For Michael Graves, it all begins with lines on paper.
The architect’s otherwise serious demeanor becomes playful when his hand wields a drawing implement. And of course his pen can’t keep still during meetings. In fact the meetings are often based on these drawings.
Despite running busy design practices in New York and Princeton (Michael Graves & Associates and Michael Graves Design Group), traveling to China, Nebraska, Florida, and Rome, parenting duties, and enduring paralysis from the waist down, the 80-year-old Princeton resident draws and paints nearly every day.
Grounds For Sculpture is busy too as its staff prepares to present a 50-year retrospective of Graves’ architectural models, photographs of built projects, furniture, product designs, paintings, sculpture, works in progress, and, yes, drawings in “Past as Prologue.”
The 250-object exhibition — opening Saturday, October 18, and continuing through Sunday, April 5 — features some never before seen works, including the Linear City plans, drawings done in Rome in 1960 and 1961, and preliminary designs from sketchbooks.
Beginning in the mid 1960s, Graves emerged as a visionary. With then also unknown architect Peter Eisenman, he designed the Linear City Project, also called the Jersey Corridor Project. “Everyone complains about traffic jams,” Graves says, recounting the inspiration to constrain sprawl. Intended to connect New Brunswick to Trenton, and ultimately Boston to Florida, the Linear City would combine aspects of city and suburb. It would be a mile wide and 20 miles long and consist of two parallel strips for industry and homes, shops, and services, with highways running below a natural landscape.
Also explored in the exhibit is the El Gouna Golf Hotel in Red Sea, Egypt. In a photo it looks like a Michael Graves neoclassical design made to fit perfectly with the surrounding architecture. In fact, the surrounding architecture is the El Gouna, all designed by Graves. The El Gouna is the only thing on the landscape.
“It was built in the desert,” Graves says of the luxury golf resort. The only way to get there is to fly. “Once you’re there you don’t need to go anywhere. You go to the beach, ride horses, play golf, eat in the dining room, and relax.” The bricks for the hotel were made from desert sand.
Closer to home, the U.S. 1 corridor contains a handful of Graves’ buildings, including the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, the Miele headquarters, the MarketFair interior, and several homes, including his own Mediterranean villa made from a former warehouse not far from his Princeton office at the corner of Nassau and Harrison streets.
Michael Graves Design Group has planned more than 2,000 products, from lighting, hardware, and bath projects to the Alessi whistling bird teakettle, for which he became a household name.
“I like tea, but I love to drink cappuccino and espresso,” admits Graves, who developed a taste for Italian beverages when, in 1959, he was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome to study at the American Academy there. “I have one of our original Alessi Whistling Bird Teakettles on my stove, and I love it. I never answer questions about what is my favorite design, because I am fond of all of our designs or we wouldn’t have produced them. Therefore, my favorite design is always our next one.”
Winner of the 2001 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects and 2012 Richard H. Driehaus Award, Graves is the first architect inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and the first recipient of the Michael Graves Lifetime Achievement Award from the AIA-NJ — named in Graves’ honor.
Earlier in his career, Graves painted murals in private homes and in lobbies, conference rooms, and doctors’ offices. His architecture, with its signature use of color, has always been described as painterly. Drawing is central to Graves’ way of working on and thinking about architecture.
In 1979 he was one of the first architects to be presented in a one-man show in a commercial art gallery. The sold-out exhibition, held at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York, advanced public interest in architectural drawings as works of art.
Graves has shown his drawings and models in more than 150 exhibitions throughout the world, and his work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, and the Newark Museum (which he designed).
During his 39-year tenure at Princeton University as Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, Emeritus, Graves encouraged his students to see drawing as an essential part of conceptualizing building design. “Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets,” Graves wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times two years ago. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design.”
When living in Rome, he developed a compulsive desire to record what he saw throughout the cities and countryside, experimenting with various drawing methods to best express the subject matter.
He divides architectural drawing into three types: The “referential sketch” is a visual diary of an architect’s discovery, and can be as simple as a shorthand notation of a design concept.
The second he describes as the “preparatory study.” For these, he will draw on translucent yellow tracing paper, layering one drawing on top of another, to build on what he’s drawn before. “With both of these types of drawings, there is a certain joy in their creation, which comes from the interaction between the mind and the hand,” he says. “Drawing by hand stimulates the imagination and allows us to speculate about ideas.”
