Political Questions

Michael Graves interviewed by Justin Fowler

At 77 years of age and having recently returned to practice after an infection in 2003 left him paralyzed from the waist down, Michael Graves is not pining for retirement just yet. For an architect whose body of work emphasizes the endurance of forms and ideas over the fleeting pleasures of fashion, Graves’ embrace of product design might seem something of a departure from his early practice. But, as he suggests, the demands of accessibility and intuitive use have been embedded within design practice from the very beginning. So while Graves’ general approach remains grounded in the principles of the discipline, his newfound expertise in the environment faced by the disabled has put him at the forefront of the public debate about the role of design for those with special needs. Here Graves candidly reflects on the physicality of design and the political necessities that now drive his work.


Justin Fowler: Unlike a number of your peers, you seem to view architecture through a lens that emphasizes the persistence of types, symbols, and materials within a broader historical lineage. As you’ve grown older do you see your design process as one of exploration and experimentation or of distilling your core design values?

Michael Graves: A little bit of both. People used to ask me: “What are you going to do next?” as if it were fashion.  And I would always say that I’m working on a set of values that I hope to improve as I have more experience with them. That’s also tempered by the kinds of projects you get. Many of us don’t have the luxury of saying I’d like to do an xyz building today and something else tomorrow.  Sometimes that expands the practice and sometimes it limits it. People ask me, “Why would you do retail products for Target stores?” And I always say, “Why would you not?” The right question is why people don’t diversify what they’re doing?

JF: You position your work not so much in relation to style, but rather you attempt to connect with something much deeper. What role does your choice of materials play in this formulation?

MG: That’s true, but let me answer your question as Ken Frampton would, in terms of material. When given a choice, I use permanent materials. I use stone and wood and masonry that change their characteristics over time and acquire a patina. I was at a symposium with Frank Gehry recently here in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study and he said, ‘I wish I could find a really good red for my buildings’. And I said, ‘well Frank, there are a lot of good reds for your buildings’. And he said, ‘No; one that won’t weather’. And I said, ‘We’re coming from that question from opposite ends then’. I look at reds or terra cottas or ochres or anything and think, what will they look like in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years?  And generally it’s better for me. But he wanted the abstraction of red to be permanent and in architecture that’s not going to happen unless it’s redone every year. Questions that piss me off the most are ones like, “How do you freshen your work?” So many of the kinds of inquiries we get have to do with throw-away design and throwaway culture and I don’t really think we participate in that; or at least we try not to anyway.

JF: You’ve suggested before that this mentality developed from your excursion to Rome at the start of your career. Have you always attempted to translate the study of ruins or materials that bear the marks of time into your practice?

MG: Absolutely, however it didn’t happen immediately. I did a big house in Indiana I covered in a new product that had made claims that had to do with doing away with flashing and such so you could have a plane and every corner would be smoothed over with a stucco-like liquid that would dry and harden. Since it was made by a respected company I trusted the product but it didn’t perform as promised. Fortunately I had time to redo that part of the building. So I learned very early on that if I wanted to participate in technological advances that would be one kind of practice and if I wanted to participate in architecture without always paying attention to each and every new material or technological advance then I would have a totally different kind of practice. And that kind of architecture, as you point out, is something you find in Italy. I’ve even gone so far as to say that some of the great Florentine palazzi would make great green buildings because the windows are the right size, the ceilings are twice the height of ours thereby capturing the heat in the summer, they’re based on cross-ventilation, the materials are found locally and so on. It’s all there.

JF: Beyond the literal issues of materiality, how would you describe the physicality, or rather, the substance of your work?

MG: My own house, which I look at every day, has aged brilliantly. The building has good bones. So you could make changes – a wall here or there – not that it’s really adapted to that. I haven’t needed to do that except when I was learning how to drive my wheelchair around pretty tight corners. Obviously these corners would’ve been widened if I had been paralyzed before the design, but now it was up to me to find a way to do it. I can get around pretty well without scraping the wall too often. But short of that the building seems to have substance.

Outside of museum design most people don’t think about how a wall meets the floor. That’s amusing because usually they want it to go away. Some people make floor pieces, some people make wall pieces, some people make both or they do something that starts on the wall and melds into the floor. Saarinen’s TWA terminal passageways certainly had to deal with how that transformation would take place, how one would end and the other would start since the concept of ‘wall to floor’ is ambiguous in a space that was elliptical. But if you look at Renaissance buildings there’s a clear admission of that connection in material and their proportion. And I emphasize proportion: in Modernist work one would try to make a board at the base of a wall go away, in traditional work it would be something like 4-6 inches. But what if you made that 18 inches? What if you made it out of masonry? What if it really were something that would stand there in an unexpected way? Mine are about a foot tall and it gives the whole room a sense of permanence I don’t think you have with something more fragile. Now if you take that kind of condition to the wall meeting the soffit, you continue to discuss the room, its volume, and its permanency by virtue of the way you detail it when you’re not using significant materials, wall board, for example.  I still want the volume of the room read, so it’s a bit of a dilemma, but nevertheless, with a bump and grind here or there you can make those two join each other as if somebody thought about the join and it’s not just an L in section, but something a little more complex than that.

