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Michael Graves Remembered (1934-2015)

March 25, 2015

The prolific and controversial architect Michael Graves died suddenly on March 12 at the age of 80. Educated at the University of Cincinnati, Harvard, and the American Academy in Rome, he founded his own firm in Princeton, NJ, in 1964, soon after beginning his 39-year teaching career at Princeton University.

Early in his career, Graves appeared to be adhering to Modern Movement principles. But even in the houses and building alterations that launched his practice, he was producing unorthodox elaborations of Corbusian design motifs.

He openly defied Modernist precedent with his design for the Portland Building, a public office facility for that Oregon city, completed in 1982. Its low-budget mass of office space was slip-covered in over-scaled, boldly colored ornament, and the structure soon became a widely known icon of Postmodernism. That fed the contention that his designs were superficial, but other works such as the Humana headquarters in Louisville (1985) and the Denver Public Library addition (1995) showed thoughtful consideration of interior layouts.

Graves shunned some salient characteristics of Modernism: there was rarely any expression of structure, never any metal-and-glass curtain walls. While his designs included Postmodernism’s allusions to historical architecture, his references were highly abstracted, never literal. In both overall building form and details, his works often involved simple geometries—triangles, for instance, or cylinders. His references could be to a cartoon-style drawing, as in the eponymous sculptures topping his Swan and Dolphin hotels at Disney World (1990). And he frequently applied colors outside the usual architectural palette, both inside and out.

His designs ranged from groups of buildings to furniture, tableware, and kitchenware. After he became wheelchair-bound in 2003, he designed many products and furnishings to facilitate daily life and health care for people with physical disabilities.

Of Graves’s hundreds of works, those in the Tri-State region include several houses in New Jersey, an expansion of the Newark Museum (1982), the Environmental Interpretive Center in Jersey City’s Liberty State Park (1983), and the 435 Fifth Avenue apartment tower in Manhattan (2000).

– John Morris Dixon

Top: Michael Graves in 1962. Source PBS. Bottom: the Portland Building in August 1982. Photo by Steve Morgan.