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Visiting Graves' Sites

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One of the most prolific and prominent postmodernist architects of the last half of the 20th century, Michael Graves died this spring, but the Indianapolis native lives on the way architects do: conspicuously.

Architects persevere posthumously in their work far more publicly than other artists. You don’t have to go to a library and check out a book or venture into a museum gallery to appreciate their work -- it’s out in the open for all to admire every day.

Take the NCAA Hall of Champions, which Graves designed to glow like a lantern at night, says Ron Fisher, a principal at Schmidt Associates, the firm which partnered with him on the project in the late 1990s.

Graves d​esigned the Indianapolis Art Center, that sits just off the Monon Trail a short walk from his Broad Ripple High School alma mater. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH PETE
  • Photo by Joseph Pete
  • Graves d​esigned the Indianapolis Art Center, that sits just off the Monon Trail a short walk from his Broad Ripple High School alma mater.

Graves also lives on in the Denver Public Library, the Humana skyscraper in downtown Louisville, the iconic Portland Building with the famous trident-wielding Portlandia sculpture and in households across America with the housewares he designed for Target.

He was best known in the 1970s and 80s as one of the “New York Five” (the architects who garnered rock star-like status in the design world for their part in reshaping modernism in the 70s) or the “Memphis Group.” But the late Broad Ripple High School graduate made an indelible mark on his hometown.

Graves designed more than 350 buildings around the globe, including landmark buildings in New York City, Houston, China, Taiwan, Korea, the Netherlands and Washington D.C. His works also included everything from resorts and retail stores, to hospitals and housewares by the hundreds. But he did enough in Indiana that he could have his own architectural tour named in his honor, maybe at least a podcast-guided one.

Graves designed the St. Vincent Health building that was once home to Thompson Consumer Electronics. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH PETE
  • Photo by Joseph Pete
  • Graves designed the St. Vincent Health building that was once home to Thompson Consumer Electronics.

Anthony Costello, a retired professor of architecture at Ball State University, has taken many students and architects on tours of Graves' buildings in Indiana over the last few decades. Graves designed two homes in Fort Wayne earlier in his career and had been invited to interview late last year for a government office building in Columbus, an internationally renowned architects’ playground, but his firm did not ultimately land the commission.

Costello especially admirers the Humana building Graves designed just across the river in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I consider this 34-story office building overlooking the Ohio River to be his finest building and the best postmodern, mid-rise building ever to be designed,” Costello says. “The combination of Grave’s design skill, large budget with quality materials and highest quality detailing result in a truly masterful piece of architecture. To stand out on the cantilevered crow’s nest at the 30th floor, overlooking the Ohio River, is one of the greatest experiences I have had in relationship to a building and its context.”

Close to his high school stomping grounds, the Indianapolis Art Center in Broad Ripple is another one of his designs, as is the checkerboard Thomson Consumer Electronics Building, now home to St. Vincent Health, just off the Meridian Street office corridor that stretches north of Interstate 465 into Carmel.

But his crowning achievement in the Circle City remains the NCAA Headquarters and Hall of Champions, which is one of his most visible works, since it’s the centerpiece of Indiana’s only urban state park, where countless people and visitors congregate whenever the weather is nice.

Born in Indianapolis July 9, 1934, Graves died March 12th this year, at the age of 80. - COURTESY OF MICHAEL GRAVES ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
  • Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design
  • Born in Indianapolis July 9, 1934, Graves died March 12th this year, at the age of 80.

The park -- a lovely place to stroll, take in a ballgame or a catch a concert -- wasn’t even there when he worked on the project. The Eiteljorg Museum was and so was the canal, but the park itself was still being sketched out.

Schmidt Associates was trying to land the commission, and looked to bring Graves -- who was based in Princeton, New Jersey, and a professor at Princeton University for most of his career -- onto the design team. He stood out from others who interviewed, because they focused on their credentials, while Graves talked mainly about his vision, Fisher says.

“It was a pleasure to work with him, especially as a younger architect who admired his career and work,” he says. “It could have been intimidating, but he was very easy to be with and very down to earth. He had a dry wit and humor and was very personable.”

Graves had a very dry, observational sense of humor, according to Fisher. He enjoyed his large dogs and golfing at the time, before he became paralyzed in his final years.

His involvement in the project helped lure the NCAA from Kansas City, where it occupied a suburban office park, to Indianapolis, where it would take center stage at the White River State Park. Graves had the idea for a collection of buildings as a small campus in an allusion to how the client is basically an amalgamation of colleges. He had to preserve an old turn-of-the-century federation of high school association headquarters, while creating new spaces for corporate offices and a museum that had been tucked away in a basement in Kansas City but one that would be far more prominent in a tourist space in Indianapolis.

“It was kind of magic in the interview,” Fisher recalls. “He had observations on the need for space between buildings and what should be done with the plaza. At that point the Arts Center in Broad Ripple and a Thomson Electronics rework was the extent of his work in Indiana. He had been on the East Coast since basically college, so he was eager to do something significant in his hometown, and along the White River.”

The ​NCAA Headquarters and Hall of Champions is among the more than 350 buildings Michael Graves designed around the world. - PHOTO BY JOSEPH PETE
  • Photo by Joseph Pete
  • The ​NCAA Headquarters and Hall of Champions is among the more than 350 buildings Michael Graves designed around the world.

It's said that Graves was so proud of the work that he painted watercolors of it, which was available in a limited-edition print.

The project was a challenge, because the NCAA had a tight deadline to relocate and an old coal-fired Indianapolis Power & Light plant had to be quickly demolished, Fisher explains. The campus of buildings also had to be integrated with the broader vision for the White River State Park, such as by replicating design standards for benches, walkways and lighting.

Fisher was impressed how Graves worked with colors that came from nature, like terra cotta, light red, yellow, light green and a patina-aged copper. He was highly influenced by classical work in Italy, such as the yellows that sculptors there drew from limestone.

“Michael will be remembered in a couple of ways,” Fisher says. “He was an educator who taught young architects about modern design. In the postmodern movements of the 1970s and 1980s, he was clearly one of the icons of those movements. He was always involved in commercial product design for companies, such as tea kettles and clocks. Later in his life, after he became paralyzed, he spent a lot of his career on accessibility designs.”

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