JF: Are there projects of yours from early on that you think have aged particularly well?

MG: The office buildings and the hotels that were built with a little more substance than some of the houses have aged well. It’s interesting that we never got a lot of houses for rich people and so there wasn’t the chance to do something with material. There were always budget concerns with the Hanselmann House, the Benacerraf House and some other things. But then we haven’t done that many houses. Schemes, but not very many built.  So looking back at the Humana Building and a hotel we did in La Jolla and the winery in the Napa Valley, I think all those things have a kind of quality of being there permanently. It’s tough to get people to think of architecture in that way.

JF: If preservation is considered as one response to aging, then your Washington Monument restoration project is interesting in its ambivalence toward its subject. On the one hand, you don’t want to betray the timeless ambitions of its ideological charge, and on the other, you can’t simply conceal the necessity of its renewal. What was your attitude toward preserving this aging icon that was very much alive and well in the minds of most casual observers?

MG: Well, Target was very much a part of this. They told me that they wanted something that was substantial and would make people aware of what was happening. They said it’s going to be up for two to three years so it’s got to look the part it has played for all this time. The point was to show that even buildings need tender love and care, and that they deteriorate if you’re not careful.  We also wanted to demonstrate what goes and what stays in that kind of process. I wanted to show the kind of construction it was originally, which was a running bond, and play that up in a magnified way so people would get the idea of structure within the stone. For kids, we created a pamphlet that asked: Who was Washington?  Why was the city named after him? Was the city always the capital? What is an obelisk? Why an obelisk for this city at this time? Was the obelisk finished at the beginning?  What were the issues surrounding it? Was it a competition?  There are so many nice little questions you could ask. I could imagine my eight year old doing a little paper on it. So that’s really what we wanted to do: show that permanent buildings need care and you can’t just leave them out on the sidewalk like an old refrigerator.  Later, a Senator from New Mexico proposed a bill that would keep the scaffolding on and a newspaper called me up and asked me what I thought about this and I said that it was a very sweet gesture, but it couldn’t happen. It was then we recognized that the scaffold’s steel wasn’t permanent; it will rust over time and will have to be replaced.

JF: To shift focus a bit, perhaps we can talk about your push for the ‘democratization of design’.  If the aging or impaired have an attenuated relation with the physical, how does your concept of ‘design for all’ negotiate between the desire to produce forms and objects that appeal to a general audience and also accommodate the specific demands of those with special needs? Do you think it’s the case that if something is designed to be as user-friendly as possible that it will be of benefit to anyone regardless of circumstance?

MG: It is true that once you are impaired in some way, you become much more conscious of everything. You hear stories that the blind can sense a wall when they’re walking toward it. I imagine they feel the pressure of the air as it hits their faces, they get used to it or maybe the sound as well; the echo of their feet. My paralysis was dramatic in that I could no longer do a lot of things I wanted to do and was laid up for so long that clients decided I wasn’t working anymore. In fact, I went to a fundraiser the other night and the woman sitting next to me asked if I was still working. I wanted to say, “Why wouldn’t I?” But I think she didn’t mean because I was paralyzed, I think she meant because I was older than her husband. Some people are my age and they feel old.  I’m my age and I feel like Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry.  We really don’t feel old. We can do everything we used to do, or at least we think we can. But this paralysis does something else to you. It tells you that if this was 1900 you would be sitting at home in a wooden wheelchair perhaps, but you would not be going out. The streets weren’t paved; there were steps everywhere. It was impossible. When you think about how far we’ve come, we’ve put a ramp on the side of our 19th century house here and made out just fine, but everybody can’t do that. There are folks, especially people coming back from wars, who were poor before they went into the army, then they came back maimed and expected society to help them a little bit. That’s very hard for society to understand.  Half of society understands that and half don’t. 

I could tell you funny little stories about going to meetings or dinners in fancy places in New York, going through the kitchens usually so you see what’s being made before your dinner and you say hello to the waiters.  If you’re pissing and moaning the whole way you won’t enjoy your evening, that’s the way it is. But at least you’re getting in there. You go get your seat first if it’s a big cocktail party otherwise you’re never going to sit down because you can’t ask all the people to move for you. These are little things and so you laugh it off, but there are things you don’t laugh off. I was in Florida recently, where I had my surgery, and I was in my wheelchair at the door of the little commissary where all the doctors and nurses go to eat and while interns and doctors came in talking loudly to each other I sat there waiting for someone to get the door for me because the doors don’t open automatically. And this was a hospital! You have to shake your head. People really should be more aware. 

