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Architecture

Patient as the Graves

Architect’s respectful, underwhelming vision

Back talk: The new rear entrance connects the museum and DFT.
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Published 11/21/2007

Michael Graves is a patient architect. The DIA's board of directors retained the internationally renowned postmodernist and Princeton University emeritus professor 19 years ago to develop a master plan for expansion. His 1991 master plan was never realized, and this design has been in process since 2001. Last week, he and about 2,000 elite guests finally attended the gala opening of the new museum. I, like most Detroiters, am thrilled to have the museum back, but wonder if time and reverence have produced an architectural expression that propels the DIA into the 21st century.

Every good architect begins with a strong concept. Graves admits his intent changed over the years. When his firm arrived on the scene, the DIA, originally designed by Paul Cret in 1927, as well as its south and north wing additions, from 1966 and 1971 respectively, suffered from lack of maintenance. Much of his team's time and budget went into what he calls "putting Humpty Dumpty back together again." Distracted but undeterred, he moved forward with plans for an addition intended to honor the historic building.

The beaux-arts and city-beautiful design movements inspired the original Cultural Center plan, which made Graves the logical choice for the job. His award-winning body of work, like that of most postmodernists, borrows heavily from those styles.

On the exterior, Graves' cladding of the existing wings and massing of the new southern addition honor but do not overwhelm the original building.

"I did everything I could to reinforce the Cret entrance on Woodward," he says, in a phone interview. "That is where the focus should be." Tipping his hat to the original architect, he says he focused on scale, materials and light. While there is little consideration of human scale on the exterior, his new entries, stairs and loggia bring more natural light into the museum.

The exterior material is the one sumptuous aspect of his addition. Graves and his team specified Danby Marble from the same Vermont quarry that Cret used in 1927. The symmetrical matching of the chevron grain is stunning and highly legible from the street. The architects of the south and north wings used dark stone for their facades in an attempt to create the effect of a proscenium — the space in front of the curtain on a theater's stage. In a real sense, Graves has achieved something similar, only in white.

The DIA's board deserves credit here. In this day and age, few large projects are executed in real stone. Graves says he and his project architect Tom Rowe agree: "We likely won't ever again get to make that big a marble facade in our lives." Their office just finished two major federal buildings in Washington, D.C., rendered in pre-cast concrete. Where the additions join the original building, instead of letting new stone meet old, he employed glass and metal panels.

Graves' primary contribution to the renovation is the central spine terminating in two new north and south entries. He composed it under the assumption that visitors enter through the front doors then look left and right to orient themselves.

The idea contrasts with "the design of the typical American mall," he says, "where the developer wants to limit your ability to know where you are."

In the renovated galleries, the ceilings soar, a layout far more successful than that of the ground level galleries with low-slung, barrel-vaulted ceilings; only the Schwartz Gallery of Prints and Drawings escapes the cave-like feeling. However, the selection of materials for the interior is less exciting. Most of the floor is marble, but the other finishes recall an office space. Why are the walls white plaster?

He explains that budget simply ran out: "We had to choose between walls and floors. We chose floors."

Graves' new southern addition is anchored by a four story loggia. While nicely proportioned, it does not comfort and inspire the visitor like Rivera Court and other historic spaces. From ground level, it reads like a lightweight plaster frame through which we view the Cret building. On higher levels, the design of the perimeter prevent visitors from peeking over the ledge and experiencing the vertical expanse. Stone antiquities featured there tolerate the natural light but make for poor acoustics.

Currently, civic leaders across the world are tripping over each other to hire "starchitects" to design the next Bilbao and put their city on the map. The board went another route, choosing Graves because he's a contextualist with a successful track record of museum additions in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and other cities that honor landmarks by following in the architectural tradition. According to Graves, the board never asked for "a spectacle" and he achieved his goal of paying tribute to Cret, but, in doing so, the result is underwhelming. We have missed the opportunity to include a new generation's interpretation that could both honor our venerable museum while dragging it into a new century, trumpeting a fresh perspective for its collections and institutional relevance to contemporary life and culture.

I.M. Pei and Partners's angular east wing addition to Washington D.C.'s National Gallery sets the gold standard. Its distinctive angular form and connecting light-filled atrium takes advantage of the site. The Cleveland Institute of Art recently retained Dutch architect Winy Maas of MVRDV to design its new addition. Maas' design adds a long, light-filled rectangular mass framed in glass and steel that arches up and wraps around the historic McCullough Center — a former Ford Model T factory.

The new DIA is a respectful and restrained expression. But we need to question whether that's enough. Perhaps the next time we add a significant piece of architecture to our city, we should ask, as collective clients, for more than patience from our architects.

Constance C. Bodurow is a professor of architecture and urbanism at Lawrence Technological University, and founding Principal of Detroit-based Design Equity Urban Design + Planning. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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