Some of the Many Milestones of Michael Graves

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“I hate to tell you this but the vote was 30-1.” “Who was the one?” “Me… You win.” That’s architect Michael Graves talking to Michael Eisner after the former Disney chief pushed Graves’ hotel design through the board of the Mouse House. He’d gone up against anti-Modernist Robert Venturi in a half-concocted competition over a mammoth new resort, and after the votes were tallied it was determined Graves had “lost.” But the incredible tale Graves told me last Friday — one of many — in an upstairs conference room at The Wolfsonian really begins when he and Eisner were at Lincoln Center.

“This is a wonderfully crazy story,” remembers Graves. “I was outside of Lincoln Center with my date, who actually knew Michael, and she said ‘There’s Michael Eisner, do you want to meet him?’ I said ‘Who’s Michael Einser?’ His appointment wasn’t even in the news yet. Anyway, she filled me in, and then she made the introduction. Eisner told me about his friend [Victor Ganz] from the Whitney who had just recommended me and Philip Johnson for a new project. But then he said ‘I just saw Philip in the lobby and I told him three times what I wanted him to do and all he could say was that he couldn’t hear me and that he was going to get a drink. So I’m gonna tell you. And he told me, and I listened, and then he said ‘I think I’ve found my architect.’ Just like that.”

Later on, however, after some pushback from developer Robert Tishman, who wanted his man Alan Lapidus to head the project, Eisner had the bright idea to have Graves and Venturi design something together. (“Isn’t that a little bit like putting Steven Speilberg and George Lucas together?” Graves is noted as saying in James B. Stewart’s Disney War. And Eisner, referring to Raiders of the Lost Ark, countered “Remember I did that!”) But as monumental as it may have been on paper, neither Graves nor Venturi were keen on any collaboration. The man gave me the backstory on that as well.

“Bob and I met at The Four Seasons and he said ‘I don’t want to do a project together. We can either have a competition or I can bow out.’ I said, ‘Fine by me.’ I like Venturi. I like his architecture. But I didn’t want to do anything with him. I said the only caveat is that you’ve gotta tell Michael.'”

Telling Michael Eisner “no,” as a 30-member board would swiftly find out, was easier said than done. But Graves was Eisner’s choice from the get, and in the end he’d go on to design both The Swan and The Dolphin in Orlando, the Hotel New York in Disney France, and the gargantuan Team Disney headquarters in Burbank (which is also called “The Michael Einser Building”). Kinda makes one think all that talk about “competition” was nothing more than chatter.

The Disney story was just one of many Michael Graves so graciously spoke to me about. He also talked about career milestones like the St. Regis Cairo, The Miramar Resort on the Red Sea, the Equestrian City Tower in Riyadh, and Singapore’s mammoth $5.5 billion Sentosa spread, which includes six hotels, a casino, a convention center, a waterfront auditorium, a spa, a marina, an animal park, retail and restaurants.

Graves even made his mark here in Miami, at 1500 Ocean Drive, with a waterfront residency that is commonly called “the Michael Graves Building.” Graves still keeps an apartment in the complex, primarily so he can visit his son.

“I don’t spend a lot of time in Miami, but I love it. My son lives here. He’s eight years old. He lives up in Boca, but he comes down and we have a wonderful time together. He’s got friends in the building, he swims there, we go out in the boat — it’s really great for him.”

Beautifully bold buildings aside, I couldn’t let the man who made design friendly for everyone slip away without telling me about hooking up with Target, a relationship that started 11 years ago and to date has spawned “2500 products.”

“Target came to me and wanted me to do the renovation on the Washington Monument — they were gonna pay for it. And after we designed the scaffolding — which was going to be up for 2½ years — one of the fellas on the project [Ron Johnson], who’s now #2 at Apple, said ‘listen, we can’t compete with Wal-Mart on price or location; we’ve been beating each other up about both for years. The only place we can go is design, so let’s do a design together,’ He was thinking about six products; so we did six. And he said no, more, so we did more. Then the line debuted at The Whitney, it was a huge success, and, well…”

But even a line of 2500 products can’t compete with the lasting legacy of Graves being christened one of The New York Five back in 1972. And that’s a story so tall it’s become almost apocryphal.

“We didn’t know,” Graves told me. “We were just five architects. We weren’t a club. Our work wasn’t solely influenced by Le Corbusier, and our work was very different. Peter [Eisenman]’s work was dramatically different from mine; John [Hejduk] was different from Peter. Though Richard Meier and to some extent Charlie Gwathney continued on the path of Le Corbusier.”

Graves did say the Five all knew each other then, and that New York was a much smaller place. The christening, however, was purely happenstance.

“The curator at the Museum of Modern Art [Arthur Drexler] said ‘why don’t you guys come hang out in the museum for a weekend, we’ll have some critics, and each of you can bring a house. There was no show — it was simply conversation. No one really knew what was going on with architecture at the time. So we did that and Charles Moore found out about it and he said we’ve got enough for a book. So we each expanded from the one house we’d shown at MOMA into two houses and that became The New York Five. We didn’t call ourselves The New York Five. Philip Johnson did, because at the time Abstract Expressionism with De Kooning and Kline and Pollack and all those guys was considered the New York School of Painting, and Johnson said this could be considered the New York School of Architecture.”

In person Michael Graves is as eloquent as his buildings, and about a million times more understated. Then again, when you’ve designed everything from tea kettles to casinos, there’s really no need for much braggadocio. As for Graves next milestone?

“Someone called about a house and I thought what a relief to do a house for a change.”

Can’t wait to see what kinda home he comes up with.