Thursday, March 15, 2012

Digging Graves

Image: Michael Graves, Portland Building. 

In From Bauhaus to Our House, his somewhat leaden satire of post war US modernism, Tom Wolfe described the battle between The Whites* and The Greys. The Whites – a group of mainly New York based architects heavily indebted to the early work of Le Corbusier also known as the New York Five – consisted of Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier. The Greys were led by Venturi and Scott Brown, Bob Stern and Charles Moore. 

The battle appeared to be between modernists and post modernists, except of course the lines were more blurred - or as Wolfe has it, more illusory - than that. For a start, The White’s re-interpretation of Corb’s early villas was itself a historicist project. Their buildings – mostly wealthy one-off residences in up-state New York – were heavily stylised and collaged amalgams of not just Corb, but Reitveld, Van Doesburg, Terragni and others.

The architecture of The Whites was really early European modernism uprooted and removed from its social and political context** so that it could become a complex but purely formal game. Peter Eisenman represented the hard-core end of this activity, arguing vociferously for architecture’s autonomy and concentrating instead on a self-referential examination of its ‘deep structure’ divorced from context. 

Image: Michael Graves, Hanselmann House

Michael Graves’ presense in the White camp seems an odd one at first since he is now heavily associated with post modernism. His early work though was definitely more white than grey. He designed prismatic boxes that looked as if they had been gently exploded from within. Being something of an architectural trainspotter, I’ve always liked this early Gravesian period with its arcane references and grammatical games. He is an odd figure in the recent history of architecture though, having been an early and enthusiastic embracer of the more commercial, Disney friendly brand of po-mo. In fact he moved speedily from being the darling of the avant-garde to being something of an apostate, an apologist for the worst excesses of corporate schmaltz.

I’ve tried and (mostly) failed to find some redeeming factors in this mid-period Graves (I might write another post on his more recent work) but the forms are too overblown, the pastel shades too icky, the classicism too insistent. Buildings like Portlandia have correctly been identified as strangely neo-nazi like in their vast blankness, hiding behind jaunty colours and vast, kitsch appendages. But the 1970’s houses, those I can like. Partly this comes from the Ice Storm effect, the fact that all of them appear to be the setting for some elaborately brittle psycho-drama about upper middle class family life. 

Image: Michael Graves, Cleghorn House.

They are most interesting at exactly the point when Graves shifts gear towards the 'Grey' end of the spectrum, when vestigial classical and vernacular elements creep into the De-stijl like compositions. The house in Princeton is probably the best in this respect with its shifting chimney frontage and bands of colour. I have little interest in Graves’ quasi-meta-physical justifications for this colour scheme (earth, vegetation, sky etc.) but I like the graphic effects it has on his elevations (how’s that for autonomy?). The architecture here is not much thicker than the paint slapped onto the clapboard walls, but it achieves impressively disorientating effects. 

I also like the bits of garden trellis and cheap siding that cling to the backs of his houses and I especially like the totally over-complex compositions, the fact that several hundred things seem to be going on at once when any one of them would have got the job done. It’s this lack of pragmatism that appeals, the constant over-reaching towards Architecture. Graves is trying unbelievably hard with very little material and in the most modest of circumstances. Little wonder he was known as the ‘kitchen-king’ with his endless baroque extensions and mannerist lean-to's. 

Image: Michael Graves, House in Princeton

Most architects can relate to this situation I'm sure, the sense of chucking everything including the kitchen sink into a project. I like it too because it defies the deadening hand of too much maturity. There is something very youthful about Grave’s early buildings, a liberating sense of immaturity in a profession not known for its youthful zeal. So much of architecture revolves around the considered statement and so much of its mythology strives towards effacing youthful bravado. Not only that but, as we know, most architects are depressingly old before they get a chance to build and by that point youthful silliness has been expunged. Shame.

There’s no restraint to those early Graves’ projects. Later they would become much more difficult to love, partly through maturity but mostly through bombast. The Plocek House in Warren, New Jersey represents the shifting point where the same tricks of layering and fragmentation are employed but in a much more heavy-handed and traditional composition. Early on though he looked like he was having fun, the formal games leavened by visual wit and an endearing skimpiness in the detailing. I've no idea what those houses look like now although the Hanselmann House was recently up for sale, a snip at just 300,000 dollars. If I just had the money.....

* I'm not sure what to say about the dubiousness of the title of 'The Whites' to start with other than that it was always mean to be derisory. 

** For Wolfe, the evacuation of socioRandian politics here


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AM said...

now you make me go back to Alan Colquhoun's From Bricolage to Myth, or How to Put Humpty-Dumpty Together Again...