Eminent architect Graves stayed true to fashion, good design

It's a simple fact of architecture that architects are no less slavishly devoted to fashion than the haute-couture designers of women's clothing.It's just that where women's high fashion changes from year to year, dominant architectural fashions can be relatively unchanging for a decade or two. And where extravagantly styled clothing disappears quickly from the public eye, buildings can last a lifetime or two.What's more, architectural fashions are usually accompanied by great debates among architects and critics that elevate differences to matters of great importance. Arguments grow to be over not just what's good and bad design, but what's fitting or proper for the temper of times, what is based on a sound or unsound theory, and sometimes (occasionally to the point of being ludicrous) to what's moral or immoral.With all that, though, a lot of great buildings, regardless of fashion or theory, still get built. Thankfully! The passing last month at age 80 of the eminent Princeton, N.J.-based architect Michael Graves is what brings all those thoughts to mind.Early in his career. Graves' work exemplified the total lack of ornament and the minimalism in use of materials that proponents of early European modernism preached even into the 1960s. Yet, by the time he died, he had designed a colorful and whimsical office building for the Walt Disney Co. that was proportioned to look a little like the Parthenon, yet had statues of the Seven Dwarfs high above the entrance, seeming to hold up the building's sort-of-classical pediment.What happened is that by the early 1980s, Graves had become perhaps the most prominent practitioner of a then-new style called Postmodernism that, in effect, made it OK (i.e., in fashion) for architects to go back to the use of traditional materials like stone and traditional building shapes like columns and pediments, as well as colors and ornamentation.These postmodern buildings were not by any means replications of the past. But, by incorporating or referencing old forms and emphasizing traditional materials, they offered a complexity and interest that goes well beyond the "modernism" that architects eventually began to tire of.Among the best-known works by Graves was a municipal government building in Portland, Ore., and the corporate headquarters of Humana in Louisville.But we are lucky to have three particularly fine buildings by Graves close at hand here in Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.The ones you are most likely to encounter are the O'Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh and the Crown American headquarters in Johnstown. Also, on the campus of Youngstown State University in Ohio is the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry Labor, a museum dedicated to the steel industry and its workers.The Crown American complex and the Youngstown museum are particularly fascinating. The Crown American headquarters is an essay on corporate lavishness -- crowned with columns and incorporating pyramids and domes.At the Youngstown museum, particularly when viewed from the side or the back, you get a clear picture of how Graves could use the freedom of design that Postmodernism allows by the way he mixes the derivative and the symbolic. Viewed from behind, the building's shapes are derived from the blocky masses of steel mills.Then there are two brightly colored symbolic smokestacks to add emphasis to the image.Inside, one highlight of the building is a huge, three-story space where you can get some of the feel of a working steel mill. From the main floor, you look down into an actual "pulpit -- or elevated control room -- that was rescued from a demolished mill at one of the many steel plants that once dominated Youngs-town.Stylized reconstructions below that -- and approachable on the lower floor -- give you some idea of what a mill floor might have been like.Far above, three big skylights bring natural light into this "mill," much as natural light from industrial clerestories helped illuminate many actual mills.The O'Reilly Theater is an exceptionally successful space inside, with an ample variety of social spaces and just enough of a separation -- as you move from either the upper or lower lobby areas into the theater -- to help you feel isolated from the outside.The interior design is quite simple and never distracts from the play at hand. It's also not possible to find a bad seat there.The recent obituaries on Graves also emphasized his work as a designer of consumer products, as well as his architecture. He was especially famous for his teapots that he designed for mass retailers such as Target.He took these consumer designs seriously. A motto for his firm reads, "Design is a tool we use to touch people, enhance their lives, and strike their senses."That can apply to teapots as much as to a "temple" of commerce, such as the Johnstown building, as well as to a well-designed museum and a theater that we can all experience.John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. 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