Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
While the Portland Building may be his best known accomplishment, the architect should be remembered for his contributions to humanitarian design.
For the better part of his life, Michael Graves stood up for the Portland Building.
In 1980, on the eve of an important city vote that would set the fate of the so-called People's Temple, Graves sat for an interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel. The architect defended his rebellion against the "hygienic aesthetic" of modernist steel and glass. Here's Graves:
We designed a building that, I presume, is somewhat threatening to—maybe that word is too strong, but that's the way I feel, I suppose—the status quo, or the level of abstraction, modernity, machine aesthetic, however one might see those towers in Portland. To the extent that the [Fellows of the American Institute of Architects] and grand old men of Portland have joined together to write the city council and speak against our building.
The establishment in Portland wanted him to build the kind of tower they knew. He'd rather practice law, he told his interlocutor.
Graves, known for classically attuned postmodern projects like the Portland Building and the Denver Public Library, died on Thursday. All his life, the architect and designer advocated for the belief that nothing should go overlooked. As recently as last October, he mounted a spirited defense of the Portland Building in a public forum, looking to save the 32-year-old civic building from demolition. In December, he told The Architect's Newspaper that the building would be spared.
Decades after its construction, the Portland Building always seemed to thrust its creator right back to those early debates that shaped the building before it was built. "With the rain, everything in Portland is gray," the architect said in an interview just three years ago. "Why would I make a gray building? I did it to spice things up."
While the fate of the Portland Building remains to be seen, Graves will be remembered for the ways he enlivened parts of life that most people never stop to consider. His home wares for Alessi—kettles, clocks, flatware, and more— touched thousands of households. His expanded product lines for Target and J.C. Penny, hundreds of thousands. Arguably, his focus on form in the production of everyday things still governs the most celebrated design objects of recent years, from Volkswagen's Beetle to Apple's iPod.
Graves's influence was as keenly felt inside the design field as among the general public. Concepts he developed in architecture served as the foundation for New Urbanism. The influence he exerted on a generation of architects who studied at Rice University is hard to calculate—but meet one, and she will deliver at length on his master plan for the school. (To say nothing of his years teaching architecture at Princeton.) In 2013, I was so enamored of the scaffolding that Graves designed for the Washington Monument that I took to The Washington Post to argue that we should leave it up forever.
Graves was at his most revolutionary in the way that he approached design for healthcare. After the architect was paralyzed in 2003 following an intractable sinus infection that spread to his spine, he devoted the rest of his life and energy to design for hospitals—from wheelchairs to the hospitals themselves. Graves' work in "humanistic design," from the Yale New Haven Hospital's Center for Restorative Care to the St. Coletta School of Greater Washington to a series of walking canes for Kimberly-Clark—investigated some of the most overlooked corners of life for the physically disabled. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed Graves to the U.S. Access Board.
Come what may for the Portland Building, Graves's reputation as a formidable foe of convention will remain untarnished. Advocates for architecture and for the disabled alike will be thinking about his ideas for many years to come.