Those of you keeping score will figure out that this was supposed to be a sequel column, some further musings on it’s “not that you won or lost — but how you played the game,” further informed by the recent developments in Sayreville, New Jersey, where allegations of brutal hazing are now being lodged.
But, in the grand tradition of a high school kid who couldn’t keep his eye on the ball, or who lost his focus in the middle of that all-important game (all of them are important, of course, but some more so than others), I have fumbled the ball.
The sideline attraction that caught my eye was this week’s cover story on architect Michael Graves, and the forthcoming retrospective of 50 years of his work at the Grounds For Sculpture. I couldn’t help it, coach, I couldn’t. In the late 1960s, as a Princeton undergraduate with a roommate studying architecture, I got my first brief exposure to Graves and his work. A decade later, as an aspiring freelance writer, I read with amazement Tom Wolfe’s brilliant rendering of the changing scene in modern architecture.
Wolfe’s treatise, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” was excerpted in two cover-length stories in Harper’s magazine in June and July, 1981. In it Wolfe essentially showed how a cabal of modern architects had managed to foist off drab, mass produced worker housing from 1920s and 1930s Europe as “luxury high rise” housing and chrome and glass boxes for the gullible American middle class and corporate giants. And it all went along swimmingly until a group of five upstart, post-modernists of “Whites” — including Michael Graves — came along to rain on the masters’ parade.
My summary above probably grossly oversimplifies Wolfe’s detailed analysis. But sharing one anecdote will give you the flavor. Wolfe reported on the 1980 awards ceremony of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, where Graves was the sole architect (among 37 recipients) to receive an award.
Seventeen awards later Gordon Bunshaft, of the influential architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the designer of the Lever House and lots of other glass boxes, was called up to make a presentation to five painters. After he handed out the awards, Bunshaft offered some wry humor: “I suppose this is something you don’t see every day, an architect handing out money to artists.”
Wolfe reported that the audience laughed faintly, not quite sure where the humor was headed.
Then Bunshaft let loose what only Wolfe and a handful of others recognized as a harpoon in the direction of Graves: “But then a lot of things have changed. We used to give prizes to architects for doing buildings. Now we give prizes to architects for drawing pictures.”
If there is “one great scorer” for architects, his scorecard would include a box for number of buildings designed, and another box for number of buildings actually built. And at this point in his career Graves’ score was not that good — the basis of Bunshaft’s attack. But the losing score did not deter Graves. Thanks in part of the schism in the architecture world portrayed by Wolfe, Graves became a celebrity in his own right.
A year or so later I was assigned to profile him in People magazine. Going back through my musty, nearly 35-year-old notes and interview transcripts, I am amazed at how much Graves then sounds like the Graves of today, as represented by the his artist’s statement presented in conjunction with the Grounds For Sculpture exhibit. Criticize those drawings all you want, he said then (and now), but those drawings are important.
Meeting the architect at his modest studio then located above a storefront on Witherspoon Street, I quickly asked him about Wolfe’s “Bauhaus” book.
Though Graves said he had never met Tom Wolfe, “it’s amazing how savvy he was. It’s very healthy. Like the medical profession, architects rarely criticize each other. There’s not the critical debate you find in literature. I think it’s high time that architecture becomes something to debate. If we have a more informed culture we’ll probably make better buildings. Architects certainly would get away with a lot less. I wish someone had blown the whistle before.”
When asked about the verbal daggers at the awards presentation, Graves quickly had a counter-attack. Bunshaft, Graves said, “attempted to embarrass me in front of a thousand people.” Though not sounding the least bit apologetic, Graves did respond the criticism. “I do have buildings,” he said. “I’m 47 years old, not a young whippersnapper. Bunshaft believes the most important thing is buildings. I have taught, lectured, written, built, and” — I now suspect Graves may have deliberately left the best to last — “drawn. People like Bunshaft have only built.”
And, lest you thought that the drawings were trivial pieces of the architect’s workflow, Graves offered another view. His drawings were being sold in commercial galleries. “It’s a new phenomenon. A few have commanded five figures.”
I last saw Graves several years ago, in the CVS on Nassau Street, where he and I were caught with the rest of our aging brethren in line at the prescription counter. Graves, unlike the rest of us, had a surrogate standing in line for him. Immobile due to the infection that knocked him down in Europe in 2003, Graves had been rolled over to an adjacent aisle. I decided that a public figure out in public deserves (and perhaps is even entitled) to be greeted by a member of the public.
I introduced myself as his People magazine profiler and U.S. 1 editor. It was not a bother, he assured me, and in fact was a chance to thank me. Me? Yes, for a January, 2011, story on his exhibit of paintings at Rider University. We had presented Graves’ work in the centerfold, on 10 columns across two pages in the paper. He had noticed that, and he appreciated it.
Just as they did from the very beginning of his career, the drawings still mattered to this renowned architect. To use a sports cliche, Graves may have been down but not out. On the scorecard the battle with the infection might have been marked as a loss. But this is more about how you play the game.