In the summer of 1996 I sat down to assemble the material that would become Radical Writing, today an online course in the revelatory power of self-expression. A compilation of my life’s work of creativity, self-exploration, and metaphysics, the project required a level of concentration I knew I wouldn’t be able to achieve in my everyday surroundings, distracted by animals, friends, art work, and the minutiae of ordinary responsibility. I needed remove. I needed my own private Yaddo.
With one phone call – to Michael Graves, a longtime friend – I secured the ideal retreat: his own house. Michael’s star at the time was still in the ascendant, his image, his work, his words ubiquitous in the worlds of international architecture and cultural power. He traveled among the pantheon of star architects in a moment of recent history philosophically obsessed with style. He had broken early from the Modernist pack and, radical for the times, became a lightening rod for his controversial reintroduction of color (not beige?!), classical form, and narrative into contemporary design. It was the hot topic of the 1980s and 90s, and Michael was peripatetically designing, drawing, lecturing, writing books, having exhibitions, teaching at Princeton, making appearances, and sustaining his practice. In 1982 he won a competition to design a municipal building in Portland, Oregon (Philip Johnson was a juror and supporter) which is widely considered to be the first built example of postmodern architecture. It is a broad-shouldered office block set atop a two-story base with pilasters, keystones and other elements of classical architecture blown up to almost cartoonish size and used to decorate the exterior of the upper floors. Ironnically, for an architect, he is perhaps best known popularly for the teapot he designed, first for Alessi and then for Target. A little bird sits at the tip of the spout and sings when the water boils (its progenitor, an Art Deco era teapot he found at a flea market, still sits on a kitchen counter).
While Michael traveled (constantly), he sometimes allowed friends to stay at his house. Among them was Fran Lebowitz, the writer/raconteur. Fran suffers from noise phobias and likes to get out of Manhattan when she has to concentrate. Unfortunately, she claims that even the leaves falling in Michael’s garden were too great a disturbance. My timing in asking if could come for a stay was lucky. Michael was leaving the country for several weeks, and his entire house, he told me, could be mine for the duration.
The house, known as The Warehouse, was constructed as a storage facility in 1926 by the Italian stonemasons who built Princeton University. Michael had moved into the "ruin of a building" in the 1970s, needing a place to live after a divorce. An Italophile, he was struck with how the building resembled a Tuscan barn -- rugged, a tough building whose strength appealed even though it had no plumbing, no heating or cooling, bad wiring, and a seriously leaking roof. He renovated room by room, year after year, “living like a student", extemporaneously within the small rooms as it evolved. By the time of my encampment, the 7,000 SF of raw space had become a gracious villa with a wisteria-covered terrace, double-height library, and rooms furnished with blond Biedermeier tables, desks and chairs, silk embroidered rugs, polished wood floors, Art Deco kitchenware, and walls hung with paintings and drawings. Equally satisfying, the rooms were filled by day with sunlight and a soft, quiet darkness by night.
The term for the individual glass panes comprising French doors and windows is “divided lights.” The Warehouse is a gentle prism of skylights and divided lights. I located my sleeping sanctuary in a second-floor bedroom with north-, east, and west-facing French windows. Downstairs, I established my writing desk in the breakfast room, under a two-story-high skylight bathed for hours a day in a shadowless ambiance. This was fortunate: the work I was doing centered on revelatory self-expression, including the deep shadow of the psyche. The atmosphere literally kept me alight.
From the light of the rooms of The Warehouse and out onto the tree-filled surroundings, I felt bathed in dappled illumination. The lot on which Warehouse is located adjoins a park. A stroll though it brings you to the Graves office. The Joyce Kilmer National Forest is also nearby and, I came to see how, truly, that poet had it right. No poem is as lovely as Princeton’s trees – willows bending like ballerinas en reverence, statuesque elms, and centuries old poplars and oaks.
As my work progressed, I grew nomadic, moving with my laptop from one room, one corner, one chair, one window to another. Each location provided a different surge of energy or soothing of spirit. When the weight of thoughts and meanings grew too heavy, I sought the leafy canopy of the garden outside the kitchen. When I needed animation, I sat under the wisiteria-twined pergola to enjoy the parade of linear shadows cast by an allee of sycamores.
By the end of my stay, I’d accomplished all I’d intended. Radical Writing was born – the structure formulated, the tone established, my confidence intact. Now the heat of composition lay ahead. The subtropical Miami light that filled my own house was well suited for that. Still, it was hard to leave The Warehouse. For weeks I’d been pampered with a light so quiet, even Fran Lebowitz, I thought, could try it again. I had been drinking in the grace of quiet illumination, and I was grateful.
In 2003 Michael was overtaken by a meningitis-like infection that ate away at his spine and left him paralyzed from the chest down. Still, he managed to lecture, make appearances, and nominally participate in his practice. He became a leading voice calling for reform in healthcare design (arguing that hospitals and medical products were not just thoughtlessly made but often soul-sapping for patients). He was a superb visual artist and had sketched continuously throughout his life (as a boy, his mother would have him “come out and draw” for company as a kind of “performance”). Throughout his illness, he continued to spend much of his time painting (gouache landscapes and portraits of his young son) and drawing. "Whether I was paralyzed or not, I would draw, because drawing for me is like playing the piano," he told CNN. "You've got to keep practicing, got to keep doing it. It's not that you lose it, but you don't draw as well if you don't draw every day." Like writing. Like Radical Writing.
Michael Graves passed away in 2014 at the age of 80. He died “suddenly and peacefully” at home. I take comfort knowing that he spent his last days in The Warehouse. Where else could he have been so surrounded by familiar beauty and the blessings of writer’s light.