Graves and His Work Inspire Richmond

St. Coletta of Greater Washington, D.C.

The Virginia Center for Architecture will be paying tribute to AIA Gold Medal recipient Michael Graves, FAIA, in an exhibition “Towers & Teakettles” in Richmond January 17 to March 13, 2013. The Center is also offering a presentation by the architect himself on February 7.

His architectural education at the University of Cincinnati (his hometown) and especially at the Harvard GSD was strictly Modernist-based, says Graves, who subsequently began his teaching tenure at Princeton University in 1962 where he is now the Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, Emeritus. It was in Europe as a Rome Prize scholar at the American Academy in Rome, he recalls, that he began his enduring appreciation of classical architectural elements.

He still adhered to the Modernist principles of geometric abstraction and his love of white when he designed the Plocek Residence in New Jersey, constructed in 1977. Shortly thereafter, though, Graves broke many molds, notably with his designs for the Humana Building in Louisville, Ky., and Portland Building in Portland, Ore. in 1982. Although widely criticized for his eclectic, in-your-eye ornamentation, his buildings also featured contextual elements, amazing vistas, and street-level retail, elements that catered to the building’s users and surrounding community. As Graves says, he was learning that architecture is not just about color and how a building looks but also how it operates.

He also turned his attention to the aesthetics of everyday life when, in 1984, he introduced the bird-whistle teakettle, which became an instant sensation with the Big Box store that would become his longtime partner, Target.

Graves visits the Wounded Warrior model home in Ft. Belvoir.

It was in 2003, though, that events overtook Graves’s life and set him on a course toward perhaps his greatest contribution to the built environment. A persistent cold somehow became a spinal infection, followed by excruciating pain. When the pain finally subsided, the architect’s legs were paralyzed.

Graves quickly came to realize that despite decades of design-for-accessibility guidelines, accommodation for people in wheelchairs was entirely inadequate.  In the hospital recovery room he couldn’t reach the faucet to brush his teeth, bend down to plug in his shaver, or see himself in the mirror, he recalls.

St. Coletta’s accessible interior.

These are things that are so simple to fix, he thought. He had a renewed mission. With it, Graves continues his legacy of beautiful and engaging forms that capture the imagination and serve the body and spirit. (One of his most recent is the Wounded Warriors prototype housing at Ft. Belvoir.

Visit aiava.org for details on his upcoming presentation February 7.

When Graves visited his St. Coletta of Greater Washington, D.C., facility for children he was delighted that he could move through the building in his wheelchair without hindrance. Photo courtesy of St. Coletta.

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