Popular culture is the province of the young-and-getting-younger. Teenage singers routinely sell millions of albums; basketball players ascend to the royalties of the NBA straight out of high school.
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But in architecture, the old-timers rule. The two most talked-about new buildings in years -- the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a striking aluminum-skinned Cubist whale, and the massive, massively white Getty Center overlooking Los Angeles -- were designed by men (Frank Gehry and Richard Meier) well past the age of sixty.
Another of architecture's elder statesmen, Michael Graves, 66 years young, is in Denver this week to deliver a talk for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The speech is titled "Rephrasing Traditional Architecture.com" and will feature Graves talking about the state of architecture today and where he thinks it will head tomorrow. A slide show of his past work will accompany his talk, the title of which is apropos, given that Graves has been rephrasing traditional architecture since the 1960s. Though he got his start designing residential homes in Princeton, New Jersey, he entered the public imagination in 1982 with the colorful Portland Public Services Building, the first of a series of splashy, playful buildings that includes Graves's 1995 addition to the Denver Central Library.
"When somebody's spending millions for a new library, you have to have proven yourself over and over again," Graves says, explaining the reality of older architects being the stars. "You can't just have one good building. There is something about architecture that is bound up in experience."
Born in Indianapolis, Graves studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati and at Harvard University; in 1960, he studied for two years at the American Academy Rome. When he returned to the United States, he soon found himself part of a group of young architects dubbed the New York Five, who, in their own ways, were confronting the establishment of the profession.
The establishment was modernism, which was rooted in the form-follows-function ethos of German architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus design school, and then institutionalized in the United States by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who famously espoused that "less is more." At its best, modernism was cool and crisply elegant, austerely noble. At its worst, it was like architecture by machine -- the endless spitting out of identically bland glass boxes with hardly a trace of heart.
Graves set out to create architecture you could feel. "Architects have to think metaphorically. If you carry your bride over the threshold, that has meaning," he says. Architecture needed to be more symbolic and alive, buildings freighted with myth and ritual. But don't call the guy a postmodernist -- which is how he is generally described by critics and writers -- he doesn't like labels. He is simply a "general practitioner."
The labels don't really describe his buildings, anyway, which are full of color and whimsy and odd shapes. At the Disney headquarters in Burbank, California, Graves designed a series of stone columns in the shape of the Seven Dwarfs, while at Walt Disney World in Orlando, huge dolphins and swans grace the Dolphin Hotel and the Swan Hotel, respectively. The face of a nine-story Tokyo office building he designed in 1988 is a checkerboard pattern of blue and white rectangles etched with deeply recessed windows that is both proper and Alice in Wonderland-crazy. That same dichotomy exists with Graves's design for the Denver library -- as playful as the building is, with its sandstone red and moss green, its rotunda and pyramid and the bronzed origami of the children's reading room, the underlying feel of the place is classical, well-proportioned bearing.
Graves has witnessed a huge growth in the popularity of architects and their buildings. At the time of the Portland building, the idea of newspaper reporters interviewing architects was rare. "The best you'd get was gossip about Frank Lloyd Wright's divorce," he says. Architecture critics were rare; few, if any, architects were household names. But a growing interest in modern art, the rise of exhibitions, the growing importance of design in the culture, in everything from cars to furniture to clothes, has turned all of that around. Graves himself has even entered the name-brand game. His name is affixed, Martha Stewart-like, to a series of kitchen and bathroom appliances and utensils sold at Target.
Fittingly, these items -- everything from silverware to cups to lotion dispensers to can openers to blenders to toasters -- is as soft and warm as his architecture. There's nary a straight line in sight, just curve upon curve with the same breezy feel as, say, lowercase letters. And Graves's play with colors continues -- vanilla knobs and blue handles accent the typical whites and stainless-steel silvers of the products. His tea kettle, shaped like the tip of a missile, even has a red whistle at the end of the spout.
As architecture rides the coattails of design into pop culture, Graves is pleased that the profession is moving into the public eye, where it can be written about, discussed, debated and judged by more people -- while avoiding what Graves fears, which is, at it turns out, very much at the heart of postmodernism. People, especially academics, he says, are talking more about the talk itself than they are about the architecture. "That can't be very healthy," he says. -- T.R. Witcher
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