I ask myself every day: would you be as involved in health care today if you weren’t paralyzed? And I certainly hope the answer would be yes, but it’s probably not. We would probably have had other opportunities if I hadn’t gotten paralyzed. We surely lost commissions because word was out on the street that I was in the hospital. But now, we are getting commissions again and it’s like we’re trying to start a new practice, trying to get people to come to you again. So in terms of health care, we go to it. In the office they call me the ‘reluctant expert’ because my paralysis has led to my newfound expertise.  I don’t want to be in this motorized chair, but since I am I have learned things other people just don’t know. I haven’t been able to get everybody to understand the values of certain things that are easily fixed in architecture – in building really – that shouldn’t be missed. I have a horizontal drain in my shower and it’s probably one of the smartest things I ever did. The drain goes from wall to wall on the side of the room and the floor slopes that direction, so no water goes over the drain. Now, in doing showers for hotels, you would think that would be an easy sell, but it’s not. And the problem is not with the developer and not with the client, but with the architects who’ve done it one way all their lives.

JF: When speaking of design for the aging or the impaired, the issue of scale really comes to the fore. With products and interiors, the discussion is often about how best to craft a controlled environment calibrated to the individual user. There may be a certain degree of flexibility there, but the freedom is usually positioned within a range of activities defined by the designer. At the urban scale, however, issues of risk and contingency come into play. How would you characterize designer’s position in relation to these challenges of scale?

MG: When I was first paralyzed I got an iBOT chair which climbs stairs. I thought it was a lot more stair-climbable than it is, but in fact it needs risers and treads of certain dimensions, so it has its limitations. We were working a lot in Japan at the time and I knew that they just don’t have ramps over there. I haven’t been back since and that’s from somebody who has been to Japan 103 times and now won’t ever go again. So it’s just my fear of cobblestones and my fear of every hotel in the world that doesn’t enter directly from the sidewalk. We have more of those in New York than we do in Europe, because there are so many grand old hotels that all have steps.  And they just tell people in my situation to try another hotel. Cities are planned without any thought to wheelchair users.

I’m talking only about wheelchairs and I should broaden that. I was recently at a conference in Bethesda, Maryland for a group of people called the Wounded Warriors – we’re doing a project for them – and there were some questions afterwards. One of the guys in the audience put up his good hand and then he took it down and put up his claw and they called on him and he said, ‘Mr. Graves says most of these questions are political and I just want all of you to hear that a second time, they are political; they do need to have a voice somewhere’.  He said, ‘Mr. Graves was talking about where to put the faucets in the house he’s designing, on the side or in the back. It’s just as easy on the side and I can reach it with my good hand. If it’s in the back, I’m not sure I could’. I can’t, because of where my paralysis starts. It’s very hard for me to get the person who’s working on it to understand this. He doesn’t get it that I can’t reach the back of the sink. And since he hasn’t seen a faucet on the side of the sink, he doesn’t know that you can drill a hole in the formica there and you can have a single lever to operate it. But the soldier said, ‘If I were in Mr. Graves’ shape, I could get the government to help me pay for a wheelchair’. He said, ‘I think there’s a dilemma for people with upper body disabilities’, like his missing arm, he said, ‘because I have tried to get them to pay for a faucet that’s turned on by a foot pedal; my legs are just fine, but I can’t get that put in my house’. Why not? Who is running this show? My iBOT is not going to be offered anymore because it’s called a transportation device by the insurance companies which only cover wheelchairs. They call it something else so they don’t have to pay for it.  It’s now out of production and I won’t even be able to get it fixed after 2013. When something goes wrong, I hope there’s somebody who makes a cottage industry out of fixing them.

JF: The Wounded Warriors project attempts to support aging in place for veterans. While generally viewed as a valuable thing socially – in terms of relieving feelings of isolation by keeping people within familiar environments and social networks –the danger of remaining in place is that people live more sedentary lifestyles since the amount of space people use as they age decreases. How can design be productive in terms of going back and forth between being empathetic to the user and being perhaps a bit antagonistic by encouraging people to be active within their own home environments?

MG: You talk about a small environment. You can just go to a chair and that’s your life and everything else comes to you. Your meals come to you and so on. My mother was a very active woman but after the amputation of her leg I couldn’t get her to do anything. I told her, ‘Go to the library and volunteer, go be a candy striper at the hospital, do anything’ but she wouldn’t. This new leg wasn’t her. She was an attractive woman and she thought she’d lost all that. I saw firsthand that she was not going to regain her place in society. She was just going take up space. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing, because I don’t want that to happen to me. It would never happen to me, but at the same time you want to make sure you’re proactive.

