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November 17, 2004: Features

Federal courthouse in Nashville

A model of a preliminary design for a federal courthouse in Nashville by Graves and Patrick Burke *82, along with Thomas, Miller & Partners. The firms won the commission shortly before Graves contracted the virus that led to his paralysis. Work on the courthouse — the tall building at right — continues. (Courtesy U.S. General Services Administration)

Changes in the plan
Architect Michael Graves keeps on designing, despite partial paralysis

By Jessica Dheere ’93


In a normal year Michael Graves, the architect known worldwide for his colorful postmodern buildings and Alessi whistling-bird teakettles, receives 25 to 30 new building commissions and fleshes out the design and construction for dozens more. Graves the product designer conceives as many as 250 product prototypes of fixtures and housewares for companies like Delta Faucet and retailers such as Target. And Graves the consummate marketer gives interviews to newspapers, magazines, and Web sites all over the world.

This year seems no different. His Nassau Street firm, Michael Graves & Associates, has more than 40 projects in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in the conceptual, design, or construction phase. Meanwhile, Michael Graves Design Group, the entity that handles the product-design arm of his operation, has launched a new 100-piece line of tabletop items and housewares for the manufacturer Dansk, and estimates that, in total, its product designs will generate $150 million in retail sales. Graves himself has been profiled by National Public Radio, the Boston Globe, and other national media outlets.

Yes, it looks like a normal year. Except that it’s not.

“Right now we’ve never had more work,” says Graves, who taught in the School of Architecture for nearly four decades and is now Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, emeritus. “I live in a small community. Everybody knows what I’m going through.”

In February 2003, Graves embarked on a business trip to Europe with a sinus infection. Late one evening shortly after he returned, he went to the emergency room of the University Medical Center in Princeton, complaining of debilitating pain in his lower back; a virus had spread to his spine. As the night progressed, he lost feeling in his legs, which the doctors at first attributed to the morphine they had administered. The next morning sensation was still gone, and the diagnosis changed for the worse: Graves was experiencing the onset of paralysis.

He was immediately transferred to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan and spent the ensuing weeks there and at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange,

N.J., where the late Christopher Reeve was treated after his 1995 horseback-riding accident. The progression of Graves’ paralysis was eventually halted mid-chest, and the architect has been recuperating, learning to live with his condition, and, remarkably, working ever since — even if that means drawing and consulting with clients while confined to bed, as Graves did for much of the summer owing to complications arising from his paralysis.

Wearing a white T-shirt and half-reclining in his bedroom at the Warehouse, the 1920s Tuscan villa-like home in Princeton where he has lived for much of the past 30 years, the white-haired 70-year-old has aged in comparison to the man in the photo on the cover of Architectural Record that commemorated his winning the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2001. But as he picks up the phone and converses with the person at the other end, it is clear that he is still in command. He completes the call directly, with a hint of annoyance in his tone: “Fax her and ask, ‘Is this what you said?’ ”

Graves had just received the commission for a new federal courthouse in Nashville when he contracted the infection that led to his paralysis. He won the project with another firm principal, Patrick Burke *82, after competing in a taxing nine-hour design charrette, during which they sketched out the design on the spot. Ed Feiner, chief architect of the General Services Administration, recalls the resulting freehand drawings that revealed Graves’ “spectacular” technique and the wit that characterizes not only his buildings — as illustrated by the Seven Dwarfs holding up the entrance to the headquarters he designed for Disney in Burbank, Calif. — but also his conversation. When the contest was over, Graves quipped, “At least in the licensing exam they gave us 12 hours,” Feiner remembers.

If the illness and paralysis have affected Graves’ approach to design, Burke hasn’t seen it. “Relatively speaking, it hasn’t been that long yet and projects can take years to realize, so the jury’s still out,” says Burke, a former student. But he hazards a guess that Graves might take on projects for the disabled, which he had done before he became paralyzed himself, “with more understanding.” Burke mentions a project to design a pool for Shake-A-Leg in Miami, which encourages children with disabilities to take part in swimming and other water sports. “Before, that might have been an interesting project,” he says. “Now it will be an emotional one.”

Graves also has had to modify the Warehouse, so known because in its early days it functioned as storage for the University, to accommodate his wheelchair — not a welcome proposition for an architect who had poured every ounce of himself into his home, which glows with surprising niches of light and perfects the notion of keeping a structure at the scale of a standing human. He removed a balustrade that once encircled an oculus that filters light from the second floor into the first-floor entry, and reworked the bathroom as a roll-in shower. It gleams with blue-glass tile, reinforcing Burke’s observation that Graves, whether in a hospital or his own home, ensures “that accessibility does not equal inelegance.” And while Graves misses the balustrade, he is pleased with the new elevator, whose existence is revealed from the outside of the house. “The rhythm with the other bumps on the wall makes the house better,” he says.

