Contemporary Stone & Tile Design Magazine

Interview: Michael Graves & Associates

October 1, 2008
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Michael Graves & Associates, Inc. recently collaborated with Detroit-based architects SmithGroup, to complete a $158.2 million, six-year renovation and expansion project for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). “The goal was always to, in a sense, be good friends with the original building, which was built by a wonderful Philadelphia architect named Paul Philippe Cret,” explained Michael Graves, FAIA.


Considered to be a pioneer of the post-modernism architectural movement, Michael Graves, FAIA, has been creating signature buildings around the world for decades. His meticulous attention to detail and appreciation for natural building materials are evident in all of his designs.

In 1964, Graves opened Michael Graves & Associates, which has designed more than 350 buildings worldwide, including corporate headquarters, hotels and resorts, restaurants, retail establishments, libraries and museums as well as residential projects. He has cultivated a team of knowledgeable architects who share his passion for design.

The practice has now expanded to include two firms-Michael Graves & Associates, the architectural and interior design practices, and Michael Graves Design Group, the product and graphic design practices. Its staff consists of over 100 people, and there are offices in Princeton, NJ, and New York City.

In addition to designing architectural structures, Graves draws on his creativity to develop a broad spectrum of products -from furniture and lighting fixtures to jewelry and dinnerware - for companies such as Alessi, Steuben and Disney, Phillips Electronics, and Black and Decker. He has also partnered with Target Stores to share his unique design style to a larger public in a variety of product categories.

Graves taught at Princeton University for almost 40 years, and he has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the 2001 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, the 1999 National Medal of Arts (a Presidential Award) and inaugural New Jersey AIA, Michael Graves Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Additionally, his firms have received more than 180 awards for design excellence.   

Recent noted work of Michael Graves & Associates includes the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI; the National Automobile Museum, The Netherlands; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN; the Newark Museum, Newark, NJ; Nile Corniche -- a mixed-use project, Egypt; the Sentosa Resort, Singapore; and the Trump International Hotel, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Contemporary Stone & Tile Design recently had the opportunity to meet with Graves and Gregg Wielage, Senior Associate, AIA, LEED AP, to discuss the architectural and design firm’s use of stone in a wide range of projects.

CSTD: Your firm has been designing buildings all over the world for decades. Has your use of stone changed at all over the years?

Graves: What has changed with clients from 20 or 30 years ago -- as in the case of the Denver Library, for example -- is that we can forecast earlier now what a job will cost and whether or not a client can afford stone or how much.

One thing about the way we work is that if we want stone on the building for architectural reasons as well as other reasons, we can use partial stone and use some different material above. It’s a good way of meeting the budgets and still getting something you want to capture and look at.

CSTD: Are you finding that your clients are a little more educated now than 20 years ago?

Graves: No, not unless they have built a lot before, but contractors are more educated.

CSTD: Do you have a hard time finding reliable contractors?

Graves: Of course, the issue is always the low bid, and the low bid isn’t always the best bid. You wonder how low bidders get into the mix in the first place. Generally, those are city or state jobs where it’s required that they have that kind of representation, and it isn’t always best for the job. In fact, it rarely is. It’s a touchy thing for everyone - to make sure there is equity and make sure that everybody gets a chance, but at the same time, you want the best possible job and you don’t want to have trouble along the way.

Wielage: Once the owner understands from a design sense why we want to use stone and why it’s important to the design, then my job is to protect the design. The best way for me to do that is to make sure that the people who build it understand why it’s important. All of our designs permit adjustments for field or construction errors. If you make a mistake with stone, it’s hard to hide it. It has to fit when it’s all cut to size; it can’t shrink or stretch.

CSTD:  How do you typically go about the stone selection process for a project?

Graves: As a kind of a warning to architects, you start by looking at a little piece of paper showing the stone, then you get a sample of the stone and you finally fall in love with it and say, “I want to use that stone.” In Singapore, this happened to us, and it turned out that the quarry doesn’t have enough of it to do the whole project, so we must choose something else or use it differently.

Wielage: When we go to the quarries [and stoneworking plants], we actually count gangsaws. We look at finishing lines and say, “What is your workload?” We look historically at what a quarry is able to produce. We are doing a large project in Cairo right now for Qatari Diar, which is a development agency, and we had a particular Italian limestone that we liked, but we found out that the quarry only produces about 300 cubic meters a month. We would need 10 months of the quarry’s full production just for our job. Then it would take approximately 14 months to cut all of it to size. So, from the minute we start to take stone out of the quarry until the final piece of stone ends up in Alexandria, Egypt, which is the port of entry, it’s going to take almost 19 months. Then, the contractor has to receive it and set it. Schedules are extremely important when working with stone, and we always try to be aware of lead times for products.

