SHORTLY AFTER THE DEATH of Michael Graves I visited one of his first important works: the Benacerraf Pavilion in Princeton, New Jersey. The project, completed in 1969 and one of two by Graves published in the book Five Architects, is modest in size but exuberant in form. It confirms John Whiteman’s assertion that “the pavilion is the essay form of architecture.” For Graves, this small commission was an opportunity to comment on the plastic language of Le Corbusier’s purist works of the 1920s. The subject matter of Graves’s built essay is the tension between plane and volume, abstraction and figuration, and the counterpoint between a regular structural frame and the compositional freedom of walls liberated from their function of support and enclosure. Benacerraf is early modernism seen through a Mannerist lens; just as Peter Eisenman’s work of the same period uncovers an unanticipated complexity in the work of Giuseppe Terragni, Graves’s work points to a latent figurality in the abstract language of ’20s modernism.
Modern architecture never makes good ruins, and Benacerraf is a ruin today—which makes it a poignant analogue to Graves’s own passing. (The house is owned by Princeton University, and a project to restore it in cooperation with Graves’s office was on hold at the time of his death.) In its ruined form, Benacerraf seems almost like a provisional construction; it takes on the quality of an abandoned stage set or a deserted holiday camp. It underlines the temporality of the modern, less invested in a durable presence and more in capturing the moment of its conception.
In retrospect, it is easy to see Benacerraf as an anticipation of postmodernism, but I think there is an alternative construct at work here. Graves and fellow New York Five architects (Eisenman, Gwathmey, Hejduk, and Meier) are marked by their belatedness in relation to the modern project. They were at least two generations removed from the early modern masters. It was as a student at Harvard that Graves encountered Gropius, but that could only have reinforced Graves’s sense that the spirit of discovery had gone out of the modern project. Unwilling to turn their backs on the modernist legacy, they faced the paradoxical challenge of recuperating the radicality of early modernism at a time when the movement’s period of innovation had already passed. The Five wanted to return modern architecture to its avant-garde origins but were sophisticated enough to understand that such a self-conscious return was entirely incompatible with the avant-garde impulse. For Graves and Hejduk in particular (who were entranced by the ’20s work of Le Corbusier) that dilemma is particularly stark: Modern architecture presented itself as a language that was already complete and fully formed. In Graves’s case, the only possibility left open was the kind of Mannerist elaboration on display at Benacerraf—a desperate attempt to breathe new life into a dying system.
Graves’s solution in the years to follow was to turn his back on the abstract language of early modernism. He never entirely rejected the influence of Le Corbusier (I’m told he faithfully celebrated Le Corbusier’s birthday each year in the office), but just as in his early work he had emphasized the figural aspects of Le Corbusier’s work, in later years he saw that work through the lens of ritual, landscape, and primary geometries. In the entry hall of the Villa Savoye, for example, one of the first things a visitor encounters is a standard ceramic lavatory sink. Historians have struggled to understand what this piece of bathroom hardware is doing in such a public setting. Some point to Le Corbusier’s fascination with the objet type and see it as a kind of Duchampian found object; others see it in terms of functionalism and say it was placed there for the chauffeur to wash his hands. Graves saw it as a ritual fountain, like those in the streets of Rome, connecting Le Corbusier’s work back to an elemental historical tradition.
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, 1931.
It was the historicist postmodernist work of the late 1970s and early ’80s that brought him wider fame and larger commissions, but it is important to remember that although postmodernism came to be viewed as conservative, it had its origins in a critique of convention. Graves recounted that when he won the competition for the Portland Municipal Services Building, nearly every registered architect in Portland signed a letter opposing the building. As late as 1982, postmodernism could still be perceived as a radical critique of an entrenched and unexamined modernism.
