Chicago Tribune






December 14, 2011

Michael Graves, whose postmodern portfolio ranges from skyscrapers to tea kettles, wins the 2012 Driehaus Prize for traditional design


Michael GravesProlific architect Michael Graves, who has designed everything from skyscrapers to home products for Target, on Wednesday will be named the 2012 winner of the Richard H. Driehaus Prize, which recognizes a leading practitioner of classical or traditional architecture.

The prize, named for its sponsor, Chicago venture capitalist Richard Driehaus, comes with a cash award of $200,000 — twice as much as the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is given by the billionaire Pritzker family of Chicago and typically goes to a leading modernist.

Graves (left), 77, an Indianapolis native, has designed more than 350 buildings around the world, including the Portland Building in Portland, Ore., the Humana corporate headquarters in Louisville, Ky., and the Dolphin and Swan hotels at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

His postmodern style, characterized by simple shapes, references to history and warm colors, is also evident in his Target product line, which includes a teakettle that retails for $26.19 — a bargain compared with the $100-plus teakettle Graves designed for the Italian company Alessi in the 1980s (below).

teakettle“There are very few architects that have the spectrum of work from urban design and the planning of new cities to the objects we use in our daily life,” said Michael Lykoudis, the chair of the Driehaus Prize jury and the dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, which awards the prize.

“More than any other architect,” Lykoudis said of Graves, “he's democratized design.”

Graves will receive the award March 24 in Chicago.

Since 2003, after a spinal cord infection, he has been paralyzed from the waist down and has used a wheelchair. But he continues to lead his Princeton, N.J.-based architectural firm, Michael Graves & Associates, and the Michael Graves Design Group, which does product design.

“I was delighted,” Graves said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I thought this was wonderful, not just for me, but for the award, that it opens it up a little broader.”

Established in 2003, the Driehaus Prize has been awarded in some cases to architects celebrated for their strict adherence to classical design.

In contrast, Graves said, he views classical principles as part of a continuous series of ideas with relevance to contemporary life. “Classical thinking is one thing,” he said. “But thinking about architecture as a language and a continuum” is another.

Portland office buildingGraves, who has no completed buildings in Chicago, was a little-known Princeton University professor when his victory in a 1980 design competition for a municipal office building in Portland catapulted him to fame in the revolt against steel-and-glass modernism.

His controversial design led to the construction of a boxy high-rise that was decorated with masses of deep reds and blues, a stylized garland of blue ribbons (executed in concrete), and a large sculpture of the female figure Portlandia.

Modernist critics panned such buildings. In 1987, the Tribune's Sunday arts section listed Graves among celebrated arts figures who, it predicted, would be relegated to history's dustbin.

“Better I didn't see it,” Graves said of the story Tuesday. “My skin is pretty thin.”

Disney hotelsYet Graves persisted, bringing his postmodern approach to such civic projects as the Denver Central Library and to such commercial ventures as the Disney hotels (right), which sport playful gigantic statues of dolphins and swans on their roofs.

A career-changing break came in the late 1990s when Minneapolis-based Target commissioned Graves to design scaffolding for the restoration of the Washington Monument. The collaboration not only produced an elegant temporary covering for the great obelisk, but it also led Target to commission Graves to design a home product line.

“The things that we did for Target and all the buildings that we do are human-centered, and not objects for their own sake,” he said.

“I suppose that's what gets me into trouble today because the press wants objects. They want new, and they want cutting edge. And that's not what I do. And I will persevere.”

His selection marks the second consecutive year that a celebrated East Coast architect associated with postmodernism has been awarded the Driehaus Prize. Last year's winner was the New York architect Robert A.M. Stern.

The winner of the Driehaus Prize is chosen by a seven-member jury that this year included the prize's sponsor, an architect, a real estate developer, the president of the American Academy in Rome and two architecture critics.