As an office, we have learned that we have to get samples in front of Michael early, and he has to make his stone selections early because that is what’s starting our process. There is cost budgeting and there are all kinds of steps that follow. It is sort of a sequential process. You don’t really jump steps, because if you do, you are going to get in trouble.

CSTD: You recently completed the renovation and expansion of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). What was the overall design goal for the project?

Graves: We had done a master plan about 20 years ago for the DIA, which included not only their building, but projected museums in the vicinity. Behind their building there is a street called John R., and there were a number of museums planned to be built there. In time, after doing the master plan, there were issues in the city about ownership of the museum. It was half-owned by the city and half-owned by the museum. Those issues came up, and [as a result], Detroit was going through all kinds of political debates. They had time to think about what they wanted.

One of the reasons it did get started is that the museum that was added in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was starting to deteriorate, and Detroit needed to have something done about that. They call it remediation of the walls. And so we started some back work and mechanical work, and from that, it led to replacing the walls on the newer sections of the museum. It sounds strange, but the original 1927 building was intact and well built, but the new building was not as well built, and it needed to be completely redone, so we used the floor structures of the building and replaced the walls and made new plans.

The goal was always to, in a sense, be good friends with the original building, which was built by a wonderful Philadelphia architect named Paul Philippe Cret. The building gave clues in the way it was planned and how to add to such a structure. The new building tried to take those clues and run with it, and do a new plan within the old structure and make something that it would be compatible.

The stone that we used - Vermont [Danby] marble - was a similar stone to what Cret had used in his building. [But], people are looking at the two now and wondering how the stone came from the same quarry. Ours is a very bright white and his is darker, and there are reasons for that. Ours will darken a bit over time, and his will be properly cleaned. I say “properly cleaned” because it was cleaned a number of years ago, and actually, the cleaning fluid was rough on the stone and allowed algae and other kinds of material to get into it, and time also darkened the stone. Now we know how to clean the stone, so we can bring it back up to the original face, which would be really wonderful.

CSTD: So you knew from the beginning that you wanted to use Vermont marble?

Graves: We really wanted to match the Cret building because it would make it brighter and more intense on one of the main avenues in Detroit. Our building, over time, will get a patina and darken a bit.

Wielage: What actually happened was that Malcolm Swenson, a stone consultant who we work with often, identified that the original stone used was a Vermont marble, and that got us thinking that we could use something similar, if not the same. [The Danby Quarry owned by] Vermont Quarries is one of the oldest quarries in the U.S., and for a while people kind of forgot about it. Malcolm reminded us about it and that is when Michael said he liked the idea. We went on our first trip to visit the quarry eight years ago, and the project evolved from that quarry visit.

Graves: We should say that as architects, we all use consultants in various roles on various buildings. It’s a good idea to have someone like Malcolm Swenson -- people that spend all their waking hours with stone. It’s in their nature. I can’t say enough good things about our particular consultant, Malcolm, but in any event, it’s a good idea for an architect to have such a professional.

Wielage: For the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, we worked with Malcolm, and for the Sentosa project in Singapore [that we are currently designing], he is reviewing and advising Michael and the team on what stones to use for the project.

CSTD: So in general, when you are using stone, do you rely on stone consultants?

Graves: Yes, we do.

CSTD:  Once you decided on using Danby marble for the DIA, did it take much convincing to your client?

Wielage: Once Michael had proposed to the museum that he wanted to use the same stone as Cret, the museum was very supportive of that. The only real resistance was from the construction manager. They were worried that the stone couldn’t be supplied in time to meet their schedule, but because the stone was fabricated in Vermont, this took pressure off the schedule. The time that would have been needed to send the stone to Italy and back for fabrication was eliminated.

CSTD: With such an extensive use of stone, was it ever a budget consideration?

Graves: On many projects, it’s a budget consideration whether to use stone or not to use stone. But here, because of the Cret building, there was such a strong influence to make a match and do something significant for the city of Detroit. We tried other stones, more economical stones, but the idea that we could use a stone so similar to the original was so compelling that they decided to go ahead with it.

CSTD: We know that you worked closely with Vermont Quarries. Did you make several trips to see them, and did you choose the specific blocks to be used for the project?

Wielage: I went to Vermont eight years ago for this project. They showed us slabs and I brought photos back to Michael, and that is when the whole idea of the large book-matched panels came about. It originated in the quarry, and we found out that we could actually do it. It was something that Michael got interested in, and it was also a different way of cutting stone. We used both vein and fleuri cuts. When you see the building, there are large panels with a stone mortar joint around them, and they are cut a different way so that you see the bands. You can actually read the composition that Michael used on the facades.

