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Remembering Architect Michael Graves

How best to remember the late, Postmodern architect Michael Graves? Probably, for the novel way he showed us how to see the world. Graves shared that way of seeing in both his humanistic reasoning and his legendary drawings.
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How best to remember the late, Postmodern architect Michael Graves? Probably, for the novel way he showed us how to see the world. Graves shared that way of seeing in both his humanistic reasoning and his legendary drawings. Through that lens, poured his ideas, critiques and inspired themes. From the towers to teapots he created, his design conveys a concern for individual, human experience that one can identify with a place.

His prolific design legacy reflects the complex journey that shaped his creative vision. He was also an accomplished painter and industrial designer. Like the artistic output of Modern master Le Corbusier, who also painted daily, Graves work as a painter and his dynamic integration of painting into architecture set him apart from the profession. He ventured outside the field of architecture, embracing the intimate human scale and functional design criteria of industrial design. Working for both high-end and affordable markets, he and his product design team designed over 2,500 objects for Target, JC Penney and other brands. Engaged in three creative venues, Graves became an extremely broad-based designer.

Best known as a leading Postmodern architect, by the 1990's Graves was deemed "America's favorite architect". Together with his partners, he produced colorful and engaging buildings for Disney, Denver's Public Library, Humana - in all, more than 350 buildings globally. He challenged the 'old guard', grey-concrete Modernists and is credited for having reintroduced color into architecture. So wide-spread was his influence that every tan-colored shopping center today trickles-down from Graves' romantic, Tuscan-inspired 'Po-Mo' vision.

But Graves' work had not always been so accessible. In the 1970's, he was one of the most avant-guarde Modern architects. While his talent was most apparent leading the pack in then-coveted, Progressive Architecture awards, his work could be so intellectually complex and difficult to understand that its logic was impenetrable, except to a few insiders.

From an early age, Graves was charmed by historical European buildings and would sketch them as he grew up in Indiana. Years later, studying architecture at Harvard, he became restless with the unwelcoming architecture encouraged by his postwar Modernist professors. Though enamored with Le Corbusier's influential architecture, he chafed with Dean Jose Luis Sert, one of Le Corbusier's former Paris-based associates. Still getting-in the last word in a lifelong challenge to Functionalism, he referred to him only months ago as "teenie-weenie-deanie", an old-school nick-name for the diminutive Sert. In time, Graves would clarify his complex tangle of Modern and historicist concerns.

It all began with 'The Whites'. In 1969, Museum of Modern Art in New York chose Graves as one of The New York Five - and a book, Five Architects (1972), featured his white neo-Corbusian houses. Fellow Five member, friend and colleague Peter Eisenman, one of the field's leading theorists, said "Michael was the best Modernist". Not only did Graves have a very different way of speaking about his architecture, he painted colorful, cubist-inspired murals that added a rich, thematic counter-point to his rational, white architecture. Inspired by the murals, he began to interweave colorful architectural elements, signifying his concerns for humanism and place, within a white skeleton of Modernism.

Though his later Postmodernism would merge color and form as a unified architectural statement, the transition was a fascinating process to witness for those of us who were his students in the late 1970's. During this period, he created some of his most inventive and formally synthetic works. Now favoring discrete walls and "carved space" over open Modern frames, he collaged together "fragments" from such diverse inspirations as Classicism, Cubism and Renaissance garden design to forge this transitional architecture.

As a professor at Princeton's School of Architecture for forty years, Graves generously gave his time to his students in one-on-one critiques and standing-room-only lectures that often became broad critical debates. Despite being one of the smallest schools, Princeton was an intellectual crucible of architectural theory and design criticism. As Graves' celebrity rose, becoming the original "star-architect", Princeton played a key role in a 50-year swing of the cultural pendulum.

Cutting across three distinct periods, Graves' design stays remarkably consistent to the same principles. Despite these different modes of expression, he never lost his commitment to Modernist abstraction. Unlike his Harvard teachers who favored a "machine aesthetic", he would abstract an anthropomorphic composition, based on human form, to feature some human experience. As Graves explained his narrative-driven, functionalist design, "I use the program to tell myself stories while I design".

Beyond sheer talent, Graves was clever. Not just witty, he was that resourceful designer who finds the hidden potential to connect with us. It could be using the Seven Dwarves as caryatids to support Disney's roof - or a toaster shaped like a loaf of bread - or a vertical light beam making a small tower tallest on the Manhattan skyline - or a tub handle that turns and is good to hold - or a scaffolding that brings new life to the Washington Monument. With an uncanny ability to connect and even surprise, Graves' design only makes us more human.