June 12, 2003
Michael Graves – from architecture to objects (and probably a good thing too)

This New York Times article about the architect Michael Graves, who is now wheelchair bound, includes a nice little slide show of some of his designs. (I couldn't get that particular link to work. Look for the kettle, and where it says "MULTIMEDIA", on the right of the NYT article, and click.)

It's hard to tell whether these designs are really any sort of improvement on the regular versions of the various things Graves has "rethought", or just rethinking for the sake of it, which is one of the great architectural vices of the twentieth century.

The kettle, for example. Pretty shape, sure. But why? Does it work well? Does it do what kettles are supposed to do?

And that chess set. Redesigning a chess set is the absolute quintessence of design lunacy, if you actually want to use it to play chess. The whole point of a chess set is that you want your mind to be clear of all distractions and to think about your moves. What you absolutely do not want is to be worrying about which is the bishop and which the knight, which is the king and which is the queen, even very slightly. You just do not need that. Playing chess with this collection of elegant abortions would be like you trying to read this blog if I had used a typeface "rethought" by this man. Lunacy. Stick with the conventional design, because that is what chess players are used to, and stick with it on principle. In the same spirit, I stuck with a conventional typeface, on principle. And I use a conventional language, with conventional words, and conventional punctuation.

That Graves is even willing to think about buggering about with chess pieces suggests to me that there is a basic wrong circuit in his brain, involving the complete non-understanding of the value of traditional design recipes. Even more shockingly, the error is in the exact area where you might expect him to be strongest, in the matter of the message that the look of something communicates (or in this case fails to comunicate). This is not a merely a technical failing, at the level of materials. (For example, I've no reason to think that these chess men are especially liable to fall over if jogged (although come to think of it, yes I have - this is what this entire posting is all about, dammit).) It's a failure to understand how design "messages" actually work in the brain of the receiver of them. I'm not impressed.

It may seem unfair to bash away at someone like Graves for being unconventional. After all, his buildings look much more conventional than a lot of earlier and more "modernist" architecture does. But looking at his stuff, and seeing only the surface of it I do admit, it looks to me like it could be mere surface. It evokes the look of the conventional, but I wonder whether it really is. His buildings, in other words, look more like they're going to work properly than some anti-conventional blockhouse where the water collects on the roof in great stagnant pools and then leeks down the central staircase, but looks can deceive. What I suspect is going on is that, just as he takes the chess set and messes around with it, while leaving it just about recognisable as a (bad) chess set, he takes conventional architectural gestures and mucks about with them (but not enough to make them look totally non-conventional) and then slaps them on the outside of the same old stupid concrete boxes.

There's a lot of that about.

Of course, if what is really being sold here is just decoration, then okay. But a little hut in the garden which isn't actually constructed properly and which falls to bits in two years doesn't even work as decoration, let alone as somewhere to have a tryst in or to get out of the rain in. On the other hand, if the thing is a best-seller, it probably works.

The good thing is that if you buy that damned chess set, for example, and then regret it on account of it being idiotic, that's a few hundred dollars down the tubes. When you buy a piece of bad architecture, and especially if it's a really big piece of bad architecture, that's something else again.

This is why architects so often shift, as Graves seems to have been doing, away from designing big buildings and towards designing smaller, mass produced objects, like kettles, and like furniture. Wise move.

The irony is that "architects" aren't actually trained to do architecture properly, because too often they've been bainwashed into believing that "rethinking" is an automatically virtuous thing, when in fact it mostly results in stupid and unusable junk.

A stupid and unusable chess set is not a huge problem. You just don't make any more of the things, and stick to the tiny percentage of objects you've designed that have turned out to be quite good, and you mass produce those.

A stupid and unusable big city hospital, on the other hand, or a stupid or unusable big city concert hall (such as the Royal Festival Hall here in London – where the accoustics are a horror story) is not something that can be "discontinued". There's only one of it, and the damage has all been done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:54 PM
Category: ArchitectureDesign