Graves: It is important to understand that in Cret’s building, the building was decorated with what we call “blind niches.” There were various niches -- on windows, columns, etc. For the backside of our new building, especially where the theater and the secondary entrance are, we didn’t have the budget to make all that kind of decoration. We would’ve been questioned about it. I’m sure that it would seem extra and not of our time, so this idea of using a bonding pattern like Cret’s was something we had wanted to do. Like Gregg said, we used two different types -- vein cut and fleuri cut -- to differentiate what would normally be the stone and the mortar, and to exaggerate that in the way we did on our stone patterning. We had hoped that with the patterning of the veins as they are book-matched on the back elevation, it is understood today in terms of the decorative ensemble of the building.

CSTD: How long did the process take from selecting the blocks to quarrying the material?

Wielage: Every quarry has different production rates, but because Vermont Quarries quarries all year round, they aren’t stopped by snow. Lucca [Mannolini, the General Manager], writes DIA on the blocks that you select. Those are now blocks reserved for your project. They then forwarded me photos of the block in the gangsaw as they were cutting the stone into slabs, and you could see that same number on the block and you knew it was yours. They were such good people. I made 12 trips to the quarry.

CSTD: What size pieces were used for the exterior of the DIA?

Wielage: The book-matched panels are extremely large. They are 4 1/2 feet long and 4 feet tall. Again, this is something we saw in working with the quarry, that when you have stone that is slabbed, you can get bigger pieces out of the slab and work with it. We worked closely with Jerry May in Vermont. He is the Vermont Quarries Production Manager who I met with regularly. He was extremely excited about the job, and you can see it in the work.

Graves: There is something about people who work in the stone industry, whether in this country or in Europe, that because they are working with a natural material, people seem to really love their jobs and their lives. Jerry May is one of those people. It’s not up to the architect; it’s not up to anybody but the people locally. You can sense it immediately when you are on a quarry site who is going to be in charge and how much they care about their material.

Wielage: I would take photographs whenever I was there and bring them back to show Michael and Tom Rowe, who was the Principal-in-Charge on the project. I showed him so much that at one point Michael said, “Okay, you don’t have to show me too much more.” Tom said, “It’s almost too perfect.” That is what really makes this project so special for us. When you look at this thing, it’s so unbelievable that a lot of people can’t believe it could be accomplished.

CSTD: And was the same material carried into the interior as well?

Graves: We did use Danby marble, but we also used other materials in many different colors. We found a Vermont green marble, and it’s so utterly beautiful that we wanted to use as much of it as we could, and we did -- mainly for the floor of some of the major spaces of the museum.

Wielage: On the walls, we used the same stone as we did outside. Then, we used Vermont Appalachian Green marble and another marble called Crystal Stratus Danby to create a stone “carpet” on the flooring in the main lobby. Then, what Michael might call the “mortar,” is really

CSTD: How much material was used all together?

Wielage: We used about 100,000 square feet [of Vermont Danby marble], which is a pretty good size job. There are some quarries that will only produce about 100,000 square feet a year. Because the DIA was phased construction, they wanted to keep parts of the museum open, so that helped us in that we didn’t have to put all the stone in production at one time. They basically put the south wing into production first, but again, because of the design we used, which had so many repetitive pieces, if a piece broke, we said, “Take another piece out, and don’t let that stop you from working.”

CSTD: Did you run into any challenges or obstacles given the extensive use of stone?

Wielage: One technical challenge was that we had to build these stone walls from the outside. The existing construction there wasn’t able to support the new construction, so we had to come up with a scheme of how to support the stone and set it from the outside.

Graves: We also wanted to leave the museum open as long as we possibly could. The phasing of the project caused delays and didn’t make construction as smooth as one would want if you just had an empty building, but we worked from the outside in. There is a European rail system where you can set the stone only on one side, so we used that.

CSTD: Did you have to spend much time supervising the installation?

Wielage: In the beginning, we always do. We had a full-time on-site architect out there from SmithGroup [the Architect of Record for the project]. Once it got going, we had several meetings with Booms Stone, [the installer]. They wanted the assurance from us again that when the stone showed up in the crate, they could put it up, and we weren’t going to come back and say we didn’t like it.

CSTD:  Can you cite some specific positive or negative experiences that you have had when working with stone?

Graves: It sometimes breaks down with the contractor because they have other demands. We had a situation in Kentucky where a large office building was being built, and we knew that we were getting light-colored stones and dark-colored stones from the same quarry. We asked them to separate the stones on site to make sure that the light stones were on the north side of the building and the dark stones would be on the southern side because of the sun. They promised that they would, and they didn’t. I walked around the building with the owner and he gathered everyone together and said, “This is what the contract says you are to do, and this is what you are doing instead.” They ended up separating the stones, and it came out beautifully. You have to have that kind of support all the way through. Sometimes the stones are separated on site, sometimes they are separated at the quarry.