I met Graves in the late ’80s, when I was a student at Princeton, where he taught for four decades. By this time, a hint of the bitterness that marked his later years had already set in. The loss of the Whitney commission weighed heavily on him, although questions of historic preservation and neighborhood resistance to the expansion played as much of a role in that decision as the postmodernist language of Grave’s proposal. But clearly by the late ’80s the tide was turning against postmodernism, and Graves felt increasingly overlooked by the progressive design community. This was unfortunate, because he produced some of his most original work in the ’80s and ’90s. He mapped out an alternative genealogy for modernism, looking to figures such as Gunnar Asplund, Jože Plečnik, and Heinrich Tessenow, giving full rein to his figurative impulse to produce strange and interesting variations on this alternative tradition. He took great satisfaction in the work he did for Target and in the idea that he could bring high design to a mass market.
Michael Graves was a resolutely visual architect, entirely ruled by the aesthetic and deeply embedded in architecture as a discipline. He had limited sight in one eye, which meant he had no depth perception. Conversations with him were disconcerting; he looked at you sideways, his one good eye fixing you with an intense gaze. I think he liked the idea that he saw the world in depthless fragments, like a Cubist painting. It was his unwavering commitment to the visual that made him such a good teacher—he taught you how to look and was open to finding the best in all students’ work. The notion of a critical practice baffled him; for Graves the task of architecture was to provide visual pleasure in an increasingly banal world. Every architect invents a present from the fragments of the past, and Graves worked tirelessly to keep that disciplinary dialogue alive. At a time when architecture seems to be ruled by the language of marketing and demands for environmental performance, his work and teaching are useful reminders that architecture is still a visual art, and it continues to unfold in a rich conversation with its long history.
Stan Allen is an architect working in New York, a professor of architecture at Princeton University, and Director of Princeton’s Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure.
MICHAEL GRAVES had a very particular terracotta that he liked to use in his renderings. He preferred a shade of pencil manufactured by Derwent which he then muted slightly with a 10 Percent Cool Gray from Prismacolor. One day he heard that the gray was being discontinued. He promptly rang up the company and bought as many as he could—boxes and boxes full.
As this anecdote about the tools of his trade suggests, Graves was determined to get things just right. No matter what the typology—drawings and models, buildings and interiors, tea kettles and toasters, furniture and fabrics—his works are possessed of complete resolution. Each holds together tightly and brightly, like an exceptionally well-wrapped Christmas present. Yet, like the period in design history that he seemed in so many ways to exemplify, Graves himself is something of a puzzle, hard to assemble into a single picture.
Imagine him first as a dashing young American abroad, sketching ancient monuments on his grand tour to Rome from 1960 to 1962. Then as a visionary theorist of New Urbanism, working alongside Peter Eisenman at Princeton on a grandly unfeasible proposal called the Linear City. This scheme, equal parts Le Corbusier and Superstudio, would have transformed a twenty-mile-long, one-mile-wide ribbon of New Jersey into a unified megalopolis, a completely integrated space for living and working. It would have been hypermodern and ultraefficient. In real life, it would have been terrifying. It also suggests just how fearless and ambitious Graves was when he was just starting out.
In the 1970s, Graves developed into a more reasonable sort of modernist, working mostly at a domestic scale. This was the moment when the New York Five (Graves and Eisenman along with Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier), or “Whites,” had primacy in architectural discourse. It was a time of vivid debate, both among the high modernists and their ideological opponents, the so-called Grays, who advocated a vernacular and contextualist approach. Then came apostasy. In one of the most astonishing turns in architectural history, Graves became the leading practitioner of the historical, ornamental, and allusive style that came to be known (for better or worse) as postmodernism. Though criticized at the time as a retreat into the past, in retrospect Graves’s postmodern work looks astonishingly ahead of the game. Iconic and complexly referential, his buildings of the 1980s seem already primed for viewers armed with the Internet and a smartphone.
Touching down first in unlikely places such as Portland and Louisville, his buildings in the new style radiated sly intelligence, even as they functioned like gigantic corporate logos. Graves was soon flying high, riffing off Art Deco in commissions for Memphis, Alessi, and Sunar, and carrying out a series of major architectural projects for the Disney Corporation. With the help of gallerist Max Protetch he elevated architectural renderings to the status of fine artworks, and was justly celebrated for his extraordinary draftsmanship (with lots of terracotta). But this professional success had an equal and opposite effect on his reputation as a serious architect. Po-mo managed the feat of being simultaneously outrageous and overly familiar. Though Graves’s work was the best of it, he was imitated rampantly, and badly. This stage of his career left an unfair but nonetheless indelible impression of him not as the classicist polymath he really was, but instead as a cartoonist and the signature architect of late capitalism.
