Graves Wows Richmond


By Douglas Gordon, Hon. AIA

In a talk Thursday evening, February 7, Michael Graves, FAIA, summed up his generous collection of remembrances and opinions with this as a concluding apology for the frank nature of it all: “You don’t have many days left at my age. You just have to say it.”

And say it he did in a conversation before a rapt crowd of 250 supporters of the Virginia Center for Architecture (VCA) from across the Commonwealth. VCA Executive Director Helene Combs-Dreiling, FAIA, curated the conversation, which was sponsored by Riverside Brick and Supply Company Inc. and Clark Construction.

The two sat at the front of the Richmond First Baptist Church (the largest available venue in the Upper Fan) as Graves relaxed and expounded, in the process eliciting frequent laughter. He began with how he chose the profession of architecture.

At about age 8, comfortable with his ability to draw, Graves announced: “I’m going to be an artist when I grow up.” His mother told him that he was likely to starve with a career choice like that and that he should choose a profession that involved drawing. She suggested either engineering or architecture. “I asked what an engineer does. She told me, and I said I would be an architect,” Graves recalled.

He never looked back. As an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, his fellow students still wondered in third year whether they really wanted to become architects. Graves said he had no such doubts while he worked as a co-op student alternating semesters studying or working at design studios. “I came out knowing how buildings came together, but not knowing who Palladio was,” he said of that late 1950s experience. “To ensure I did not learn who Palladio was, I went on to the Harvard GSD,” he quipped of his time there, when strict Modernist Josep Lluis Sert was the GSD dean. Both would later go on to receive the AIA Gold Medal.

As it so happens, Combs-Dreiling was the AIA Board member who nominated Graves for his Gold Medal in 2001. She commented that it must certainly have been an honor, followed, as he was, by Japanese architect Tadao Ando in 2002  and Samuel Mockbee (awarded posthumously) in 2003. Graves said he had worked in Japan at the same time Ando was distinguishing himself there, and that he worked a bit with Ando’s brother, who served as an agent securing commissions for architects.

His memory of Mockbee was less pleasant, he said. On one visit to Alabama, over dinner at Mockbee’s house, “Sambo got upset,” Graves said. The legend from Alabama ended up tipping the contents of the dinner table “right into my lap,” he recalled.

But it was for a more recent Gold Medal recipient that Graves saved his ire. “This architect just completed an architecture school without windows,” he chided to the crowd. “Can you imagine that?”

Rome as a living city
An audience of 250 filled the First Baptist Church chapel.

An audience of 250 filled the First Baptist Church chapel. Photo by Stephanie Yonce Photography.

Combs-Dreiling moved on to the question of context, which prompted Graves to recall his time at the American Academy of Rome from 1960 to ’62. “Architecture is not an art form that stands alone,” he said. “Rome is a place where it’s an organism that works to support all aspects of human endeavor.” Design is for activity, and it doesn’t work if it doesn’t encourage pedestrian movement and access to those amenities that make life pleasant.

Richmond is a city where one would enjoy taking a walk after dinner, he said. So too is Princeton, N.J., the location of his offices and the university where he has taught since 1964. (He is currently the Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, Emeritus, there.) Princeton is a village where “it’s all there,” he effused.

Later, during a question-and-answer session he was asked if there were cities in the U.S. that he would compare with Rome. There is no place like Rome, he answered. There are nice places in which to live in the U.S., including New Orleans, Boston’s Back Bay, and South Beach, Fla. (which, he said, doesn’t even seem as if it is part of the U.S.). There are probably many other places where one would feel comfortable going to work, shopping, going home, or taking a stroll, all without depending on a car. But none is Rome.

Democratization of design

To the question of what the current VCA exhibition of his firm’s work calls “Democratization of Design,” Graves turned to his work with Target. In the early 20th century, European enclaves of design intelligentsia, such as the Wiener Werkstätte and the Bauhaus, concentrated on the ideal of beautifying everyday objects, such as spoons and chairs. They created some very beautiful objects, indeed, Graves noted. But they were of limited production and only the wealthy could afford them. So, despite the intention of creating everyday aesthetic elevation for the common person, these creations were well beyond most people’s means.

Graves came to Target’s notice when he designed the scaffolding for the Washington Monument restoration in the 1990s. It was in 1996 that Target Stores, working with the federal government, took the fund-raising lead to restore the Washington Monument. That work required a 555-foot scaffolding to enrobe the entire building for the duration of the project. The mega-store offered the scaffolding commission to MGA, not sure whether they were willing to take it on. “We were,” Graves recalls. “And it was a huge success.”

Some of the MGA-designed items on display at the VCA exhibit

Some of the MGA-designed items on display at the VCA exhibit

As a result, an executive at Target, Ron Johnson, brought Graves on to design teakettles, kitchenware, toasters, even a toilet scrub brush and holder for mass production and sale. Designing products for Target was more difficult than the work he had done for clients such as Tiffany, Graves said, because the big-box store had very hard numbers on profit margin and acceptable price points. But the work, being more challenging, was also very rewarding, he said.

Michael Graves & Associates (MGA) has since reached an amicable split with Target, Graves noted. It became apparent after working with them for 15 years that they were letting go their outside design consultants and hiring designers to bring inside the company. “Now they’re one of the largest design firm in the world with 500 designers,” Graves said.
In the meantime, Johnson had moved on to become the chief executive of JC Penney’s, and he has asked Graves to help turn that store around by redesigning the corporation’s entire retail approach. Each store will have a smaller store within it that will carry high-design objects and, overall, provide a much higher-quality retail shopping experience. “I’m like a kid in a candy store with this project” Graves said of the challenge. And it will develop into something over the next year that MGA has never done before.

