Michael Graves

How best to capture the creative spirit? In this case, how to understand the work of architect and designer Michael Graves, via two very different approaches on video?

Let me offer a little background to what I’m talking about.  Early on, as a film and video editor and later as a writer, I learned to “show it,” not “tell it.”  That means to do your best work, you have to put aside the explaining part of your brain and work with the feeling side to create moments with images and sound that really communicate.  You let the pictures and events tell the story.
Once you’ve given the video a visual style and structure, then you can add that other layer of meaning (the narration or voice over) to amplify the message. Or not, depending on what you’re going for. In essence, this is the original approach to documentary and also the basis for cinema verite. And even with today’s more content driven approach, the tension in the creative process is still about what drives the story: words or images. Telling or showing.

The Humana Building by Michael Graves

So, back to the challenge of capturing the creative spirit: how to describe an innovator like Michael Graves?  As an architect, his buildings give shape to city skylines around the world. He designs tea kettles and other products found in many of our homes.  And now that he navigates with the help of a wheel chair, he’s working to improve the quality-of-life for others facing similar challenges.

This image and most others from the Michael Graves and Associates Website

You could describe him as a man of genius, a visionary and innovator. Some call him the father of post-modernism, as you can see in this Portland, Oregon building that helped launch that phase of his career.  

from the Wikipedia site

Today, his body of architectural work is broad, deep and visually arresting. Just peruse his page on Wikipedia and scroll down the list of the important buildings he created.  Or check out his website to see what his firm has  been doing recently.  

But all of this is by way of giving you a little context for the challenge facing the two videos. Each explores the man, his importance and creative drive, but with two very different approaches. 

First up is a video I found on the site of Dwell Magazine.  

Design Icon: Michael Graves for Dwell | by Gary Nadeau from gary nadeau on Vimeo.

I like how this video is more impressionistic than informational. It explores the quiet beauty of his home and furnishings as a metaphor for Graves’ artistic and creative impulse. You can feel the influence of Italy and Europe as the camera meanders through its rooms and garden. The video is like a visual poem, enveloping you in an almost meditative quality. While his comments suggest his thoughts and themes, the overall effect is more of a moment shared, an ambience savored. Everywhere you feel Graves’ touch and sensibility and the images are visually engaging. 

Time Magazine called the Humana Building one of the 10 best buildings of the decade
From the PBS documentary

The second video is Architect Michael Graves: A Grand Tour 

 The half hour video was produced by PBS station WTTW and embraces a typical present-day documentary approach. I should mention it takes a little while for the piece to focus on Graves, but when it does I found it very informative. It also tells you how his work developed over time and the influences on his approach to design. 

St. Coletta School for children with cognitive and physical disabilities

But, overall, I found it more like a video history lesson with the visuals playing a secondary role. The content delivered via the narration and interviews drove the piece, and it was much less poetic. So you feel more detached from the person and what he was about.  Perhaps more intellectually satisfying, but much less emotionally involving.  And therein lies the key difference between the two approaches.  

And while I personally prefer the more poetic, visual approach, what I did put together from watching the two programs is that, along with huge talent and skill, Michael Graves also has a healthy dose of grit and determination.  His strength of character and ability to refocus his creative energy inspires me. And his story reminds me once again of what you can accomplish, once you put your mind to it.