’s sort of like a Russian story or a Grimms’ fairy tale.” The romance, the humor, the fantasy live on in his art.

  • William King, Daphne and Charlie, 1954, wood, 42 x 12". Courtesy of Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

  • William King, Handcuffs (Angela Davis), 1971, mahogany, 19". Courtesy of Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

  • William King, Nylon Dress, 1954, wood, 31 x 24". Courtesy of Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

  • William King, Wallflower and Smoker, 1966, vinyl, 60". Courtesy of Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

Barry Schwabsky is a critic based in New York and is the author of, most recently, a collection of poems titled Trembling Hand Equilibrium (Black Square Editions, 2015).

Michael Graves, c. 1970s. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.


SHORTLY AFTER THE DEATH of Michael Graves I visited one of his first important works: the Benacerraf Pavilion in Princeton, New Jersey. The project, completed in 1969 and one of two by Graves published in the book Five Architects, is modest in size but exuberant in form. It confirms John Whiteman’s assertion that “the pavilion is the essay form of architecture.” For Graves, this small commission was an opportunity to comment on the plastic language of Le Corbusier’s purist works of the 1920s. The subject matter of Graves’s built essay is the tension between plane and volume, abstraction and figuration, and the counterpoint between a regular structural frame and the compositional freedom of walls liberated from their function of support and enclosure. Benacerraf is early modernism seen through a Mannerist lens; just as Peter Eisenman’s work of the same period uncovers an unanticipated complexity in the work of Giuseppe Terragni, Graves’s work points to a latent figurality in the abstract language of ’20s modernism.

Modern architecture never makes good ruins, and Benacerraf is a ruin today—which makes it a poignant analogue to Graves’s own passing. (The house is owned by Princeton University, and a project to restore it in cooperation with Graves’s office was on hold at the time of his death.) In its ruined form, Benacerraf seems almost like a provisional construction; it takes on the quality of an abandoned stage set or a deserted holiday camp. It underlines the temporality of the modern, less invested in a durable presence and more in capturing the moment of its conception.

Michael Graves, Benacerraf Pavilion, 1969. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.


In retrospect, it is easy to see Benacerraf as an anticipation of postmodernism, but I think there is an alternative construct at work here. Graves and fellow New York Five architects (Eisenman, Gwathmey, Hejduk, and Meier) are marked by their belatedness in relation to the modern project. They were at least two generations removed from the early modern masters. It was as a student at Harvard that Graves encountered Gropius, but that could only have reinforced Graves’s sense that the spirit of discovery had gone out of the modern project. Unwilling to turn their backs on the modernist legacy, they faced the paradoxical challenge of recuperating the radicality of early modernism at a time when the movement’s period of innovation had already passed. The Five wanted to return modern architecture to its avant-garde origins but were sophisticated enough to understand that such a self-conscious return was entirely incompatible with the avant-garde impulse. For Graves and Hejduk in particular (who were entranced by the ’20s work of Le Corbusier) that dilemma is particularly stark: Modern architecture presented itself as a language that was already complete and fully formed. In Graves’s case, the only possibility left open was the kind of Mannerist elaboration on display at Benacerraf—a desperate attempt to breathe new life into a dying system.

Graves’s solution in the years to follow was to turn his back on the abstract language of early modernism. He never entirely rejected the influence of Le Corbusier (I’m told he faithfully celebrated Le Corbusier’s birthday each year in the office), but just as in his early work he had emphasized the figural aspects of Le Corbusier’s work, in later years he saw that work through the lens of ritual, landscape, and primary geometries. In the entry hall of the Villa Savoye, for example, one of the first things a visitor encounters is a standard ceramic lavatory sink. Historians have struggled to understand what this piece of bathroom hardware is doing in such a public setting. Some point to Le Corbusier’s fascination with the objet type and see it as a kind of Duchampian found object; others see it in terms of functionalism and say it was placed there for the chauffeur to wash his hands. Graves saw it as a ritual fountain, like those in the streets of Rome, connecting Le Corbusier’s work back to an elemental historical tradition.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, 1931.


It was the historicist postmodernist work of the late 1970s and early ’80s that brought him wider fame and larger commissions, but it is important to remember that although postmodernism came to be viewed as conservative, it had its origins in a critique of convention. Graves recounted that when he won the competition for the Portland Municipal Services Building, nearly every registered architect in Portland signed a letter opposing the building. As late as 1982, postmodernism could still be perceived as a radical critique of an entrenched and unexamined modernism.

Michael Graves, Portland Building, 1982. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.


I met Graves in the late ’80s, when I was a student at Princeton, where he taught for four decades. By this time, a hint of the bitterness that marked his later years had already set in. The loss of the Whitney commission weighed heavily on him, although questions of historic preservation and neighborhood resistance to the expansion played as much of a role in that decision as the postmodernist language of Grave’s proposal. But clearly by the late ’80s the tide was turning against postmodernism, and Graves felt increasingly overlooked by the progressive design community. This was unfortunate, because he produced some of his most original work in the ’80s and ’90s. He mapped out an alternative genealogy for modernism, looking to figures such as Gunnar Asplund, Jože Plečnik, and Heinrich Tessenow, giving full rein to his figurative impulse to produce strange and interesting variations on this alternative tradition. He took great satisfaction in the work he did for Target and in the idea that he could bring high design to a mass market.

