Case Studies

Michael Graves Architecture & Design

Mindful that the biggest risk in building design may be taking none

What’s in a name? Plenty, if it’s Michael Graves Architecture & Design in New York City and Princeton, New Jersey.

For seven principals today, it means living up to the legacy of the late, great and often-times eccentric architect whose name graces the firm’s letterhead. It’s a daily reminder of what’s at stake as its principals design projects that will generate vox populi long after they are gone.

It means not being boxed in by conventional approaches.

Michael Graves Architecture & Design

It means never letting confidence get in the way of curiosity about what direction the architectural world may next take.

And they say it means a name that opens doors, not just on the congested East Coast and nationally, but worldwide.

“A reputation isn’t just a name; it’s everything that goes with it,” says Thomas P. Rowe, one of seven longtime principals at the storied firm that’s designed everything from lavish resorts and universities overseas to Fortune 500 headquarters to small private homes (“to the dismay of our comptrollers”) and even everyday housewares.

“People are naturally risk-averse, but when you have the right reputation, it brings in the work. And there’s a strong continuity here that’s rare in any firm. It’s been a big help to us,” explains Rowe.

Top of the class

Rowe chuckles when he recounts how his parents once feared he’d be an art-school bum, and steered him into architecture, which they deemed more “respectable.” One thing for sure: However he wound up in this profession, he’s earned the respect of many.

With the firm since 1984, Rowe holds a Master of Architecture degree from Princeton and might be best known for integrating such complexities as LEED, employee efficiency and handicap accessibility into design and redesign, often-times in public and private education, and many areas of the public sector.

New York’s public school department is the world’s largest, and with Rowe at the forefront, Graves has completed four buildings and is working on a fifth. Among those buildings is the green-certified Peck Slip School in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport District.

A former post office, the project called for expertise in the aesthetics of a rapidly growing residential community in a flood-prone locale near the East River, in addition to working with the New York State Historic Preservation Office, mindful of the neighborhood’s maritime heritage.

What was a four-story building of 69,300 square feet is now seven levels with an additional 27,700 square feet, with room for over 700 children in the primary grades. Artist Duke Riley’s cut aluminum frieze on the façade depicts long-ago wharves and ferry stations.

A short way across the Hudson River, in Newark, Rowe’s expertise figured prominently in the redesign of an 85,000-square-foot, 300-bed student residence for the New Jersey Institute of Technology that resulted in Graves being commissioned with a campus master plan.

Among other high-profile upper-education projects, the Graves firm did a Rice University master plan that included the siting and construction of 21 buildings, as well as the design of a Texas A&M science complex that harnesses maximum solar potential and includes efficiency features that mitigate the need for excess air conditioning in sunbaked College Station.

Large-scale design and redesigns in the public sector have included the General Services Administration, Department of Transportation and many courthouses.  Then there’s the 1 million square feet of work that Graves has done for Fannie Mae buildings in Dallas, Atlanta and the nation’s capital.

An expansive worldview

Another Graves principal, Patrick Burke, is the point man for projects in faraway lands, and that includes the $4.4 billion Resorts World at Sentosa in Singapore—six hotels, all distinctive, and winners of numerous accolades, including the Gold Plus Award from the Singapore National Building Authority.

Also in the works is Wenzhou-Kean University, which will be China’s first full-scale U.S.-style university on a 500-acre site that will be built in two phases.

“Diversity and variety are key,” Rowe says. “And don’t be shy.”

Rounding out the principal roster at Graves are Karen Nichols, Donald Strum, Rob Van Varick, Linda Kinsey and Ben Wintner, all of whom blend some specialty with versatility—both of which the firm values and emphasizes.

“Diversity and variety are key,” Rowe says. “And don’t be shy.”

Graves’ principals certainly aren’t shy about recruiting talent and gaining fresh perspective on upcoming demographics. The firm does outreach at schools, interviewing bright young people who may be inclined to take on such creative and rewarding work. The firm employs about 60, and Rowe says staffers are mentored and that they’re not pigeon-holed.

Not being shy includes learning about all facets of the architecture and design industry, he stresses. The blueprints may be what intrigue the intern, but that young man or woman should also sit in when the numbers are being crunched. Learn about requests for proposals and submitting bids, he advises. Contract details are all-important.

Leadership by example

While Rowe comments of a risk-averse populace, it should be mentioned that the late Mr. Graves was anything but.

Michael Graves Architecture & Design

In his 2015 obituary, the New York Times mentioned the “cult-like stature” he shared with four other architects who comprised the so-called New York Five, blessed by some, blamed by others, for the redefinition of 1970s post-modernism. New Yorkers take their architecture very seriously and some in that profession—including those who may have begrudged Mr. Graves’ prominence—could be quick to criticize.

Yet the following decade, he showed once again that he could not be pigeon-holed. Well into middle age, he brought color and art back into architecture, leaning away from abstract modernism and toward a more humanistic approach. Then in the 1990s, he raised eyebrows through a curious partnership with Target that brought redesign to items not normally mentioned in the same sentence as fine architecture. Notwithstanding the 350-plus buildings he designed, the New York Times wrote that he might be best remembered for such appliances as his teakettle and pepper mill.

Disabled by illness in his later years, Graves became a passionate advocate for others with physical challenges. And while he knew that an aesthetically pleasing hospital was no cure-all, he believed that at least it made the reason for being there less unpleasant.

That was Graves—often-times controversial and cutting edge, but never shy, and a man whose architectural DNA is far-reaching. His example seems to have rubbed off on those trying to sustain the Graves legacy. They’ll design the next corporate headquarters, resort or campus, but if there’s reason to reinvent the teakettle, they’ll do that too.

Comptrollers be warned.

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Spring 2018



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