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Michael Graves & Associates

341 Nassau Street

Princeton, NJ 08540

Tel: 609.924. 6409

Princeton, New York


Interview with Michael Graves

June 2004, Princeton, New Jersey


Vladimir Belogolovsky: How did you become interested in architecture and design?


MG: I excelled at drawing when I was a child and my mother encouraged me to become educated in a profession that uses this and related skills. I received my undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati, which had a cooperative program that required students to work in offices alternating with time spent in school. I went to graduate school at Harvard University and from there I went to the American Academy in Rome where I studied for two years. Looking back on that experience now, I think that my broad interests in design at all scales came from a combination of those experiences, particularly the Rome experience, which placed value on design as an essential cultural experience.


VB: As an architect who influenced you most?


MG: No one individual. I would have to cite several architects and designers, but for different reasons. When I was growing up, and in architecture school, my heroes were people like Charles Eames, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen, and I later worked for George Nelson. The fact that all of these people also designed furniture and furnishings made me realize that architects could work broadly in design fields. I also greatly admire Josef Hoffmann, Sir John Soane, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Josef Plečnik, Gunnar Asplund and a whole host of others. I’m studying the works of others all the time and it always gives me pleasure to discover a project I hadn’t seen before. 


VB: How important to you is Le Corbusier?


MG: Harvard was very much under the influence of Le Corbusier when I studied there in the late 1950s and all of us knew his Oeuvre Complète very well. I think it’s important today that architects read Corb’s classic treatise, Towards a New Architecture since it presents the raison d’être for modernism, at least his version of it. Whatever one thinks today about the formal characteristics of modernism, what I find most interesting about Le Corbusier’s work is its capacity to tell stories. As I’ve written in the articles I have authored about his drawings, he always had a way of making references to other things, of putting his work in a broader cultural context. I find that relevant today in my own work.


VB: Your architecture can be described as Post-Modern or Free-Style Classical. Did it evolve as a protest against Modernism?


MG: I would have to say that my architecture evolved in part as a reaction to aspects of Modernism. I find the metaphors of the machine that Modernism embodies, along with the geometric abstraction of formal composition, to be alienating and sometimes even disorienting, as opposed to a more classical approach that considers metaphors of man and the landscape and a more figurative formal tradition. That is not to say that my work is historicist or classical stylistically, which is part of what the Post-Modern movement argued. I don’t think of myself as a Post-Modernist. The Modernists tried to wipe the slate clean and the Post-Modernists tried to look back to formal motifs recognized from historical architecture. Instead, I think that modern composition is part of a cultural continuum that goes back thousands of years and therefore I tend to see both Modernism and the traditional language of architecture as part of the palette we use to compose our buildings.


VB: Did you develop your particular architectural language independently or were you influenced by any contemporary architects?


MG: I was more influenced by my studies of architecture of the past, analyzing the roots of some of the decisions that designers made and how they used or inverted the architectural language that preceded them. Having said that, however, the one contemporary architect who influenced me was Aldo Rossi. Until his untimely death, he and I had parallel careers designing products for Alessi in addition to our architectural endeavours.


VB: What made you go into the direction of revising historical forms after being one of New York Five?


MG: I was very struck by a comment someone once made about my work’s being abstruse. The commentator thought my compositions needed too much explanation and reminded me of a comment by the poet Wallace Stevens who said something to the effect that a composition needed to be figurative enough to allow you into the meaning and abstract enough to keep your attention. Of course, Stevens was speaking about poetry, but that thought resonated with me about architecture as well. My work that was published in the book Five Architects was abstract and I thought I needed to make the forms more familiar. I started to analyze the language of architecture and how people make associations with familiar forms. I’m not sure that could be characterized as reviving historic forms, which I take to mean style. However, as I said before, my interest was in exploring the traditional language of architecture in conjunction with the lessons of modern composition.


VB: Why do you think clients come to you? What do they expect you to do that other architects can’t?   


MG: Our clients generally come to us because they are interested in design excellence and know that we can create buildings, interiors and objects that are provocative and yet comfortable. What I think distinguishes our practice from most is its breadth. We have many disciplines between our two companies (one is principally an architecture firm and the other a product design firm): planning, architecture, interior design, product design and graphic design, and we frequently use all of those skills in our projects. For example, in a hotel, we might prepare a master plan for the broader development, design the buildings and interiors, and also create the furniture, artwork, logos, dinnerware and all the other items, big and small, that furnish it.


VB: Do you have a set of questions that you usually ask yourself when you start a new project?


MG: I am always interested in the development of architectural character and therefore I think about the context and the building typology. In my mind, a hotel project in Egypt should convey a sense of hospitality – even domesticity – and reflect its location.


VB: Presently many leading architects are experimenting with complex geometry, dynamic spaces and new materials. Why do you think it is important to revise architectural forms from history that long past and continue to employ a full repertoire of moldings, keystones, columnar orders, as well as symmetry?


MG: I am not interested in style for the sake of style and certainly do not revive historical forms. However, I’m also not interested in the new for the sake of being new. It eventually gets old. As I said before, I think Modernism, and its evolution both contribute to the continuity of architectural culture just as much as historical styles do, and I don’t think of one to the exclusion of the other.


VB: How many designs have you done for Target? Can you comment on this collaboration?    


MG: We have designed over 800 products that have been sold at Target over the last five years. We introduce about a hundred new ones each year. I’ve been thrilled with this relationship, since Target and I share the vision of bringing good design to the widest possible audience. I’m pleased that my collaboration with Target has paved the way for their work with other designer partners and has increased an interest in good design throughout America.


VB: What is your favourite teaching assignment?


MG: I taught at Princeton University for 39 years and always enjoyed the design studios, whether graduate or undergraduate. I often started the academic term with a sketch problem of designing an addition to a Gunnar Asplund Villa; the problem explored ideas of context and character and the reciprocity between buildings and landscape. From there, I had the students work on more complex buildings and on site plan problems where an exploration of building typology became important.


VB: Have you ever been to Russia or worked on any projects there?


MG: I was part of a consulting team for the Hermitage Museum a few years ago and traveled to St. Petersburg and a few other cities at that time. The historic architecture is wonderful and I’m pleased that some of it is being preserved and restored.


VB: Currently post-modernism is the official Moscow government style. Naturally, many architects there try to break away from it but so far their voices are not distinct. Do you have any advice for young Russian architects?


MG: My advice to all young architects is to spend time looking at architecture – in person or in books – as broadly as possible. Concentrate on the language of architecture and not just on style.


VB: Can you comment on a couple of your most recent projects?


MG: We have just completed a renovation of a historic building in Shanghai, China, known as “Three on the Bund.” It includes several restaurants for internationally prominent chefs, art galleries, fashion retail and a jazz club. We were able to create dynamic and contemporary public interiors within one of the most important historic buildings in the city, which was meticulously restored on the exterior. We don’t know if the original interiors were notable or not since they had been so terribly altered over time. Now it’s a jewel. 


Our practice continues to be strong in both cultural and civic projects with museum expansions at art institutes in Minneapolis and Detroit, courthouses in Washington, D.C. and Nashville, a Federal Reserve Bank in Houston, and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea. All of these projects balance an expression of the building type with the context.


VB: What is your dream project?


MG: A whole campus or a whole city.


VB: How do you want to be remembered?


MG: As a person who made a difference – through my practice in the way the public perceives the importance of design in their everyday lives, and also through my teaching in that I taught whole generations of young architects, many of whom have become important teachers and practitioners in their own right.