JF: Do you think architects can design spaces that encourage people to be pro-active?

MG: No, if the hurt has hit someone hard enough, probably not. When I was paralyzed I experienced severe nerve pain and when that goes on for hours at a time you want to die. That pain was so great I couldn’t imagine anyone else had ever experienced it. If I’d gotten hit on a football field and my spine had been severed, then it would have been done, no pain, because there’s no feeling. But this was taking time to discharge itself down my spine all night long. You just wanted to be an hour from there when the pain would subside. I’m sure you could make buildings that would welcome a man who is in a wheelchair today rather than demoralize him. Yes, we can do obvious things like that. But whether we can make something so engaging that we can get someone to go do something else, I’m not sure.

JF: In your product design you seem fond of pushing ideas of intuitive legibility through color coding. How do you see color and graphics fitting into your design schemes across different scales?

MG: We have used color in a pretty prosaic way. Blue is cool and red is hot and so on. I don’t think you can ask a society to know much more about color than the subliminal things that might come to them when using something.  I don’t hold much to ideas of color-coding a place.

JF: But what happens with graphics when you go up in scale from product to the architecture?

MG: Well the architectural space, that’s something else.  That’s built on metaphor. It’s about making the window frames as if they were paintings, tearing down the wall and at the same time making you more conscious of it.  But with architecture, some people talk about ‘wayfinding’. I don’t know why this one word pisses me off so much, but wayfinding really does get to the heart of the matter.  We had a word, ‘direction’, and now we have ‘wayfinding’. It’s like ‘wellness’. What the fuck does ‘wellness’ mean?  I just gave a lecture in Miami on the plan starting with a quote from the Beaux Arts in which it is described as developing in ways such that the hierarchies of spaces and directions lead you through the plan in the most logical and marvelous way, meaning that it’s not just prosaic, but there’s a kind of generous use of space and light and so on. You can say that in very lyrical terms.  That happens to be wayfinding.

JF: It seems to reflect a certain degree of anxiety in the architectural profession in terms of the perceived need to employ more sophisticated language to validate concepts that have been central to the discipline for ages.

MG: Yes, that’s the word, ‘access’. You’ll think I’m crazy, but there’s an elevator with an automated instructional voice in the parking lot of the Boca Raton airport that gets it right. ‘To gain access to the lobby…’, she doesn’t say, ‘to access the second floor…’

JF: With some recent projects you’ve taken a much more personal hand in the design process.  How are you adjusting to being re-inserted directly into the center of this process?

MG: At some point during our history there was always going to be a time when our model would not be Michael Graves and Associates, but Michael Graves and Partners. This is very much like the way Pei Cobb Freed was run: Pei gets a job, then Cobb gets a job, then Freed and so I was sick the partners had to take over and when I came back I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to contribute, but the buildings were theirs now. They were happy with them, but I wasn’t ready for that. It just happened, like so many things happen with architects. Most people don’t talk to each other, it just happens. So I said at one point when I wasn’t getting anything to do, ‘If A gets this building, B gets that one and C the next one, then I get the one after that and we go around that way’. The only thing I’ve gotten so far is the Wounded Warriors project.

And I’d hate for you to put too much emphasis on this project since it hasn’t always been the finest intersection between architect and client, as we’re working for the developer, not a wounded warrior who wants a house. I’ve had to argue more strenuously for every little move and there aren’t many. This isn’t a ‘modern’ building. This is a building that would fit in anywhere. Anywhere!  We’re talking about context. They don’t want it too special because they don’t want to call attention to themselves, but they want it special enough so that they’re more comfortable than everybody else. What does ‘special’ mean? Does it mean on the inside, the outside too or both? It’s a hard question and you can see where it comes from. Things happen to me all the time. For instance, there are guys who occasionally drive me around town and one day there were no parking places so they had to dump me off in front of the building. They parked in front of a drive that’s pretty active. And I said, ‘We can’t park here’. He said, ‘Well, it’ll only be for a little while and after all, you’re Michael Graves’. And I said, ‘No, no, no, we cannot park here. Precisely because I’m known in this town, I can’t park here. I can’t make somebody wait 10 minutes while I’m getting out of the car’.  I make sure I’m not treated specially for any reason; I try to make my new normal the normal, but it doesn’t always work that way.

JF: If such everyday things involve these intense political struggles, how can we even begin to tackle the city?

MG: Well, I’ll leave you with a comment that does not come from me but from Andreas Duany. When somebody says, ‘Well then Mr. Duany, for accessible buildings you wouldn’t want stairs on the front of the City Hall?’ And he said, ‘Well I didn’t say that at all’, and I don’t say that at all either. I want the stairs there. I just want handicapped people to be able to get in there as well with as much grace as stairs gives us. That’s all. It’s not asking too much. If we can go to the moon, then we can do that!