Michael Graves
Denver Central Library

Assessing the legacy of Michael Graves is no small task. During a 50-year career, Graves has completed so many projects that the current retrospective at Grounds for Sculpture (an indoor-outdoor art park near Trenton, New Jersey) requires several buildings. Some parts of the exhibition are organized by decade—starting with the all-white houses of the 1970s and ending with the anything-but-white buildings of recent decades; others are arranged by category (toasters alone could fill a room, salad bowls get a large vitrine, and canes form a jaunty tableau); and still others, by client—Target, Disney, JCPenney, and the two companies that underwrote the exhibition, Alessi and Kimberly-Clark. In short, Graves has more types of projects than most architects have projects. 

The fecundity is particularly poignant for this reviewer, who studied under Graves in the late 1970s. At the time, he had built practically nothing—a kitchen addition near the Princeton campus, completed for $22,000, was a big deal back then. There was no sign of the torrent of creativity to come, nor could anyone have predicted that Graves would continue to thrive after two apparent setbacks: the decline of post-modernism, which could have dragged him under, and an infection that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Along the way, he built two large companies, Michael Graves & Associates (architecture) and Michael Graves Design Group (products, branding, and graphics). As the show demonstrates, his partners have translated his ideas into a sprawling output, including buildings that— because of his disability—he has never visited.

All of which his being celebrated during this season of Graves, of which the show at Grounds for Sculpture, titled Past As Prologue (through April 15, 2015), is just one part. Another is the smaller exhibition Michael Graves Paintings: Landscapes and Still Lives at Studio Vendome in Manhattan (through December 31). Meanwhile, Graves has just had an architecture school named for him, becoming perhaps the only living architect with that distinction. And he is the subject of a symposium on November 22 organized by The Architectural League of New York at Parsons The New School for Design; participants will include Steven Holl, Dean Kamen, and Monica Ponce de Leon.

In the midst of it all, somewhat poignantly, Graves is defending his first large structure, the municipal services building in Portland, Oregon, which some say has outlived its usefulness and ought to be torn down. The Portland building, completed in 1982, is a vast concrete box, with tiny windows placed like punctuation marks amid effusive decoration. Graves, wheelchair-bound, traveled to Portland to speak about the building, considered an early example of post-modernism, at a public forum. His prescription for bringing it into the 21st century: radically redesign its interiors while restoring the mural-like facades to their original condition. His flexibility regarding the insides is admirable, but it also supports an oft-heard criticism of Graves: that his main focus is surface decoration. (It doesn’t help that the show at Grounds for Sculpture includes a cookie tin that is a perfect replica of the building.)

There is no question that Graves is a master of two dimensions; he might have had a successful career as a painter and muralist. But his ability to shape spaces should not be underestimated. The reality is that proportions matter to Graves as much as surfaces, and with with his cubes and cylinders and double-cubes and cubes topped by half-cylinders he has created some of the most beautifully formed rooms in recent memory—it’s just that the Portland commission didn’t provide a budget equal to Graves’s aspirations. And so the decoration of the Portland building, love it or loath it, isn’t the problem; the problem is how little there is besides the decoration. Comparing Portland to the far more elaborate buildings that followed, it’s clear that past is barely prologue. The last 30 years have seen so much good work come out of his office that if the Portland building is torn down, Graves’ reputation won’t suffer, and it may even soar.