Michael Graves was a resolutely visual architect, entirely ruled by the aesthetic and deeply embedded in architecture as a discipline. He had limited sight in one eye, which meant he had no depth perception. Conversations with him were disconcerting; he looked at you sideways, his one good eye fixing you with an intense gaze. I think he liked the idea that he saw the world in depthless fragments, like a Cubist painting. It was his unwavering commitment to the visual that made him such a good teacher—he taught you how to look and was open to finding the best in all students’ work. The notion of a critical practice baffled him; for Graves the task of architecture was to provide visual pleasure in an increasingly banal world. Every architect invents a present from the fragments of the past, and Graves worked tirelessly to keep that disciplinary dialogue alive. At a time when architecture seems to be ruled by the language of marketing and demands for environmental performance, his work and teaching are useful reminders that architecture is still a visual art, and it continues to unfold in a rich conversation with its long history.

Stan Allen is an architect working in New York, a professor of architecture at Princeton University, and Director of Princeton’s Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure.

Michael Graves with the GQ Man of the Year Award, c. 1980s. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.


MICHAEL GRAVES had a very particular terracotta that he liked to use in his renderings. He preferred a shade of pencil manufactured by Derwent which he then muted slightly with a 10 Percent Cool Gray from Prismacolor. One day he heard that the gray was being discontinued. He promptly rang up the company and bought as many as he could—boxes and boxes full.

As this anecdote about the tools of his trade suggests, Graves was determined to get things just right. No matter what the typology—drawings and models, buildings and interiors, tea kettles and toasters, furniture and fabrics—his works are possessed of complete resolution. Each holds together tightly and brightly, like an exceptionally well-wrapped Christmas present. Yet, like the period in design history that he seemed in so many ways to exemplify, Graves himself is something of a puzzle, hard to assemble into a single picture.

Imagine him first as a dashing young American abroad, sketching ancient monuments on his grand tour to Rome from 1960 to 1962. Then as a visionary theorist of New Urbanism, working alongside Peter Eisenman at Princeton on a grandly unfeasible proposal called the Linear City. This scheme, equal parts Le Corbusier and Superstudio, would have transformed a twenty-mile-long, one-mile-wide ribbon of New Jersey into a unified megalopolis, a completely integrated space for living and working. It would have been hypermodern and ultraefficient. In real life, it would have been terrifying. It also suggests just how fearless and ambitious Graves was when he was just starting out.

Michael Graves, sketch for ‘Linear City,’ c. 1960s. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.


In the 1970s, Graves developed into a more reasonable sort of modernist, working mostly at a domestic scale. This was the moment when the New York Five (Graves and Eisenman along with Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier), or “Whites,” had primacy in architectural discourse. It was a time of vivid debate, both among the high modernists and their ideological opponents, the so-called Grays, who advocated a vernacular and contextualist approach. Then came apostasy. In one of the most astonishing turns in architectural history, Graves became the leading practitioner of the historical, ornamental, and allusive style that came to be known (for better or worse) as postmodernism. Though criticized at the time as a retreat into the past, in retrospect Graves’s postmodern work looks astonishingly ahead of the game. Iconic and complexly referential, his buildings of the 1980s seem already primed for viewers armed with the Internet and a smartphone.

Touching down first in unlikely places such as Portland and Louisville, his buildings in the new style radiated sly intelligence, even as they functioned like gigantic corporate logos. Graves was soon flying high, riffing off Art Deco in commissions for Memphis, Alessi, and Sunar, and carrying out a series of major architectural projects for the Disney Corporation. With the help of gallerist Max Protetch he elevated architectural renderings to the status of fine artworks, and was justly celebrated for his extraordinary draftsmanship (with lots of terracotta). But this professional success had an equal and opposite effect on his reputation as a serious architect. Po-mo managed the feat of being simultaneously outrageous and overly familiar. Though Graves’s work was the best of it, he was imitated rampantly, and badly. This stage of his career left an unfair but nonetheless indelible impression of him not as the classicist polymath he really was, but instead as a cartoonist and the signature architect of late capitalism.

Michael Graves, Target Toaster-white, 1989. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.


Graves’s later years were marked by populist success and personal tragedy. In his prolific product-design work for Target and JCPenney, the ironies of his career were all in play. Even as he achieved the long-sought modernist goal of bringing good design to the masses, he gave further ammunition to those who suspected he was more interested in commodities than ideas. Finally, following a spinal infection in 2003 that left him partially paralyzed, there emerged yet another Graves, heroic and profoundly humanist. Working from a wheelchair of his own design, he created exquisitely sensitive equipment and environments for the injured, ill, and incapacitated. At a time of life when others might have retired from the field, he continued to affect the lives of many for the better.

Clearly, Graves was a man of many parts. He liked to keep admirers and critics alike in a perpetual state of uncertainty, waiting for his next trick. There are many abiding conflicts at the heart of his work, all of them productive: between purism and populism, erudition and commercialism, historical depth and superficial imagery. That very multiplicity made him the quintessential architect of the late twentieth century, though, and at his best, he synthesized these competing impulses into designs of tremendous imaginative power.

In 1999, Graves devised a scheme to scaffold the Washington Monument during a major renovation. He came up with the idea of shrouding the obelisk in a sheath of blue mesh, emulating its shape and also replicating (in denotative fashion) the pattern of its stone coursing. Particularly at night, when it glowed like a translucent lantern at one end of the National Mall, the artificial facade was absolutely an improvement on the original. This was the elusive dream that animated so much of postmodern thinking: the promise of second-order experience. The great hope was that through metastructures, we might find a way to live within history, without being dominated by its imperatives. Graves’s finest work remains a beacon of that hope: a flash of wit, joy, sometimes even perfection, in a decidedly imperfect present.

Michael Graves, scaffolding for Washington Monument, 1999. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.


Glenn Adamson is the Nanette L Laitman Director of the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, where Michael Graves formerly served on the board of trustees.