As a kid growing up in Indianapolis, Michael Graves (1934-2015) spent so much time drawing that his mother suggested he should take up either architecture or engineering. Graves did not know what an engineer did but he knew he didn’t want to be one.
So he set off on the path to architecture, earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Cincinnati and his master’s in architecture at Harvard. As he moved into a career teaching and practicing architecture in Princeton, drawing continued to be an important.
“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 in 2012. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands. This last statement is absolutely crucial to the difference between those who draw to conceptualize architecture and those who use the computer.”
“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 wrote in an artist’s statement for a 2011 exhibit of his artwork at Rider University.
“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.
“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.”
Continuing that thought in the New York Times op ed piece, Graves added: “As I work with my computer-savvy students and staff today, I notice that something is lost when they draw only on the computer. It is analogous to hearing the words of a novel read aloud, when reading them on paper allows us to daydream a little, to make associations beyond the literal sentences on the page. Similarly, drawing by hand stimulates the imagination and allows us to speculate about ideas, a good sign that we’re truly alive.”
In 1979 Graves was one of the first architects to be presented in a one-man show in a commercial art gallery — a sold-out exhibition at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York.
In 1980, when Graves was honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the presenter, architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, spoke derisively of Graves’ accomplishments. “We used to give prizes to architects for doing buildings. Now we give prizes to architects for drawing pictures.” It was a dramatic moment in architecture captured by Tom Wolfe in the book, “From Our House to Bauhaus.”
In 2012, when Graves won the Driehaus Prize and its $200,000 monetary award, Yale-trained architect Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, wrote an appreciation of Graves and referred to such works as the Disney Headquarters in Burbank, in which the seven dwarves take the place of Greek gods in the pediments; the Fargo-Moorehead Bridge of 1979; the 1985 Humana Building in Louisville; and the 1983 Library at San Juan Capistrano — “one of the great American buildings of the late 20th century.”
Referring to Graves’ work as a designer of such household items as teapots and toasters, Betsky wrote: “Of course most people know Michael Graves today for his work at Target . . . I enjoy some of the Target designs, and even own a few, but the work Graves did to open architecture up to a collage-based, abstracted classicism that we can use to give a sense of place, scale, and larger meaning to all kinds of programs and locations, is what really matters about Michael Graves.”
One of Graves’ students at Princeton in the late 1960s was Stefanos Polyzoides, now known as a founder of the New Urbanism movement in architecture and a principal in the Moule & Polyzoides firm in Pasadena, California. When he heard of Graves’ death in Princeton on March 12, Polyzoides sent a note to his staff. An excerpt:
“Michael had a sharp eye, an amazing hand, a scholarly bend, a critical mind, and a deep interest in sharing his life- long search for a new Architecture relevant to our time. In retrospect, his own creative production was awesome. His energy, passion and insight into form was almost impossible to match. Far from being the perfect human being, he was yet a larger than life teacher and designer. His journey from modernism through Rome to the discovery of the Classics, led him and through him his students, to pursue architecture in the context of history, society, and the City. This was a courageous and lonely undertaking — in contrast to most of his peers who practiced and promoted architecture as a disconnected and fashion obsessed, if not amoral, exercise.
“He had a huge ego, but he was warm and always accessible to the very end. Looking back upon it, I have the sense that the way we called him by a single name, Michael or Graves, was a constant reminder of his mastery and of his iconic status. It was also a way to get closer to him, and to dare to scale intellectual and emotional heights similar to his. He was a famous architect, but never a starchitect. A grounded person, not a remote brand.
“During his high years of teaching at Princeton, from 1975 to 1995, the School of Architecture was the best in the U.S., if not the world, just like Penn had been during the Louis Kahn years. Those of us whom he inspired and taught will always be grateful to him. He shared with us his very personal, patient search for an architecture and urbanism of historically grounded ideas projected into place through drawing. This was a profound gift for which in return, he will be forever present in our hearts and minds.”