December 4, 2009
  Michael Graves, FAIA, Awarded the 2010 Topaz Medallion

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: Michael Graves, FAIA, the trendsetting Postmodernist who has inspired generations of architects and architectural educators through his long association with the Princeton University School of Architecture, is the 2010 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education recipient. The Topaz Medallion honors an individual that has been intensely involved in architecture education for a decade or more. He will be awarded the medallion at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) annual meeting in New Orleans in March. The AIA will also recognize Graves at the 2010 National Convention in Miami in June.

Graves arrived in Princeton, N.J. to begin teaching and practicing more than 40 years ago, during a critical juncture in the evolution of Modernism, and he used both of these endeavors to re-establish the primacy of history, culture, and context in architecture for multitudes of students. His influence in instilling these sensibilities in the contemporary architect is so wide and pervasive that it’s often hard not to take for granted. To accomplish this in a purely academic setting is notable enough, but Graves has also maintained an eminent and widely-known design practice that has wholly integrated his teachings in ways that have pushed Modernism in fresh, new directions.

“For me,” Graves said in his Topaz submission portfolio, “the profession of architecture is all about the joy of learning and creating, the fulfillment comes with making a contribution to society. In my career, I have been like a doctor in a teaching hospital in that I practice, do research, and also teach, which for me is a way to give back to the profession.”

Architecture that builds culture
Graves is a native of Indianapolis, and a graduate of the University of Cincinnati as well as the Harvard Graduate School of Design, but his most formative architectural experience was his study abroad with the American Academy in Rome in 1960. In Europe, Graves was inspired by the Italian Renaissance and Post-Renaissance buildings and sculptures he saw. Among these relics of past golden ages, he began to formulate ideas about the fundamental role buildings play in shaping the history and culture of the people they serve; ideas that would lead his practice and his entire academic career.

Graves began teaching at Princeton in 1962 and established his practice there in 1964. By 1972, he was the youngest full professor at the university. The mid-60s were a transitional period in the history of Modernism, and Graves arrived on the scene at an ideal time to further the evolution of architecture. It was at this time that the unity of early Bauhaus Modernist pioneers began to splinter and reform as architects struggled to find ways to add contextual, historical elements to the blank-slate, ahistoric Modern design language. The design movement that had begun with an attempt to reform society by forsaking all previous historical design conventions and creating a new, unified design language based on the form and logic of the machine age had exhausted itself from formulating an approach to architecture that proclaimed to have no historical antecedents. Graves found a way to give new life to Modernism by explicitly appropriating figurative historical and traditional design motifs in the pursuit of wide, democratic appeal. It would eventually be labeled Postmodernism, and Graves taught it as well as designed it.

When Graves began teaching, writes University of Virginia architecture professor Robin Dripps in an AIA awards recommendation letter, architecture schools didn’t teach the history of architecture as it practically applied to the day’s contemporary architects. “Architecture was thus removed from any meaningful engagement with the world. Contexts, whether they were natural, constructed, political, or cultural, were not part of the dialogue. Michael was to change all of this,” she wrote. “Michael convinced his students that architecture was the most important of our cultural endeavors and was responsible for our understanding of the world and our actions within this world. The outcome of his teaching,” which Dripps experienced firsthand while at Princeton, “was a far more articulate discourse on how architecture was understood, and most important, how it ought to be made.”

The teacher’s teacher
For 39 years, from 1962 until 2001, Graves was a full-time tenured professor, and he has only recently and moderately lessened his academic responsibilities. In his time at Princeton, he taught architecture design studios, supervised independent study programs, been a thesis advisor, conducted lectures and seminars for students and the public, served on juries, organized exhibitions, conducted research, and been published in scholarly journals. He’s brought in a diverse array of guest architecture professors to teach, from Leon Krier to Peter Eisenman, FAIA, and has been a visiting architecture professor at many other schools himself. Graves has developed a reputation as an architect that is fully integrated in the life of the academy, not a parachuting “starchitect” that stops off at campus for a lecture in between meetings with clients.

“Michael’s commitment to remain in Princeton and locate his professional activities there stands in sharp contrast to other major architects who are often only transient visitors to education programs,” wrote University of Cincinnati architecture professor Jay Chatterjee, Assoc. AIA, in an AIA awards letter of recommendation.

Perhaps the most important measure of Graves’ influence and success has been the number of his students that have gone on to become architectural educators and deans themselves. “Every time I tell someone that I went to Princeton, their reaction is to ask me about by experience with Michael,” wrote Sarah Whiting, an architecture professor at Princeton, in an AIA awards recommendation letter.

For an architect that is largely associated with a single design style within Modernism, Graves has a proud history of helping students explore a wide range of aesthetic orientations. Alan Balfour, Assoc. AIA, dean of the architecture program at Georgia Tech and recipient of the 2000 Topaz Medallion, wrote in an AIA awards recommendation letter that Graves “encouraged us to be as original as he, but in our own way.”

“He has not taught me a method as much as a mindset: that architecture matters, that architecture literally constructs culture,” wrote Whiting in her AIA awards letter of recommendation.

Graves is also the honorary chair for the American Institute of Architecture Students’ Freedom by Design community service initiative. The goal of this initiative is to improve the life safety, dignity, and comfort of low-income individuals with physical disabilities—an intensely personal priority for Graves since 2003, when he became paralyzed from the waist down as a result of an infection.

Portfolio and honors
Since establishing his architecture firm more than 40 years ago, Graves has expanded his practice into a full range of design disciplines contained within two separate firms. The Michael Graves Design Group specializes in product and graphic design, and has designed 1,800 consumer products (housewares, furniture, utensils) to retailers like Target, Dansk, Disney, and Alessi. Michael Graves and Associates specializes in interior design, planning, and architecture.

Graves began garnering serious attention in the architectural community with his 1978 design for the unbuilt Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Center Bridge, which joined North Dakota and Minnesota with a bridge over the Red River that contains an art museum and is bookended by an interpretive center for the region’s cultural heritage on one side and a concert hall and public radio and television station on the other. Other major projects Graves has designed are the Humana Building in Louisville, the Portland Municipal Services Building in Oregon, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas—Houston Branch, the Indianapolis Art Center, an addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Engineering Research Center at the University of Cincinnati.

Graves was the 2001 recipient of the AIA Gold Medal, and has won 12 national AIA Honor awards. Over 65 AIA New Jersey awards have been collected by Graves’ firm. The New Jersey state component also established the Michael Graves Lifetime Achievement Award in his honor.

news headlines
Recent related
Graves Serves as Honorary Chair for AIAS “Beyond Architecture” Campaign
Michael Graves Honored at the Humana Building’s 25th Anniversary
Michael Graves, FAIA, Nominated to New Jersey Hall of Fame
2009 Topaz Medallion Goes to Adele Santos, FAIA
Stanly Tigerman Awarded 2008 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion
Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, Awarded Topaz Medallion

Visit the AIA’s Honors and Awards Web site.

See what the AIA’s Committee on Architecture of Education Knowledge Community is up to.