At Emory University, we built a new museum out of Georgia stone, and the existing buildings had used the chards of buildings that the city had built for the state in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was put together like patchwork and it looks beautiful, but there is a certain artistry in doing it. You can’t just put it up haphazardly. You have to put it up in a way that makes sense. I am sure the architect and his staff were there placing each stone or saying, “You can’t put three dark in a row. You can maybe use two dark and then a light,” or whatever it is, but it looks intentional and not just a haphazard kind of job.

CSTD:  Do you require mock-ups of the stonework prior to installation?

Wielage: What is easy in working with Michael is that he understands that stone is a natural material and that stone has a range. He knows that his design must accept a range, and luckily with the Vermont marble [for the DIA], it’s a tight range. You don’t get into problems with this material as you would with other materials that have a big range. For instance, red granites can go from pink to blood red, and you have to be careful in how you use those types of material. We did, and what we have learned is that there is a right way to do stone and there is a wrong way to do stone, and that there is a process you should follow, and we follow that now in our office. We write it in our specifications. We do things like dry layouts at the production sites, and we try to structure the project so that when the stone arrives at the site, it’s okay to use. We aren’t going to say, “We don’t like that stone. Take it off.” The only stone that we would reject at a jobsite is one that has been damaged in shipment. It’s important early on that we understand the stone’s visual and technical qualities and limitations.

Graves: In the ‘60s and ‘70s there were a lot of new office buildings being built in America and many in New York. You could see these buildings built of gray granite and other neutral stones being put up, and they appeared to be exactly like the next. When they were finished, they had really small joints. When the wall or surface was finished, it didn’t look like stone, it looked like wallpaper and took all the joy out of the natural material.

Wielage: You only get that when you invest the time, which Michael does. Michael won’t use stone by looking at a little 4- x 4-inch stone sample, because you aren’t seeing the real stone. Originally, we do some selections on small pieces, but then we immediately get range samples for Michael to see. Then, based on the range samples, we ask to see slab photos because ultimately the stone is cut from a slab, and it is important to see the whole picture. If you are getting a piece from the bottom of a slab, and you think that every piece of the slab looks like this, it won’t. But again, this material creates a range and designers like that.

Graves: Imagine a slab like a loaf of bread, and as you start to slice it, you are going to get that vein pretty much consistent the entire way through. So, you can turn it this way, you can turn it that way or both ways and understand that the cut will be a repeatable issue, and you know it’s not going to be exactly the same.

And, it’s important to say that we had a good contractor for DIA. Booms Stone from Detroit did a wonderful job in making sure that our wishes came true. They understood that they weren’t the designers; we were. And we understood that we weren’t the contractor; they were.

CSTD: What are some other current projects that the firm is working on?


Graves: We are designing a very large addition for the Newark Museum, and that is exciting to me. We are also doing an automobile museum in The Hague in The Netherlands. St. Regis Cairo is another large project we are working on. It’s a five-star hotel being built right on the Nile River. Also, we are working on the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which is very similar to the Detroit Institute of Arts. There was the original Beaux Arts Building, built by New York architects, McKim, Mead and White in the early 1900s, and we added to that. This project used Indian limestone, Burlington slate and Jura Stone - a hard German limestone - which is the same material used on the Denver Art Museum.

We are also doing a number of buildings in Singapore, and they are fixated on the idea of using stones they have used before. This happens in many Asian countries where they have had good luck with granite, so they want to use granite and only granite. Often times, there are other stones that are available to them, but they haven’t had anyone consult with them to say that these stones have the capacity to withstand their weather cycles and ups and downs. We have had a difficult time in Sentosa trying to convince them that they have a broader range of colors, textures and stones than they thought they had.

Wielage: A Belgian contractor is building a raft foundation for the St. Regis Cairo building, which is scheduled to be completed in 2012. The foundation system is very much like the World Trade Center in New York. It turns out that the Nile, at one time, was similar to the Grand Canyon, and it has silted shut with sand, so all the buildings that are blocks away from the Nile are sitting on sand beds, and there’s actually a tremendous amount of water coming through the sand. It won’t be until the 20th floor of this building that we literally have enough weight on the raft to keep the water from lifting the building out of the ground. Dewatering will be a continual site activity. It will be necessary to do so at the rate of 5,000 cubic meters an hour. The curious part is that the water is coming up from the Nile, and we will be pumping it back into the Nile.

The developer, Qatari Diar, suggested that we look at Egyptian stone, and we found that it wasn’t suitable for high-rise installations because some of the stones had salt deposits.

Graves: We used stone charts from other people’s construction and some of our own for flooring. There are low hotel buildings where the material is suitable, and it’s just wonderful and so beautiful. It makes the buildings seem like they belong. Egyptian stone is great as an interior finish.

We also looked at Hungarian limestone for the St. Regis project. It might still be in the running. It’s a beautiful stone.

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