Graves’s later years were marked by populist success and personal tragedy. In his prolific product-design work for Target and JCPenney, the ironies of his career were all in play. Even as he achieved the long-sought modernist goal of bringing good design to the masses, he gave further ammunition to those who suspected he was more interested in commodities than ideas. Finally, following a spinal infection in 2003 that left him partially paralyzed, there emerged yet another Graves, heroic and profoundly humanist. Working from a wheelchair of his own design, he created exquisitely sensitive equipment and environments for the injured, ill, and incapacitated. At a time of life when others might have retired from the field, he continued to affect the lives of many for the better.
Clearly, Graves was a man of many parts. He liked to keep admirers and critics alike in a perpetual state of uncertainty, waiting for his next trick. There are many abiding conflicts at the heart of his work, all of them productive: between purism and populism, erudition and commercialism, historical depth and superficial imagery. That very multiplicity made him the quintessential architect of the late twentieth century, though, and at his best, he synthesized these competing impulses into designs of tremendous imaginative power.
In 1999, Graves devised a scheme to scaffold the Washington Monument during a major renovation. He came up with the idea of shrouding the obelisk in a sheath of blue mesh, emulating its shape and also replicating (in denotative fashion) the pattern of its stone coursing. Particularly at night, when it glowed like a translucent lantern at one end of the National Mall, the artificial facade was absolutely an improvement on the original. This was the elusive dream that animated so much of postmodern thinking: the promise of second-order experience. The great hope was that through metastructures, we might find a way to live within history, without being dominated by its imperatives. Graves’s finest work remains a beacon of that hope: a flash of wit, joy, sometimes even perfection, in a decidedly imperfect present.
Walter Liedtke, 2007. Photo: Patrice Mattia, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Walter Liedtke took place during my internship at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1995. Walter came to visit the museum in order to see the new installation of the collection of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings that I had been working on with the curator George Keyes. During that internship I also developed my interest in Dutch architectural painting, and more specifically with the artist Bartholomeus van Bassen. Walter was, of course, the authority on this subject and during my subsequent research for my doctoral thesis we frequently discussed matters of attribution and the artist’s technique.
My closest involvement with Walter developed, however, when I took up the position of Curator of Dutch Paintings at the National Gallery in London in 1999, succeeding Christopher Brown. At that moment I inherited from my predecessor an extremely ambitious exhibition project, Vermeer and the Delft School, which Walter had initiated. With little experience in organizing exhibitions on that scale and feeling slightly intimidated by Walter’s stature in the field, expertise and his—at times—somewhat outspoken character, I feared that my role in the project would remain secondary and marginal. My fears, however, quickly proved wholly unfounded. Walter could not have been a more supportive and collegial partner in this project. Even though he was clearly the far more experienced curator and a true expert in the field of art from Delft, he immediately treated me as an equal in the project, involving me in the development of the loan list and the subsequent negotiations and inviting me to contribute to the large catalogue. I remember that when I asked him how long the entries for the catalogue were supposed to be he responded in typical fashion: “Write as much as you need on the work and you will know when you will be done.” Walter was always a great champion of scholarship and he felt that an exhibition catalogue should provide ample room for it. The catalogue of Vermeer and the Delft School, with its almost 650 pages and more than 2,000 footnotes, certainly reflects that conviction! With the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which can afford such extensive publications, Walter had also found the perfect employer. For me it was a great privilege and learning experience to have been involved with this ambitious project.
