In the Race to Challenge 'Glass Boxes,' Architect Michael Graves Is Building a Solid Lead

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Philip Johnson has called him "maybe the leading architect in the country today," but until two years ago Michael Graves, 47, had not designed even one major building. Gordon Bunshaft, 72, a top "Establishment" architect from the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who has designed dozens, seized upon that fact at a meeting of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York in 1980. After Graves had received the academy's annual architectural award, Bunshaft dryly objected: "We used to give prizes for doing buildings. Now we give prizes for drawing pictures."

Graves saved his retort for Portland, Oreg., where the $23.7 million municipal building—Graves' biggest project to date—is scheduled to open in the fall. With its blue-green ceramic tile base, tiny windows and vastly oversize classical details (like large medallions and columns seven stories high set into the facade), the 15-story building is one of the most controversial of the year. In the current architectural lingo, it represents an attack by post-Modernists (who espouse decoration) on Modernists (who design glass boxes).

"In modern architecture today," Graves says, "the range of forms is derived from a machine. The humanism is left out. I'm trying to reestablish the associative language of architecture." In Portland, this meant designing a structure with a head, body and base. It also meant bringing back color and ornament, although his original concept of fiberglass garlands and scenic pavilions on the roof had to be modified. A local arts jury is still awaiting designs from competing sculptors for the huge goddess Graves envisions over the entrance.

To win his commission, Graves beat out 11 competitors. He points out that his design was the cheapest and most energy-efficient. Still, the reaction of Portland's modern architects was galvanic. "I have one simple message," said John Storrs. "This is a dog of a building, a turkey!" Pietro Belluschi, former dean of architecture at MIT, called it an "oversize, beribboned Christmas package" that belonged "perhaps in Atlantic City or in Las Vegas, but not in Portland."

As the building goes up, other critics seem to be warming to it. The Portland Oregonian decided it was "good news...a pioneering effort in fantasy land, daring to be different." Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of the New York Times, wrote: "If there is any building of our time that appears to speak with a firm self-assurance, it is this one." Critic Ada Louis Huxtable predicts it could become "the first post-Modern monument."

In Indianapolis, where Graves grew up, he surprised his parents with an early talent for drawing and painting. But because his mother and meat dealer father thought art was an insecure career, Michael enrolled in the architecture department of the University of Cincinnati. He later went on to the Harvard School of Design and spent two years at the American Academy in Rome before arriving at age 28 to teach at Princeton. He soon attracted attention as one of five architects nicknamed "the Whites" for the predominant color of their buildings. "That," Graves explains, "is what the clients thought modern architecture had to be." Gradually he added more color to his buildings (most of them private residences)—and so did his students.

Today Graves spends many afternoons hunched over his students' drafting tables, giving his sought-after "crits." His office is a maze of rooms over a Chinese restaurant. There, with a staff of 20, he is tackling his newest commission, a major addition to Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art, which was designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer.

"The amount of work I do is very hard on domestic life," Graves confesses. His first marriage, to a painter, produced a son and daughter but ended in divorce. So did his second, to a dance teacher with two small children. Two years ago, while designing showrooms and products for Sunar, a furniture maker (an association which, the company claims, has tripled its sales), Graves met his present girlfriend, Linda Thompson, head of the firm's textile division.

To maintain cash flow in the past, Graves sold many of his unabashedly romantic architectural drawings, which now bring up to $10,000 each. With his new commissions, he need no longer worry about money. But the biggest reward of success, Graves says, is vindication. "For years," the Princeton professor recalls, "there was nothing the architectual establishment wanted to hear from the universities. Now the attitude has changed to 'Let's talk.' "

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