But the architect isn’t eager to alter other areas, such as his favorite breakfast room with its copious light, or the kitchen. He almost scoffs at the notion of lowering his Target-appliance-lined counters or kitchen drawers to make it easier for him to get to the toaster and the silverware. “It’s going to make you smile when I say this,” he confides, “but I will walk again.” (Graves’ surgeon, Barth Green, told the Boston Globe in a recent interview that although Graves’ chances of “naturally recovering are almost zero,” advances in research make it “probable” that he would walk again.)

Like many of Graves’ colleagues, Burke seems almost not to notice any effect Graves’ condition has had on the firm’s daily operations. “He can’t get as easily to as many meetings or to see as many buildings,” Burke says, “but we kind of shrug our shoulders and say, well, it’s a lot like it was before. He’s here now, almost more. It reminds me of 20-something years ago, when he was around a lot and was somebody you could bounce something off of.” It’s an assessment that reverberates with Graves’ desire to fulfill once again the role that brought him to Princeton to begin with, that of a teacher.

Graves, who arrived at Princeton in 1962, recalls his first years as the most challenging, and his first students, many of whom went on to become deans of architecture schools, as “unforgettable.” He relishes the memory of how he was “in the library all the time because you had to stay a step or two ahead of your students.”

A year later, the school — eager to bring in “people who would upset the apple cart,” says Graves — hired as a visiting professor Peter Eisenman, now based in New York. The architects were inseparable and their friendship became the basis for healthy competition. “We would come in and sit with [the students] at night,” Graves reminisces. “We were very competitive and on each other’s juries and wanted our group to do better.” But the architecture came first, he says.

The relationship between Graves and Eisenman had influence on architecture beyond the studio. In 1972, examples of their designs for residences and accompanying text explaining their thoughts, along with the work of Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier, and the late John Hejduk, appeared in a seminal book called Five Architects. Arthur Drexler, who was then director of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote of the group in the preface, “The young men represented here have ... talent ... and their work makes a modest claim: It is only architecture, not the salvation of man and the redemption of the earth. For those who like architecture that is no mean thing.”

The postscript, by the 20th-century architectural giant Philip Johnson, continued the praise and said about Graves’ Benacerraf pavilion: “If Juan Gris had been a sculptor, he would have rejoiced. Some say [the building] is a useless structure. Change the word ‘building’ to ‘sculpture’ if that makes the critics feel better.” Graves’ place in the architectural history of the 20th century, and those of his four between-the-book-jackets companions, was set before he reached 40. Since then, the architect’s buildings and products have been the subject of no fewer than 12 monographs, including Michael Graves: Buildings and Projects, 1995–2003 (2003) and Michael Graves Designs: The Art of the Everyday Object (2004).

After much consideration, Graves retired from Princeton in 2001. “I was terribly busy and made a promise to our CFO/ lawyer that if she’d stop moonlighting, I’d stop,” he says. Though Graves’ office is just half a mile from the School of Architecture, his contact with the University has been minimal, partly because of his physical condition. But, says Dean Stanley Allen *88, the school is “in constant communication with his office,” most recently about a conference at which Graves was scheduled to speak in honor of Robert Geddes, the dean of the architecture school from 1965 to 1982.

Reflecting on his time at Princeton, Graves remarks, “Thirty-nine years. You’ve got to be happy if you’re going to stay that long. But it was probably bad for business.” He only half jokes. In coming to Princeton, he laments, he had to give up the prospect of designing a building on campus because a University policy prohibits commissioning projects from tenured faculty members. (Graves has designed buildings for other universities.) The University’s rationale is that “the give-and-take that occurs between a client and an architect would be much harder to manage if they had an employer-employee relationship as well,” says President Tilghman, who also acknowledges that it’s “hard to forgo the delight of having work of our own faculty on campus.” (But Tilghman points out that there is no prohibition on commissions to retired faculty.) Although the president, Allen, and University Architect Jon Hlafter ’61 *63 support Princeton’s policy, they also express mixed feelings. “Graves has clearly been one of the leading architects of this country, if not the world, for decades,” says Hlafter, “and it’s a shame we don’t have an example of his work.”

Graves agrees and turns up the volume a tad. “After 41 years, it’s hard to believe that I’ve had no influence on this campus!” It’s the most animated he’s been all afternoon. The hurt and indignation, while channeled with the sweetness and wisdom of the grandfather he is (he is also the father of a 2-year-old, Michael Sebastian), begs the question:

“Do you want to design a building for Princeton?”

A pause.

“Well, do you?”

He responds with a Hargadon “Yes!”

“What would it be?”

“Something important. I don’t want to design a back porch.” end of article


Jessica Dheere ’93 writes about art, architecture, and design. She lives in New York.


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