Michael Graves (1934–2015)

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.