Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Michael Graves: The Rome Connection

Graves's studio at the American Academy (#9)
We've never met Michael Graves, the famous architect.  But we have had a close encounter, or so it seems, looking back fifty years into the early 1960s.  We were Stanford students then, doing the current version of the European tour: undergraduates on a "junior year abroad" (actually my sophomore year), thinking that Europe would always be dirt cheap.  Our base was Florence, but they insisted on taking us to Rome, and in the fall of 1962 we got there, astonished by the Coliseum and the Forum but also confronted with the city's excursion into modernism: Pier Luigi Nervi's Palozetto dello Sport, which had recently been completed.  We had no idea what we were seeing. 

The Portland Municipal Building (1982)
And we had no idea, of course, that we had just missed Michael Graves, who had months early departed, having spent much of 1960, 1961 and early 1962 (we arrived in the fall of that year) at the American Academy in Rome and elsewhere on the continent, absorbed in his own European tour.  He was not famous then.  He had not yet designed the Portland Municipal Building--one of the founding works of "postmodern" architecture--nor the Humana Building, nor the Denver Central Library, nor dozens of other important structures, and it would be decades before he became one of the world's foremost designers of commercial products, producing designs for Alessi (teapot, 1985), Steuben, Target, Dansk, Disney (the Swan and Dolphin hotels), and Delta Faucet (I was repairing a Delta faucet this afternoon--perhaps one that had its origins as a  Graves sketch).  While in Rome, he was already thinking about product design.

Graves, sketching in Rome, 1961.  He sold some
to tourists for $50. 
No, at the time of our near-crossing in Rome, Michael Graves was mostly an intense 28-year old full of expectations and dreams, a Harvard M.A. in Architecture (1959), and good enough to win the Rome Prize at the American Academy, but not yet really an architect--not yet really anything.  I wish we had met him then, before he became, well, "Michael Graves."  We could have shared our drawings. 

A Graves sketch of the Villa Borghese, c. 1961
It is not too much to say that Michael Graves was made in Rome, transformed by that year or two (however long it was) at the American Academy and by the tour of Italy and Europe that followed.  Nothing gets written about Michael Graves that does not emphasize that formative Rome moment, and Graves has fed the myth with his own words.  In the introduction to a recent book that recounts and fixes the architect's Rome experience with his drawings, sketches, and photographs, Graves begins right there: "The extraordinary experience of two years at the American Academy in Rome in the early-1960s transformed how I looked at the world around me.  In that rich and marvelous city, I came to understand architecture as a continuum from antiquity to the present day, and thus as a language.  I discovered new ways of seeing and analyzing both architecture and landscape.  I also developed an urgent need to record what I saw and created hundreds of photographs and drawings." 

A Graves-designed school building

Enrico del Debbio building, 1931-33
The Rome drawings that fill the early pages of Brian M. Ambroziak's Michael Graves: the Grand Tour (2005) are mostly of ancient Rome--the Coliseum, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Arch of Constantine--or of Renaissance/Baroque Rome--the Aqua Paola Fountain, Santa Maria Maggiore, Villa Borghese.  He was particularly taken with the buildings and ornamentation of Francesco Borromini.  But Rome's monumental and rationalist architectures of the 20th century were there to be seen, too, and it seems to us that some of Graves's later works draw as much on these buildings--essentially, the aesthetics of the Fascist era--as they do on earlier periods.  (See comparison in photos above).   

Graves,  the Denver Public Library
By 1967 Graves had emerged from obscurity, joining Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk (with Philip Johnson as mentor) in The New York Five.  He was mostly a house designer in the 1970s.  1982 was a breakthrough year.  With the Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky, the Portland Building, and two major museums, he quickly became an exemplar of the movement known as postmoderism.  He came to terms with Alessi in 1985, agreeing to design the whimsical tea kettle for 1.5% of each sale; over 2,000,000 have been sold. 

Rome transformed Graves, but that experience was iconic in a larger way, too.  By 1960, existing movements in architecture and the arts had reached a point of exhaustion.  In painting, abstract expressionists had reduced the form to an extreme of simplicity: a canvas painted in one color.  There was nothing beyond, except perhaps not to paint the canvas at all.  The rectagular glass box had done the same in architecture, showcasing a rigid and extreme modernism that suggested that the form, having been perfected, was untouchable.  They ran out of ideas in Detroit, too, desperately attaching huge, space-like fins on the new models in an awkward, failed effort to tap the future. 

Rome gave Graves--and, in the larger sense, architecture--its new direction: it would draw on the past, the collective past, on the buildings of Rome and Athens, on Egypt's pyramids, on the monumentalism of the ancients, on the towers of medieval Europe, on English furniture of the 18th century, on the fascist aesthetic, on the colors of Italy.  The past was complex and seemingly limitless and, for better or for worse, it would fuel the architectural resurgence of the late-20th century.  What Graves found in Rome was the raw material of the postmodern aesthetic experience. 

Why Graves would start thinking about designing commercial products while in Rome is less clear, but he was hardly alone in connecting the artistic and commercial.  In 1962, while Graves was wrapping up his European sojourn, Andy Warhol was having his first important solo exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York, featuring representations of Campbell's Soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles.  Graves designed products; Warhol used products to make designs.  Both understood the limits of modernism; both had a playful side; both drew on the unparalleled dynamism of American consumer culture to revitalize aesthetic forms.

There was one big difference--well, surely more than one, but one that's especially relevant here.  Warhol cared little about the past, and he had not been to Rome--at least, not that we know of.  Where Graves discovered the a glorious past that could be fashioned into the future, Warhol imagined only irrelevance.  "They call Rome 'the Eternal City,' he wrote, "because everything is old and everything is still standing.  They always say, 'Rome wasn't built in a day.'  Well, I say maybe it should have been, because the quicker you build something, the shorter a time it lasts, and the shorter a time it lasts, the sooner people have jobs again, replacing it.  Replacing it keeps people busy." 


We highly recommend Brian M. Ambroziak's lovely book, Michael Graves: Images of a Grand Tour  (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005).  Foreword by Michael Graves.

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