Architectural Suppositions: a Tribute to Michael Graves

Whether loved or loathed, the prolific work of postmodern architect Michael Graves became a platform for generations of discussions about design, both among architects and the public.

In 1988, Cooper Robertson partner John Kirk interviewed Michael Graves for Modulus, the Architectural Review of the University of Virginia. Then a lecturer at the University, John posed inquiries about the nature and meaning of cities, architectural language, and preservation to Graves, who was in the midst of the design of Bryan Hall at the University and the expansion of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

JK: You have said at the onset of the Whitney commission that the Whitney might well be the most culturally important building that you do. The program for your building at UVA is not nearly as significant as that of the Whitney, but the context certainly is. In your own terms, what is the cultural significance of this project and what are the implications—perhaps in terms of measure and decorum—on a an architect operating in this very sensitive area?

MG: First of all, I don't see the UVA context as that fragile. I see it as quite rough and naïve—naïve in the best sense, in the constructional sense—while the Whitney portrays a kind of confidence. Look at the work of the two architects, its quite extraordinary to make a comparison: on the one hand, Jefferson makes it very easy to add to, or even subtract from his composition. I don't feel that his composition is fixed, although most people do. It seems to me that Jefferson's composition is no more fixed than is Hadrian's Villa. If Jefferson had built his village for twice the population and with twice the budget, quite clearly, he would not have simply made an extended version of the Lawn. He would have found other configurations to create distances, and levels of privacy, and distinctions of hierarchy in academical living. That is exactly what a collection of individual architects have done over the years at UVA, working after Jefferson, but without great vision.

On the other hand, Breuer's Whitney does not provide the kind of context of continuance offered by Jefferson's work. Breuer's building does not suggest how one might make the next move. Breuer probably thought that if he were alive when the Whitney was expanded, he would simply continue the step-back sectional extrusion of his building... If Jefferson had built the Whitney, instead of Breuer, that step-back section would never have entered his mind because it is anti-urban. It makes a moat between the sidewalk and the work of art; it sets itself apart and creates a psychological distance, which makes both the museum and its art almost inaccessible. Jefferson would have thought through the problem so that the building—no matter what its stylistic language—would have been appropriate for the city; it would have been in the language of the city.

Graves' Arts and Sciences Building, soon after renamed Bryan Hall, came to fruition shortly after the interview was published; his proposal for the Whitney expansion took a contorted path back to the drawing board for multiple schemes. The Whitney, unable to gain support, eventually scrapped the project—one of a series of efforts, struggles, and successes that led to the new Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District, which will open in 2015.