Beyond Buildings


Michael Graves Wins and Deserves the Driehaus Prize

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It was with great pleasure that I heard that Michael Graves, FAIA, won the Driehaus Prize. There were two reasons for my joy. The first is that I think Graves has, in a cruel twist of fate, become one of our most underestimated architects. The second is that the Driehaus Prize has until now lavished a lot of money ($200,000 a year) on architects who are fighting what I see as a rearguard action to bring back a brand of classicism that is narrow and inappropriate for contemporary building technology, social and economic relations, and sites.

The jury for the Prize recognized as much when they said, in their citation, “his work can often appear to diverge from what many people would define as “traditional architecture.” They go on to say that they want to reward creativity, and that “classicism informs every design decision [Graves] makes.”

I would say they are partially correct in that. What interests me in Graves’s work is exactly the intersection of classical elements and forms of planning-–axial, with local symmetries—and modernist approaches. The latter range from the collage aesthetic that is particularly evident in his early work to the almost Pop Art approach he took in some of his work for Disney-–the pediment of the Disney Headquarters in Burbank, in which the seven dwarves take the place of Greek heroes and gods, comes to mind.

The Fargo-Moorehead Bridge of 1979 changed American architecture with one image. The Humana Building did as well, perhaps just because it was actually built. The 1983 Library at San Juan Capistrano is as far as I am concerned one of the great American buildings of the late 20th century. Its fragmented columns recall the Mission Style, but also make sense of the building’s fragmented setting. Inside, the manner in which each room has a plethora of ordering elements as well as frescoes to give it an identity, scale, and sense of a larger world condensed into a small space is extraordinary.

It is true that, after the success of these early buildings, Graves’ practice expanded to the point that many of his later buildings have only a thin veneer of those devices that make it so mythic in its aspirations, and the applique aspect of that imagery can wear thin. A recent project such as the Wounded Warriors Home in Fort Belvoir, Va., is a joyful evocation of both grander forms and the American vernacular, while the Miguel B. Fernandez Building for the University of Miami is an assembly of disparate pieces that melds Le Corbusier’s vision of pure forms in light with the aesthetics of too much sun and too few roots. The numerous office buildings, resorts, and other mega-projects are best not mentioned.

Of course most people know Michael Graves today for his work at Target, and maybe someday people will know Frank Gehry, FAIA, for his Tiffany jewelry and the technology company he set up. 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. And who knows, maybe next year the Driehaus jury will recognize the classicism that lurks not too far below the surface in the work of Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, FAIA, or, for that matter, Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis.


Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:51 PM Tuesday, December 27, 2011

    Mr. Graves is a talented and gifted architect and deserves his latest award. If he is underestimated, it is due to the ever changing move to the next "ism".

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:13 PM Tuesday, December 27, 2011

    I totally disagree with Mr. Betsky. I think most of Michael Graves work is ugly, over-wrought (almost disgusting), and devoid of any finesse. Portland and Humana are two of the ugliest buildings of the 20th century. I am gratified that I no longer have to look at his cutsey little designs for Target. His application of historic detailing contributed little to the evolution of architecture.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.