Graves in Rome
From History to Modernism
Graves's nights were spent in the academy library, and his daytime drawings show the influence of the images he observed in books. Quite often, he positioned himself in a specific spot in order to draw or photograph through the eyes of a previous architect or artist. This process allowed him to compare the reality of significant sites to that of their representations.
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In both observing the site and studying its image, Graves joined the effort of architects before him to develop arguments based in history and culture. He has often commented that representation is seeing something anew. Through drawings, an architect captures the essence of an artifact, seeing it as a reoccurrence or a replica of a greater idea.
While one might look for direct connections between an architect's drawings and his built work, these literal one-to-one associations tend to be forced. It is more often the case that Graves draws from a multitude of experiences and transforms and shapes them throughout his design process. When recalling these images, he claims he is not "treating or employing history, but rather participating in its continuities."
In studying Italy's history, culture, and architecture, Graves began to question the unconditional nature of his modernist training. He had analyzed the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati and had become a disciple of Le Corbusier while a graduate student at Harvard.
At the American Academy, Graves began to appreciate the continuum of history and to expand his architectural vocabulary. The drawings and photographs from this period are not mere diaries; they are designs in that they are critical investigations, yielding a new way of thinking about architecture.
Seeing by Drawing
Graves focused on three media in his work: pencil sketches, pen and ink drawings, and photographs. Each in its own way brought him to an understanding of his subject.
Pencil and paper are investigative tools quite different from the camera. Often what architects choose not to draw is as important as what they choose to draw. Graves rarely focused on details but instead portrayed the massiveness of structures through their abstraction. He used line sparingly to delineate a carefully constructed composition, sporadically to express sculptural movement, or boldly to define shadow in mass or a tonal field.
The idea of the drawing as a tool for investigation is quite apparent in many of Graves's shorthand sketches. This method of drawing, similar to Le Corbusier's and patterned after the speed of the camera, reduced the image to essential lines. Quick studies allowed Graves to portray different aspects of the same site.
The ink wash technique Graves used relies heavily on his paintings from this period, which were very much influenced by the work of Willem de Kooning and other American Abstract Expressionists. In de Kooning's Black and White Rome (1959), the gestural technique yields an image in which form becomes secondary to the impulses of the artist.
Graves also drew from the work of the Italian "Art Informale" painters, whose work was being shown around Rome at the time. The drawings by these artists were created spontaneously and at rapid speed so as to give voice to the subconscious of the artist.
In Graves's pen and ink drawings, one sees the same frenzied pace in the application of line work. However, the abstraction that occurs in these drawings does not occur over the entire subject but only in localized moments. These drawings clearly depict their subject matter and introduce an implied light source through the spacing of lines and the build-up of ink.
Many of the drawings include ink washes that range from transparent grays to pitch black, implying depth and a sense of hierarchy on the page. They include very little negative space and create a sense of compression as they push to the edges of the paper.
In looking at Graves's travel drawings from his Grand Tour, we must understand them not as mere postcards that mark destinations. Rather, they are composed to imprint upon the architect's mind a central idea about culture and history to remember and assimilate. This idea, portrayed through a range of graphic techniques, follows an acute awareness of the methods employed by architects and artists throughout history.
Graves recalls and combines these representations to create detailed compositions that convey new meaning. These drawings provide the key to understanding Graves's intentions as an architect — one who participates in the continuity of history and draws freely from a memory engraved by examples of modern and premodern architectural precedent.
As such, they record the education of an architect working to reveal himself on paper. The drawings and photographs of Michael Graves transcend formal analysis and through color, shadow, and line capture an essence that is Italy.
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Brian M. Ambroziak studied under Michael Graves at Princeton University and worked for four years as a project designer for Michael Graves & Associates. Ambroziak's own award-winning design work has been recognized internationally. He is coauthor of Infinite Perspectives: Two Thousand Years of Three-Dimensional Mapmaking and is assistant professor at the University of Tennessee's College of Architecture and Design.
This article is excerpted from Michael Graves: Images of a Grand Tour, copyright © 2005, available from Princeton Architectural Pressress and at Amazon.com.