In the following years we maintained regular contact and we usually met on my visits to New York in order to share our ideas around projects that we were working on. A conversation with Walter was always stimulating. Particularly given our shared interest in Dutch architectural painting, I greatly benefitted from Walter’s knowledge and interpretations. It was both a joy and an intellectual challenge to discuss the ideas and often strong opinions that he expressed in conversation, witty lectures, and his characteristically carefully worded essays. His elegant appearance, combined with this “love to lecture,” as his colleague Arthur Wheelock from the National Gallery of Art in Washington put it, could easily be misconstrued as a sign of a certain aloofness. But those of us who have had the privilege to know Walter more closely and to have worked with him experienced an extremely open and supportive collaborator who was always ready to help seasoned colleagues as well as young scholars and curators.
The shock of his sudden and tragic death has strongly reverberated through the world of art-history and museums. Personally, I have Walter’s generosity of spirit to thank for much of my early experience as a curator. I greatly miss his charm, erudition, and friendship.
A memorial event for Walter Liedtke will be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art today at 10:00am.
Axel Rüger is the director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Albert Maysles with his first camera, 2014. Photo: Kit Pennebaker.
AL HEARD I WAS GOING TO RUSSIA and asked if he could come along. He had gone there on a motorcycle with his brother a few years before and wanted to go back. He said he’d made a film in a mental hospital there. How he had managed to get into a Russian mental hospital to film intrigued me.
I was going to make a film on an American trade exposition designed by George Nelson with Charles Eames and Bucky Fuller that was going to be set up in a park in Moscow. This was 1959, when hardly any Americans had been allowed to spend time or film in Russia. I had planned to make this film by myself, which was a really crazy idea, armed with only a windup camera and a windup tape recorder. When I told Al that I’d love to have him help me but hadn’t raised any money and couldn’t pay him anything, he didn’t seem to care. He wasn’t looking for a job. He was in love with going to Russia. Right away we became friends. I could see we were going to be partners, not just traveling companions.
So I arranged for his visa and flew to Munich to pick up a small Arriflex so we could each have a camera. You couldn’t buy Kodachrome film there, so we brought a trunk full of hundred-foot rolls, which we would have to bring back to the States for processing—no processing there either. We would never see what we’d shot until we got back home. I had made a short film, about the elevated trains in New York, but never a long one like this. How we were going to do it was a mystery, but the idea of making it on our own and in Russia was enough. And having Al as a partner seemed like a gift from the gods of filmmaking.
Early in June our Russian adventure began—four months, filming everything we could find in Moscow and beyond that we thought interesting. The Moscow beach with bathing-suited Russians strewn about, the racetrack with everyone betting like mad, the circus with the world-famous clown, Oleg Popov, Sergey Obraztsov’s puppet theater for adults, local bands playing perfectly arranged Benny Goodman music from the 1930s, and even legendary Galina Ulanova doing her famed Swan Lake, which, when we filmed it with our noisy windup Kodak, got us thrown out of the theater.
Al hadn’t had a lot of experience with either the Arriflex or the Cine Kodak Special when we started, but in a few weeks he became expert with both of them. He had a great eye. And he could watch something that interested him forever. He was a natural filmmaker.
As we focused on people we saw at the exposition and around Moscow, we made a discovery. Our film, Opening in Moscow, was turning into a documentary, but we needed to hear conversations and see people having them. We needed sync sound. My windup recorder had a hard time getting that, and by the time we had returned home we had determined what would be our next step. And when we had figured out how to get sync sound and made our own homemade cameras for it, Al and I filmed Primary (1960) with Kennedy and Humphrey, Eddie Sachs racing at Indianapolis, and Al and his brother David had filmed Salesmen (1968).
Somehow it seems to me that a lot of what followed for both of us came out of that summer, our Russian summer and the film we made there.
D.A. Pennebaker is a documentary filmmaker based in New York. Since 1974, he has partnered with Chris Hegedus in Pennebaker Hegedus films.
Jane Wilson in front of her painting, The Open Scene, 1960. Photo: John Jonas Gruen.
Jane Wilson’s Water Mill studio on eastern Long Island, where she painted for some fifty years, was the second-story hayloft of a carriage house that she and her husband, the photographer and critic John Gruen, purchased in 1960. Spare and smaller than one might expect given the inherent expansiveness of her canvases, the space was not unlike the studio her fellow artist Fairfield Porter had fashioned for himself in a stable hayloft behind his house on Southampton’s South Main Street, where in the summer of 1957 he painted Wilson’s portrait.
