Drawings with a purpose

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  • Drawings with a purpose

  • As a young architect in the early 1960s, I won the Rome Prize and spent two years at the American Academy in Rome. Before I went, I had created drawings only in my studio, but in Italy I developed an urgent desire to record what I saw throughout the cities and countryside. I experimented with various drawing methods based on what would best express the subject matter. For example, I made large, elaborate ink and wash drawings of important Baroque churches such as Santi Nome di Maria in Rome.

Santi Nome di Maria, Rome, 1961


Temples of Juno and Neptune, Paestum, 1961
Credit: Michael Graves

I always drew with a purpose, documenting what I wanted to study or remember. The Magna Graecia town of Paestum, Italy, contains two famous Greek temples that most architects draw in perspective to capture their picturesque character. Instead, I drew the Temple of Juno frontally, in elevation, which allowed me to study the proportions of the columns and the spaces between them. 

St. Peter’s, Rome, 1962

In addition to large ink drawings, I made quick sketches in pencil on creamy clay-coated paper. Here, at St. Peter’s in Rome, I continued to explore my interest in how paired columns create a frame for the view beyond. In this drawing, the foreground of the columns and the background of the church establish a middle ground, focusing our attention on the fountain. 

Domus Augustana, 1961

Rome, of course, is full of ruins, which I find fascinating for two reasons. First, the eroded surfaces reveal how the buildings were constructed. Second, the remains lead to speculation about the original form of the buildings. In my 1961 drawing of the Domus Augustana, I was trying to convey both what currently existed and what the original architecture might have been like.

Pirro Ligorio’s Roma Antica, 1977

Arcadian Garden Plan Diagram and Parti Sketch for the Plocek House, 1977

My referential sketches sometimes became the inspiration for architectural projects, as well as a way to communicate to my colleagues in the office, and even to my students. I drew a partial plan of a garden in Rome to emphasize the way that the form and axes of the adjacent building shape the space of the garden. On the same page is a plan diagram for the Plocek House, which similarly engaged the landscape in an axial manner.

Credit: Michael Graves

Credit: Michael Graves

Federal Chair, 1977

My design practice is not limited to architecture but also engages interiors and product design. I therefore am always looking at the composition of furniture and objects as references. I was intrigued by an American federal period chair that I saw in a friend’s home in Providence, R.I., particularly by how the flat surfaces of the edges contrasted with the curvilinear forms of the arms, legs and back. I wanted to remember that tension, which spoke to how the chair was fabricated as well as to its aesthetic character. 

Credit: Michael Graves

Sconce Studies, Undated credit Michael Graves

The second type of drawing that I have identified is the “preparatory study.”  These drawings typically involve iterative studies that lead to a final design.  I might, for example, draw several options for how the glass shade of a lighting sconce would be supported on a metal bracket, and how the bracket might be attached to a wall, drawing them in profile so that I could study the proportions.

Denver Library South Facade Sketch, 1991

In preparatory studies of architecture, I am fond of drawing on translucent yellow tracing paper, as it offers the opportunity to layer one drawing on top of another. The resulting progression of compositional ideas is fundamental to the design process. Alternatively, I might draw a simple sketch, like this one of the Denver Central Library, on a computer tablet.  Whether on paper or on the computer, I find that the connection between mind and hand is a compelling way to conceive buildings or object.

Denver Central Library South Facade, 1991 Credit: Michael Graves

Eventually, preparatory studies become more complete and firm as they are carefully measured to scale. In a series of drawings of the south side of the Denver Central Library, I studied the proportions and coloration of several areas of the facade. This allowed me to work out the compositional problems in a definitive way.

Denver Library Second Floor Plan, 1991 Credit: Michael Graves

The third type of drawing that we architects and designers typically produce is what I call the “definitive drawing.”  It finally fixes and describes the building, and today is typically produced on the computer. This plan of the Denver Library shows the furniture layout, an indication of how the building would be used. A more developed version, without the furniture, might show the contractor what he needs to build.

Since my paralysis nine years ago, I travel less frequently than I used to.  I still draw – and also paint – all the time. I am particularly fond of creating drawings of remembered places. Many of the ink drawings in my sketchbooks depict buildings arranged within landscape; their relative positions on the page  imply where they might exist in linear space.

Via Appia, Undated Credit: Michael Graves

My thoughts and recollections of Tuscan landscapes are inspired by my sketchbooks, and I make painting after painting of this theme. Like the modern Italian painter Morandi with his compositions of bottles, I habitually juxtapose buildings that originally would not have been seen together in order to achieve new compositions.  

The Temple of Minerva Medica, 2009

The 18th century Italian architect Piranesi drew buildings in a didactic manner to show his contemporaries the Roman method of building as it was revealed in the ruins throughout the city. I, too, became fascinated with methods of Roman construction and also with the romantic spaces that ruins provide as they are washed with light.

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