Just as he responded at the end of his talk to the question: “What is your favorite project?” Graves made it apparent in his description of the JC Penney opportunity that his favorite project is always “the next one.” When a client comes to MGA with a commission, they expect A-quality work. “We can’t deliver B+ work,” he acknowledged. When the firm’s reputation is always on the line, anything less that the very best is not good enough.

Combs-Dreiling joked that a woman had said she was going to bring her Target toaster to the lecture to ask him to sign it. “Sure, I’ll sign it,” Graves replied. “I told her the toaster, yes, the toilet brush, no,” Combs-Dreiling continued. “I’ll sign the toilet brush, too,” he said. That brush was on the cover of Time magazine and Target immediately sold 6,000 of them, he said before offering another reminiscence: “When my brother saw that, he called to say: ‘I’m glad mom and dad aren’t around anymore to see what you’ve become.’”

The Hotel Michael
Gold and red dominate the Sentosa gaming areas.

Gold and red dominate the Santosa gaming areas.

Encouraged by Combs-Dreiling, Graves proceeded to discuss a recent MGA project in Singapore, the  Resorts World Sentosa, an enormous gambling and entertainment complex that includes a hotel on which the client bestowed the name Hotel Michael to honor Graves meticulous inside-out design detail. Displays of the many elements of the Sentosa complex take up a large portion of the exhibition at the VCA.

It was MGA Principal Patrick Burke, AIA, who managed the day-to-day design development, Graves said. As the project was nearing completion, Graves stepped in to design everything from the flatware and china to interior decorations and the doorhandles, he said, all inspired by the Palagio in Siena, Italy.

Working for the client was a challenge, since they were focused on creating a basement-area gaming area “the size of Richmond,” and on the profit it would bring in. There was a counting room of substantial size, and the client wanted it filled to the top with $100 bills every night “or else we come for you,” Graves quipped. The lucky colors for gamblers in the region are red and gold, and this brobdingnagian complex of gambling galleries is awash with garish brilliance.

In general, “working in China or India sucks,” Graves paused to observe. The big commercial firms give away unpaid programming services as a marketing expense, he explained, and the clients there expect that. Smaller firms can’t compete in that kind of business atmosphere.

Design for disabilities
The Stryker patient transport chair MGA has designed

The Stryker patient transport chair MGA has designed

It was in 2003 that Graves suffered a mysterious spinal infection that resulted in paraplegia. “The code isn’t even close to accommodating [people with disabilities],” he said with force. “People have no concept of the simple indignities that happen every day.” In a wheelchair, he said, citing one of the more obvious examples, he can’t open and enter an inward-swinging door.

When he first went to the hospital in excruciating pain, Graves did not know the cause or extent of any possible damage. And it wasn’t until he was in recovery and was given a handicap parking sticker with the word “Permanent” on it that he understood what he was to face. When he was getting treatment in Florida, his greatest fear was losing the use of his hands. He was feeling sorry for himself, he admitted. “I’m pretty much a glass is half-full kind of person. Would my glass be half full as a quadriplegic? I dunno,” Graves said. His surgeon promised he would do everything in his power to prevent that, and he did.

Calling himself a fighter, Graves spoke of the awareness that the turn of events brought to him. As he looked around the room he said that 10 percent of the people there will be in a wheelchair one day, and that, in his fight as a new presidentially appointed member of the U.S. Access Board, he would “fight for all of us.”

Hospitals in particular are a Third World for people with disabilities, and be wary of healthcare “experts,” Graves warned. He explained by relaying his experience of first being in the hospital following his paralysis. There was a final test for getting out of the hospital and going home, he said. The doctor told him he had to get up by himself, get dressed, including his shoes (tying them can take an hour, but Velcro is just too ugly, he said), get in his wheelchair, wash up and shave, and then he would prove he is ready to leave.

Despite his paralysis and limited range of arm motion, he was able to get dressed and to the bathroom, but that’s as far as it could go, he said. He couldn’t see himself in the mirror, couldn’t reach the plug near the floor for his shaver anyway, and the faucet was entirely out of reach. When the doctor came in and asked why he hadn’t washed, Graves told him to get a wheelchair from the hall and try it himself. He couldn’t.


Before dinner, Combs-Dreiling, Graves, and VCA Board of Trustees Chair Stephen A. Coor, Hon. VSAIA, visit the Museum Shop filled with Graves’s drawings for the occasion. Photo by Stephanie Yonce Photography.

The doctor had said the rooms were designed by experts, but they didn’t work for the people for whom they were supposedly designed, Graves admonished. He wasn’t doing the most rudimentary user analysis of the built space and didn’t see a problem in that. “Now I’m intent on going to one hospital at a time” to fix that, Graves vowed.

The Wounded Warrior demonstrations houses he designed for Ft. Belvoir, Va., has been another far-reaching step toward helping the thousands of people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating injuries. His design, he said, was meant to be easily adaptable to other home designs, and that the Air Force is now looking into a similar program.

The conversation between Graves and Combs-Dreiling concluded with a hearty standing ovation. Following a crowded session of well-wishing, the two retired  with 60 guests to the VCA just up Monument Avenue to enjoy a reception and dinner to cap the evening.

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