By contrast, her New York City studio was jammed with paintings and at a far remove from the storied light of the East End. One senses that Wilson didn’t need to be constantly reminded of nature, that it was indelibly imprinted on her consciousness by what she called a bred-in-the-bone sixth sense about the vagaries of weather, a legacy of her upbringing in the wide-open spaces of rural Iowa. A brief film clip of Wilson painting (undated but likely from the late 1990s) shows the artist moving deliberately about the cramped studio, from painting table to easel. It’s hard to believe that these ethereal canvases, which look as though they materialized effortlessly out of thin air, are the result of layer upon layer of paint, applied with large, loaded hog-bristle brushes, in a full-throttle approach that can only be described as attack. There is nothing subdued or restrained about Wilson’s encounter with the canvas, buttressed by an energy and boldness of gesture more often associated with Abstract Expressionist paint handling. Wilson achieves that same allover treatment of the canvas while alluding to the rudiments of reality, enabling the viewer to intuit a horizon line.
For Wilson, the landmark 1961 Rothko exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was a revelation and a talisman. Some thirty years later she recalled that within the rectangle of his canvas was a vast world that made her “think about landscape in the sense that it was basically a horizontal series of balances and floating volumes . . . a density of air,” adding: “These are paintings where there is no scale trigger, not a house, not a tree, not a person. Whatever scale is determined by ourselves being a vertical in front of them.”
In Wilson’s paintings, the horizon hugs the bottom of the canvas, giving way above to the full play of light and color that is the true subject of her work. Even with the specificity of time, place, climate, or season conveyed by her titles (End of Winter Water Mill, Midnight: Foggy Moon, Rain: Heavy at Times), the paintings transcend the particular to intimate the universal. Jane Wilson will be long remembered for the power and grace of her art, palpable yet ineffable, that essentially reinvented the language of landscape painting in the late twentieth century.
Alicia G. Longwell is the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator of Art and Education at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, where she is organizing an exhibition for the fall of 2015 titled “Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson: Seen and Unseen.”
Ricardo Porro, 2007. Still from the film Unfinished Spaces by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray.
“One had of course to be a nationalist, while trying to be a vanguardist at the same time. . . . It was something of a tall order, since all nationalism is founded on the cult of tradition, whereas vanguardism, by definition, implies a severance from tradition”
THE “NORMALIZATION” OF US-CUBA DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS will undoubtedly lead to more architectural tourism, ending the ignorance of Cuban architectural culture that exists in the US and revealing key episodes in the Caribbean nation’s history to foreign architects and scholars for the first time. In the late 1950s, a debate prevailed among the very talented group of young Cuban architects around the question: Should Architecture express the cultural values of the nation or should Architecture express the universal values of an international civilization?
Mario Romañach, Max Borges Recio, and Frank Martínez stand out among the larger of the two groups, which was committed to the rationalist or universal thesis. The nationalist side was taken by Ricardo Porro, with his ideas of Cubanidad and the need to assume a new national identity based on the prevalent Afro-Cuban culture, in opposition to the dominant Spanish colonial urban legacy. Porro’s essay “El Sentido de la Tradición” argued for an architecture rooted in indigenous Cuban culture and history—“una arquitectura negra”—a position influenced by the architecture of his master Eugenio Batista and also the paintings of Wifredo Lam, a Chinese-Cuban artist whom Porro had befriended in Paris in 1950 while studying at the Sorbonne in the Institute d’Urbanisme (the pioneer of Venezuelan modern architecture, Carlos Raúl Villanueva, had studied there, in 1937). In Paris, Porro became a Marxist, and this epiphany furthered his ambition to express in architecture a poetic synthesis of Lo Tropical and Cubanidad. He wished his architecture to be tectonic syncretism. While teaching in Caracas at the new Facultad de Arquitectura designed by Villanueva in 1957, he met two Italian architects, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, who had studied in Milan with Ernesto Rogers and were influenced by the rural vernacular architecture built throughout Italy that Giò Ponti published in the magazine Domus during the war-torn ’40s.