The final is the “definitive drawing,” describing how the building will be used and showing the contractor what has to be built.
While Graves has been criticized in the past for creating more drawings than paintings (see Richard K. Rein column on page 43), he stands by the importance of hand drawings in the creative process. “Drawing by hand is central to my creative process. In many ways, it defines who I am, how I look at the world, and how I work,” he says in an artist’s statement.
“Early drawings for a project thus become a kind of tangible speculation, a way of working through an idea. Later on, when a design is more fully developed, the drawings become more definitive, to the point where they describe how to build the building or fabricate the object,” he continues.
“Today many of those definitive drawings are made on the computer, and there are many architects and designers who use the computer to help generate the design. For me, and for my colleagues in our firm who design and detail buildings and products, there is something deeply human about the process of drawing by hand, not just for us personally but for the infusion of humanism in everything we do.”
Italy is still in Graves’ psyche, and those early drawings and recollections inform the paintings of Tuscan landscapes he works on in his home studio. He calls these “remembered places.”
The title for “Past as Prologue” was chosen by Grounds For Sculpture chief curator Tom Moran, referring to how the past influences the present and sets the stage for the future. “Reminiscing over 50 years of projects is wonderful for me, but I am most excited about how the future of our practice is evolving from the energetic collaboration of our disciplines,” says Graves. “The link throughout my work is humanism, whether I’m working in product design or architecture. It’s always about the human being.”
Kean University will initiate a new professional master’s program in architecture at its Union campus in 2015, with an additional campus in Wenzhou, China. Graves is designing the Michael Graves School of Architecture building in Wenzhou and recently returned from a week in China with his 12-year-old son Michael, who lives in Boca Raton with his mother. “Michael says he’d like to be an architect,” says Graves. “He draws much better than I do.”
When Graves was growing up in Indianapolis, he would draw all the time. To spare him the life of a starving artist, his mother, a nurse, suggested he pursue a career in either engineering or architecture. First, she told him what an engineer does.
“I’ll be an architect,” said Graves, whose father was a livestock broker.
“But I haven’t yet told you what an architect does,” his mother replied.
“It doesn’t matter,” he told her. “I know I don’t want to be an engineer.”
The winner of the 1999 National Medal of Arts from President Clinton earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati in 1958 and a master’s degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1962.
While at the American Academy in Rome, American painter and instructor Lennart Anderson taught Graves to record what he saw with more precision. One thousand of these line and wash drawings were published in “Michael Graves: Images of a Grand Tour.”
The school of architecture is not the only institution named for Michael Graves. The Hotel Michael in Singapore is a luxury facility featuring everything Michael Graves, including a series of his paintings. Graves completed 11 canvases, each four-foot square, and one 32-foot-long canvas in sections. This is no small feat for a man who, as a result of a bacterial infection in 2003, is paralyzed from the chest down.
Because of his knowledge of being confined to a wheelchair, Graves has designed a line of products for the patient room designed from the patient’s perspective. The University Medical Center of Princeton in Plainsboro incorporates his designs. He has been designing wheelchairs since 2013.
Most architects have a very low ratio of buildings designed to buildings built, but Graves estimates that roughly half of his designs have been actualized. And although one burned to the ground, at least none of his buildings have been torn down, like the American Folk Art Museum building, the highly regarded design by “starchitects” Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, slated to be razed by its neighbor and new owner, the Museum of Modern Art.
“Don’t get me started,” says Graves.
No wonder he doesn’t want to discuss the topic. His own Portland Building, built in 1983 and considered one of Oregon’s most important buildings, is facing a $95 million renovation, and some are calling for its demolition.
At the time it was built, it was seen as a significant work of postmodernism. It won an AIA award in 1983 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
The octogenarian has no plans to retire. “I don’t run as fast as I used to,” he jokes. With 12 honorary doctorates, 10 major publications, and awards too numerous to list, Graves adds, “I can’t afford to retire. Architects don’t make that much money.”
Michael Graves: Past as Prologue, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Opening Saturday, October 18, and on view through Sunday, April 5. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets $10 to $15 (children under five free). 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.