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Thursday, May 24, 2007
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Graves reflects on towering achievement
Humana triumph built architect's reputation

By Diane Heilenman
The Courier-Journal

A near-capacity crowd was treated last night to an insider's story about the pink granite, postmodernist icon at Fifth and Main streets that put Louisville on the international architectural map.

Architect Michael Graves was in town to mark the 25th anniversary of his victory in the prestigious Humana competition over a field of then-better-known architects. The Humana Building was completed in 1985.

In conversation as casual as an after-dinner chat, Graves talked of his 40 years as a professor at Princeton University with occasional digressions into thoughts on the "mythic beginnings" of architecture.

From the stage at Actors Theatre, he also talked of the clash between humanistic postmodernist designs such as his with what he called the "alienating" machine look of modernist glass towers plunked down in plazas.

Graves retraced his development of the "language" of the Humana Building, such as the bridge metaphor of the truss under the dramatic projecting balcony at the 24th floor, and the entrance waterfall that represents the Falls of the Ohio.

He also divulged several surprises.

His inspiration for the dramatic curving balcony that overlooks Main Street came from a Victorian engraving of a family admiring the river view in Louisville from the old Water Tower.

He even confessed to "a mistake": The six cascades of water in the 50-foot waterfall in the entrance porch don't have the depth he envisioned. That's because the stone wall behind them is too light. It should have been black or deep blue.

"So, I don't make that mistake again," he said.

At the time of his award, much of Graves' work was limited to small houses, so he said "my nickname was the Cubist Kitchen King."

Michael Graves & Associates in Princeton had perhaps 10 or 15 people in the office then, he said.

"The greatest thing was we didn't have so much else to do," he said. "We could just put our heads down and do it."

He recalled the day call came to say he had won.

"We were all crowded around the telephone," he said. "The phone didn't ring that much in those days."

He rocketed to stardom after the Humana Building, and today his firm employs more than 100 architects and designers and has a product design branch and a satellite office in New York City.

He also relayed how hurt he had been when two New York architects criticized his early plans for an addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (which has gone through multiple architects without a plan being selected).

His plans were criticized "before they were built. You don't do that," Graves said.

But the one thing he would not talk about was plans for Museum Plaza in Louisville.

"I know some of you are dying to ask me about a new building that's going to go up here," he said. "I won't talk about it."

Graves was struck with partial paralysis five years ago from a spinal cord infection.

Among Graves' latest projects is designing good-looking and reliable, but inexpensive, medical and health care products.

"We want to own this category," he said.

Now, what he fears most is the "glass towers that go nowhere."

"Today we are clearly back to this," said Graves. "We have the fight all over again."

Reporter Diane Heilenman can be reached at (502) 582-4682.