Last Thursday, architect Michael Graves, the pioneering postmodernist who designed some of Houston’s most iconic (and controversial) buildings, including the Federal Reserve Bank branch on Allen Parkway, died in Princeton, New Jersey at the age of 80. Among his other local works are several buildings he designed for Rice University, including Martel College and substantial additions to Brown and Jones colleges. He also created a campus master plan for Rice in the mid-2000s that the university has mostly disregarded.
Whether you love them or hate them, Graves’s buildings, with their riotous color schemes, grandiose columns, and exaggerated classical detailing, look like no one else’s; “it looks like it’s made of Legos” is a not uncommon response. “All of his buildings have strong similarities,” said architectural historian Stephen Fox, a lecturer at Rice and UH. “I would explain them as his effort to develop his own analogue of classical architecture. You see that particularly in his use of columns, his use of masonry to shape these very boldly scaled, brightly colored, and somewhat eccentric buildings.”
Fox first encountered the architect as a Rice undergraduate, when he attended a guest lecture by Graves. He remembers the exact date—November 7, 1972—because it was also the day Richard Nixon was re-elected president. The lecture was about the soffit, a fairly arcane architectural term referring to the underside of an eave, but Graves provoked a fierce response.
“It shocked and scandalized the faculty,” Fox remembered with a chuckle. “It was the first time that [Graves] was beginning to play with taking notions of classical architecture and applying them to contemporary building design. I remember people standing around after his talk and trying to make sense of what they had just heard, because it just contravened all the ethics of modern architecture.”
According to those ethics, as defined by figures like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, less was more, form should follow function, and a building’s exterior should express its interior. Decoration, ornamentation, and any other non-structural elements were verboten. Graves, and fellow postmodern architects like Robert Venturi (and soon erstwhile modernist Philip Johnson), turned all of that on its head. As Venturi famously put it, “Less is a bore.”
Michael Graves’s reputation tracked the fortunes of postmodernism, which rose to ascendancy in the 1980s before falling back to earth in the 1990s. In the 2000s he became well known as a product designer for stores like Target and JCPenney, creating hundreds of everyday objects like tea kettles, egg beaters, and spatulas. But even as his work fell out of favor with architecture critics, Graves’s firm kept winning coveted commissions around the world, including his Houston buildings.
Graves landed the Federal Reserve job in part because he claimed his building was inspired by the Southwestern landscape, Fox said. “I think his clients were a bit taken aback when they saw what his idea of the Southwest was.” Still, the architect managed to make friends even of people who hated everything he stood for. “He was an extremely charming person, and that no doubt played a very important role in his professional ascent,” Fox said. “As much as he loved to shock people, he always did so in a playful way.”