Arts & Culture

Architect reflects on design influences, experiences

Graves has worked to create more accessible living spaces in health care facilities

Staff Writer
Monday, March 4, 2013

Michael Graves, whose work ranges from designing a line of cleaning tools for Target to planning skyscrapers across the country, recounted the story of his colorful career to a packed Salomon 101 last Thursday.

Graves started his architectural practice in 1964 and since then, his influence has been global, according to a speaker biography provided by the Department of the History of Art and Architecture. He has developed over 350 buildings and urban plans across the world, from university buildings to monuments to retail stores. He has also designed over 2,000 objects, ranging from teapots to alarm clocks, and won over 200 awards. A paraplegic since 2003, he is particularly passionate about improving the structure of health care facilities to better conditions for people with disabilities, he said.

Dietrich Neumann, professor of history of art and architecture, was the primary force in bringing Graves to Brown, said Steven Lubar, director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, which sponsored the event.

“I ran into him one day and realized he would be a great person to come and talk — the obvious choice,” Neumann said. “He’s obviously very busy — he has projects all over the world  — but he was very happy and willing to share his vision with students who wanted to hear what he has to say.”

Graves’ presentation described the major influences and inspirations of his career. The audience frequently chuckled at the humorous personal stories that flowed from his narrative.

He began his presentation with a description of the two years he spent on a Grand Tour in Rome, an experience which he said was “crucial to (his) development” in ways that he did not fully appreciate until later in his career.

“When I got back from Rome, I still continued to do what I was doing before, not knowing how to use it in my work,” he said. “But slowly, slowly, it seeped into things in that I was not able to say what I wanted to say with the degree of modernism that I was (previously) using.”

The Grand Tour originated several centuries ago as a means for young European architects to expand their horizons, he said. “These were architects no older than you. They would find wonderful objects and copy them, measure them, trying to understand the proportions used by the ancients. … They drew, made sculptures, made paintings of these objects that had made our world much richer.”

“One of the ways I’m going to show these objects is through my own eyes,” he added.

Graves said he was largely self-taught. Every night after dinner, he sat in the library to read, draw and trace “whatever I could to learn my craft.” It was not until after his second year of doing so that he felt he could begin to “enter the conversation.”

He recommended aspiring architects follow a similar approach. They “should read everything they can about the ancients and the renaissance, as well as the work of modern architects,” Graves wrote in an email to The Herald. “It is essential to understand the foundation of architecture and that which has come before us.”

When Graves became a paraplegic, he had to modify his house to accommodate his disability, he said. His slideshow provided a tour through wheelchair-friendly rooms, but his narrative focused more heavily on the purpose and story behind each aspect of his design.

His library, for example, appears to be an elegant arrangement of bird’s eye maple and pillars. “Someone visiting once saw (it) and said to me, ‘I hate you! You can afford this great library and all I’ve got is Ikea,’” he said. “I told him to look closely at the maple — it was all painted. And the columns were actually PVC pipes.”

During the presentation, Graves used seemingly mundane objects to reveal the more abstract principles he incorporates into his designs.

“In your house, it’s important to have a still life (painting) between your dining room and your kitchen because if it’s done correctly it always has food that’s spoiling or about to spoil,” he said. “This is to remind you of the whole idea of today, and that you have to think about the cycle of life — today, tomorrow, the next month, the next harvest, the next year. Over and over.”

Near the end of his presentation he arrived at a slide entitled “How I Became the Reluctant Health Care Expert.”

“I’ll race through this part,” he said. When he became a paraplegic, he said he struggled firsthand with the architectural failings of hospital rooms. He flipped through slides that illustrated the inefficiency of design and the degrading consequences.

“I said to myself, ‘Michael, you’re an architect, a designer, and a patient — and you’re pissed off. And you can make these things better,’” Graves said. His innovations include a chair designed for those with difficulties sitting and standing — inspired by a recovering stroke victim Graves had seen trying to seat himself in a restaurant.

“I saw him look down to see how far he had to drop, and he looked helplessly at his wife who was equally frail, and I knew something had to change,” he said.

He added that he also designed a roll-in shower with a trough drain to catch water, as well as a chair to put in showers to relieve the potential difficulties of standing for extended periods of time.

One of Graves’ projects was a school he built for children with autism, he said. He recounted a conversation he had with one of the small boys who would be living there, remembering how the boy bowed and thanked him when he learned Graves had built it for him and his classmates. The audience chuckled along with him when he said, “He was the sweetest kid. Other clients don’t do that.”

Despite the accolades and honors that have studded his career, he wrote in an email to The Herald that he still considers his most significant accomplishment to be “the number of people (whom he) taught at Princeton or who have worked in (his) studio who have gone on to accomplish great things in their careers.”

Though Lubar said in his opening speech some of Graves’ work has been “controversial,” this is not what distinguishes his work from other modern architects. Instead, Lubar said, it is his “careful composition of spaces, warmth of materials and colors, attention to detail and craft of execution” that set him apart.

“He values scale, proportion, good material, sustainability, all with consideration for citizens with disabilities,” Neumann said. “In many ways, he’s the ideal architect.”

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