Towers versus tea kettles: the “superiority” of architecture

Today, I learned that Michael Graves died.

Michael Graves, one of the most prominent and prolific American architects of the latter 20th century, who designed more than 350 buildings around the world but was perhaps best known for his teakettle and pepper mill, died on Thursday at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 80.

That’s the opening paragraph of his obituary in The New York Times, and the ambivalence carried by the phrase, “but was perhaps best known for his teakettle and pepper mill,” sets the tone for the entire article — and apparently for the latter half of Graves’ life. Some saw his commitment to designing inexpensive, often whimsical products for Target and Alessi as “selling out,” a descent from the loftier world of architecture.

The noblest profession?

In a 2011 interview with The Times, Graves said:

And at the beginning there were snide remarks. I remember being at a black-tie dinner, which was a roast for someone else, and my designing for Target came up. I laughed, but I thought to myself, “It won’t be long until you’re doing that, too.”

Two years earlier, though, Graves didn’t seem comfortable being known primarily as a product designer, as this exchange illustrates:

Lauren Payne: You have a long résumé of impressive buildings, but it seems you are best known for your product designs.

Michael Graves: Oh, I hope not!

The subtext is clear: Products are fine, but architecture is clearly the nobler of the two pursuits. Thankfully, Graves seems to have gotten over this. Perusing the portfolio of the Michael Graves firm, architecture and products are featured equally. There’s even a “graphics” category!

The "Cubit" watch, designed for the Markuse Corporation
The “Cubit” watch, designed for the Markuse Corporation

Card-carrying demigods

In “The Fountainhead,” Ayn Rand chose to make an architect (the ornery Howard Roark) the mouthpiece for her philosophy of radical individualism. Roark’s buildings are unadulterated expressions of himself, of his visionary genius. When he discovers that one of his designs has been altered, he does the only sensible thing a man like him can do: he blows it up.

Clearly, this caricature of architects did little to help the public’s perception of the field.

St Coletta School of Greater Washington
St Coletta School of Greater Washington

Ego-mania aside, it’s understandable why architects might secretly regard themselves as demigods. To paraphrase my good friend, “You can look away from a bad poster. But you can’t always leave a badly designed building.” In other words, architects have the power to literally shape our world. Moreover, they have a moral obligation do so in a way that, at the very least, does not make our lives unnecessarily miserable.

Being granted a license (after many years of school and labor) to practice this world-building power inevitably confers a feeling of grandness on some. Perhaps on most.

And so architects tend to take themselves very, very seriously. Which is exhausting.

Portland Building by Michael Graves
Portland Building by Michael Graves

Michael Graves, though, seems to have side-stepped that seriousness, while still keeping a healthy confidence. In an article discussing the fate of Graves’ famous Portland Building, Graves defends his work with a smile:

And what about the infamous, pedestrian unfriendly parking garage, a gaping hole in the building’s base that belches cars onto Fourth Avenue?

Graves’ response: It was the city that demanded parking inside the building, and it was a big mistake. “Get rid of the cars,” he suggested. Put something else there. Maybe a store. “Call it the Gap,” he said.

I didn’t know Graves personally, so I have no idea if he was a jovial man or if his last name was a better descriptor of his outlook on life. But I know that he came to embrace the philosophy of designing for everyone. He was a populist — or rather he became one, and that should be celebrated.

Everything old is new again

I hope his work, both his architecture and his products, will be increasingly admired by a new generation of designers who grew up with a different set of beliefs about the role of design in our lives.

The LA Times’ obituary puts it best:

Architecture today is as eclectic, as devoid of certainty, as the period in the 1970s when Graves and postmodernism emerged. Periods like that always produce a new interest in history, in basics and fundamentals; this one is no different.

As a result, both Graves’ designs themselves and their historicist bent have begun to look fresh to designers, architects, critics and curators in their 20s and 30s, many of them raised on a steady diet of flat-roofed, Dwell-magazine style neomodernism, which now can look conservative or dull.

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