An Architecture of Humanism



by Volker M. Welter

The designer Michael Graves, who passed away at the age of 80 on March 12th, was widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of postmodernism in architecture. Indeed, Graves completed with the Portland Building (1979-1982) one of the first postmodern buildings in the United States. if not worldwide. Big and boxy, pierced by a grid of smallish, square windows, clad in mirror glass, stucco, glazed tiles and terracotta tiles, and coloured in dark hues of green, blue, and red, Graves’s brazen, playful, and unapologetic use of decorative details inscribed the new headquarters for the municipal services of the capital city of Oregon into the pages of architectural history. Graves’s ornamental details carefully avoid the impression of a historicist design, one that aims a historical correct, even if eclectic application of architectural detail from past periods. True to the spirit of a time that revelled in structuralist and linguistic sophistries, the decor and ornaments of the Portland Building were part of a system of signs and signifiers. Even so these rather watered-down allusions at elements of Western architecture and, accordingly, Western European culture, were enough to enrage the contemporary architectural scene.

At stake were both the legacy of a timeless and international modernism, of pure prisms in the mode of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s sleek office towers and all-glass houses, and the attempts of a younger generation of modern architects to overcome the rigid steel and glass functionalism of the post-war years by turning to the sensuous, and admittedly often seductive, materiality of raw materials like exposed concrete, natural stone, and wood for example. Brutalism, named after the French term beton brut (exposed concrete) was to mark a new, more humanistic architecture that would appeal to the general public. Unimpressed, the latter relied on its common sense and rejected Brutalism as meaning literally brutal architecture, and glass boxes for being boring.


Michael Graves was born in Indianapolis in 1934. He studied architecture first at the University of Cincinnati, then at Harvard University, and from 1960 to 1962 as a Rome Prize winner at the American Academy in Rome. Graves’s architectural socialization happened during the time of modernism’s soul searching of the 1950s and early 1960s. Especially formative for the young American architect was his time in the Mediterranean, when travelling far and wide Graves recorded with pen and camera his impressions of ancient monuments, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as urban and rural vernacular buildings. Endlessly drawing and taking photographs, Graves understood that architecture, even if physically large, is a composition of numerous components (walls, windows, doorways, thresholds, etc.) and details (ornamentations, patterns, projections, etc.) which, when ordered in an appropriate manner, delineate the spaces inside buildings.

Following the advice of a fellow Academician, Graves gave up drawing architecture in bold and rough gestures aiming to capture the large form on equally large sheets of paper. Concentrating instead on the smaller scales of details, the human body as the ultimate determinant of architecture emerged. Continuously looking at architecture while drawing it also made tangible for Graves the importance of materials, surfaces, colours, light and shade which together with the details determine what and how we perceive what we have built. While we live in and even create space, we nevertheless only ever see its borders, never the phenomenon itself. Beginning to understand that architecture is to a large extent about defining the limits of the spaces humans occupy, Graves’s long march away from core tenets of Modernism had begun, among them the dictum that modern architecture is about capturing smaller portions of infinite space.


Thinking about Graves and California, usually the Team Disney Building (1986-1991) in Burbank comes to mind with its famous, though tacky fairy-tale dwarfs holding up a gable of the building. Beside such fun designs stand various smaller works, for example, the municipal library in San Juan Capistrano (1982-83) and the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (1990-94) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, my home campus. While the former is a skilful evocation of California Mission architecture, the latter illustrates well Graves’s humanistic approach to architectural design. Graves did not take leads for his design from theoretical physics as, for example, Erich Mendelsohn may have done when he designed right after World War 1 the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany. That observation laboratory was erected in order to put to prove the theory of relativity; accordingly, the undulating smooth stucco surfaces are occasionally interpreted as symbolizing the relativity of space and time.

Instead, Kohn Hall, the home of the Kavli Institute, is designed around conversations between international physicists who are invited as fellows to spend time with colleagues at the institute. To this end, the individual offices are supplemented with many smaller open spaces which, in turn, are often equipped with wall-mounted chalk boards on which ever changing—and to me incomprehensible—mathematical formulas are jotted down. This feature was developed in close consultation with the clients, yet how Graves handled the continuous sunshine and the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean that the site on a bluff high above the shoreline offers, is an excellent case study in the architect’s approach to design.

Scholar and colleague of Graves, Brian M. Ambroizak, once pointed out that it was during the Rome years that Graves “began to question Modernism’s use of the glass plane to create a homogenous world, one in which the outside and inside were visually merged.” (Michael Graves: Images of a Grand Tour (New York, 2005), p. 249.) Huge expanses of glass that let an indiscriminate amount of sunlight into buildings and rooms are a hallmark of much of Californian architecture ever since mid-twentieth-century Modernism put the state onto the architectural map. Together with this flood of sunshine comes the conviction that a close interaction of indoor and outdoor living and working, which the mild climate allows for pretty much most of the year, is architecturally best expressed by dissolving all boundaries between inside and outside and thus fusing both realms into an undistinguished whole.


Graves’s design for the institute went exactly the other way. Massive walls delineate the domestically scaled building and well-proportioned windows allow for framed views of the ocean and the surroundings from underneath copper sunshades and wooden trellises covered by vine. Courtyards offer intimate outdoor spaces in the sun or in the shade depending on the time of the day and the mood of the visitors; to experience the great outdoors one has to leave the architecturally defined spaces. To get from the inside to the outside and back inside again requires to walk to the next door which also means to experience every time several of architectural thresholds with which Graves draws the users of his building ever deeper into its spaces. To note the differences between opposites such as inside and outside, light and shade, small and large spaces, and to appreciate the often subtle but always appropriate architectural means that make them visible are two keys with which to unlock the architectural designs of the late Michael Graves.

Photographs of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics by Volker M. Welter. Architectural drawings courtesy of Architecture and Design Collection. Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Michael Graves Architecture & Design

About the Author:


Volker M. Welter PhD (Univ Edinb) is an architectural historian who has lived, studied, and worked in Germany, Scotland, and England and is now a Professor at the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he teaches Californian and European modern architectural history and theory. His publications include Biopolis-Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2002), Ernst L. Freud, Architect: The Case of the Modern Bourgois Home (Oxford/New York: Berghahn, 2012), and articles in such journals such as Cabinet, Israel Studies, Manifest, and Oxford Art Journal. He is currently completing a book entitled Tremaine Houses: A Study in mid-twentieth-century Patronage of Modern American Architecture.