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A talk with the man behind Target's toaster and the Disney headquarters

The Master


He may peddle picture frames and kitchenwares at low-priced Target, but internationally renowned architect and designer Michael Graves arrives at the Richmond Centre Nov. 2 in a sleek black limousine. It is 9:30 on a gray morning and within the hour he will address a thousand or so architects, engineers and designers at Building Virginia, the annual convergence of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects. Graves clutches a distressed brown briefcase and glides through the exhibitor-filled lobby and into a darkened, cavernous hall for a sound check and to approve podium placement and two gigantic screens flanking the stage. Then he's off to a light-flooded holding area overlooking Fourth Street, or what used to be Fourth Street. Cranes swerve and construction workers scurry. Beyond the huge windows, construction of the gargantuan convention center provides a backdrop for the serene Graves. Bespectacled, he wears a nattily tailored black suit, midnight-blue shirt and forest-green necktie. Settling into a chair, he appears relaxed, despite arriving in Richmond the previous night after a lengthy flight from Italy, with a stop in Boston. Along with Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry, Graves is one of a few living architects who can claim to be a household name. Graves is, of course, the one-time leader of the postmodernist architectural movement, which combined modernism with classical elements, and the designer of big-city libraries and museums, Disney resort hotels, corporate headquarters and the dramatic scaffolding that encased the Washington Monument during its recent renovation "Every day for me is a kind of new day," he says, "in that you gain from your experiences so much." He says he's been refreshed by being in Italy the previous few days, working in Benevento, a small city east of Naples, where he'd won a competition to design two town squares. He had taken a group of his architecture students from Princeton along. Perhaps he had thought that Italy would work its magic on them in much the same way it had transformed his way of seeing the world. "It was the forming element in my life," the Indianapolis native says of the two years in the 1960s that he lived in Rome after winning the Prix de Rome, a prestigious scholarly fellowship. He admits he chose a difficult field. "I had a very, very struggling practice," he says, "I was called the cubist-kitchen king." With his level of fame you'd think he had surpassed all that. But each day, then and now, he says, he stands in front of the mirror and asks himself, "Can I do it again today?" Graves is 62 (though he suggests otherwise: "I'm only 37," he says with a sly grin. "It's all how you feel"), talented and lucky. His career has paralleled a time when architecture has gained higher public visibility. This has come through trophy governmental, institutional and corporate commissions for "name" architects such as Robert Stern, I. M. Pei and Sir Norman Foster. "A lot of things happened. Architecture is more visible through patronage of commercial buildings and civic buildings," he says. He doesn't mention that that he was a big part of making those things happen by challenging the tyranny of the simple glass modernist box and introducing classical vocabulary, color and decorative details. "And there's more press, both good and bad," he adds. I say: "And you've had your share of the latter." "No s—!" he responds. Critics and observers went ballistic over his unrealized proposal for expanding New York's Whitney Museum. And just that week, The New York Observer had blasted a new high-rise apartment building on Manhattan's upper East Side, his first New York building. "That commentary empowers people to have a voice," he says, "That wasn't possible with the early commercial modernists who built a zillion glass boxes. People finally said, 'Enough!' "And there was no conversation among architects in the '50s and '60s. That can happen now. We actually like each other, although we compete against each other." He says he prefers living in the United States to anywhere else. Americans, he notes, have a powerful influence on design around the world. "The Gapping of America is not such a bad thing," he says. "It raises the standard of design and lowers the price. We're raising the level of consciousness of the average person." And were there disappointments in a career that's achieved great highs? "We work everywhere, but I work in a town where I can't get hired. Princeton [University] doesn't hire its own to design there. I have done more buildings in Japan than I have in New Jersey. I've missed the opportunity to make a contribution. I'd like to have buildings [nearby] so that I can see them and learn from them. I'm not seeking adulation, but would like to know what people think." It's time to go. The darkened hall and an expectant audience of 1,000 await. Latecomers stand or sit on the floor. The world-famous architect ascends the potted palm-bedecked stage. A slide of a medieval painting depicting St. Jerome in a Gothic setting flashes on the screen. Graves, the professor, begins. He talks about enclosure; shows paintings that have inspired him; shares his designs for a corporate headquarters in Japan, Egyptian hotels and golf courses with fairways of sand in the Middle East. For two hours, he continues. As he talks, his scale telescopes down. One of his final slides is a modest-sized rehab of a Princeton residence, and finally, a table place setting. Good design, he said, must reflect human dimensions. And then Michael Graves leaves the stage. No questions are fielded. The master has

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