Porro began his career during the booming economy of the ’40s and ’50s in Havana. He belonged to the second generation of modern architects there who had the opportunity to build as soon as they graduated, along with such peers as Clara Porset, Mario Romañach, Frank Martínez, Nicolás Quintana, Manuel Gutierrez, Rafael Portuondo, Gabriela Menéndez, Aquiles Capablanca, Max and Enrique Borges Recio, Jose Novoa, Pablo N. Perez, Mario González, and Hugo D’Acosta-Calheiros. At the same time, many foreign architects were practicing in Havana. Perhaps the most notorious building that emerged from a foreign practice during this era was the concrete-and-glass American Embassy, 1950–53, designed by Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz, architects of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In 1953, this embassy was exhibited in “Architecture for the State Department” at the Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the first of a string of commissions given by the State Department to the best American architects.
Against this kind of “official” architecture, in his early houses Porro used curvilinear walls referencing the “Mambo Modernism”  prevalent in Cuba during the ’50s by way of Morris Lapidus or Oscar Niemeyer. This popular circular motif became the norm in the late ’50s. Frank Martínez’s brilliant project for the National Aquarium in Sibarimar, 1959, and his circular supermarkets built on the outskirts of Havana are the best examples of this moment in the city.
Although he left in 1958 to teach in Caracas, Porro returned to Cuba in January 1959, when he was assured of the success of the revolution. His dream job, to help build architecture in the spirit of the new, socialist Cuba, began in 1961, when Fidel Castro put him in charge of the design of a new campus for the national art schools, to be built on the grounds of the Havana Country Club in the western suburb of Cubanacán. The five schools were conceived during this romantic phase of Castro’s long regime, when the impossible and the fantastic seemed to become real possibilities for his political disciples, goals to be pursued for the inspiration of the very poor. Porro immediately recruited his Caracas colleagues, the Venice-born Gottardi and Milan-born Garatti. The three architects undertook the design and construction of five separate buildings for the art faculties—note that a school for architecture is missing from the program. Porro’s two schools, the fine arts school and the school for modern dance, advanced the idea that vernacular construction, using traditional reinforced concrete, brick, arches, vaults, and domes, would create an arquitectura negra (Black Architecture) capable of expressing a poesy of light and space yet built by the common laborer without the use of imported technology.
Soon after the Seventh Congress of the International Association of Architects, held in Cuba in 1963, an emphasis on building low-cost housing using Soviet-style standardization threatened the poetic ideology of Porro’s Black Architecture that was so beautifully represented by the art schools. Architectural historian and critic Roberto Segre accused Porro of being an elitist, whose work exhibited a “narcissistic and egocentric bourgeois formation.”  The admittedly arrogant Porro had several enemies, and Antonio Quintana, in charge of architectural design for the new Ministry of Construction, saw his organic expressive forms as decadent. Quintana managed to convince Castro to abandon the project in 1965. Of the five schools, only two are still active; the others are overgrown by the abundant urban tropical plants natural to the fertile soil of the former golf course. In 1966, Porro and his family moved to Paris, where André Malraux helped him find shelter and work. Most of Porro’s French projects were built in banlieues of Paris and did not fulfill the promise exhibited by his radical schools of the arts in Havana. He taught architectural history and theory in Paris, Lille, and Strasbourg, and he never returned to live on his native soil.
Ricardo Porro, School of Plastic Arts at the National Art Schools, Havana, 1965. Photo: Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools, by John A. Loomis, Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
Ricardo Porro, School of Plastic Arts at the National Art Schools, Havana, 1965. Photo: Flickr user travfotos.
Vittorio Garatti, School of Music at the National Art Schools, Havana, 1965. Photo: Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools, by John A. Loomis, Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
1. Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, The Havana Guide, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, xxv.
2. John A. Loomis, “Obituary: Ricardo Porro, 1925-2014,” Architectural Record, December 29, 2014. archrecord.construction.com/
Carlos Brillembourg is a principal of Carlos Brillembourg Architects, based in New York City, an editor-at-large for architecture at BOMB Magazine since 1992, and teaches in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.