Correction to This Article
The column about architect Michael Graves's "Revealing Culture," a Smithsonian Institution exhibition dedicated to the work of artists with disabilities, incorrectly said that the Smithsonian hired Graves's firm to design the exhibition. Graves was hired by VSA, the International Organization on Arts and Disability.
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Philip Kennicott on Michael Graves's 'Revealing Culture' exhibit

Being in a wheelchair hasn't changed his view of the old, time-proven architectural verities. He pushed back against the idea that modern structures are more easily adaptable for accessibility than older buildings. A medieval church, he argued, allowed the easy addition of radiating chapels, an example of design flexibility built into the architectural unconscious of an earlier age.

But this is a very idiosyncratic view. Graves finds the floor-to-ceiling windows beloved by modern architects fundamentally perverse. But other people, including people in wheelchairs who find traditional windows too high for comfort, find the modernist wall of glass exhilarating, a way to connect to landscape, nature and the urban life outside. Much of Graves's intellectual project feels like justification for a set of entrenched personal preferences about how buildings should look.

A poetic aesthetic

But what Graves has done for the Smithsonian's "Revealing Culture" exhibition reveals some fundamental design truths that go beyond mere subjective feelings about what is architecturally proper.

The verities that Graves has argued should define buildings are all open to legitimate debate; but the smart use of legible fonts, the placement of art at reasonable levels for all viewers, good lighting and the glib but effective use of curtains to transform a bland room into an appealing art space are all unqualified successes. Museums, even ones with small budgets and Paul-esque fears that they can't afford to do right by all audiences, should take note.

The surprising and thrilling thing is how much ADA-sensitive exhibition design rewards ordinary, fully able-bodied visitors. The Graves wall texts here are pleasingly unfussy and easy on the eyes. The lowering of the art makes it feel more immediate, even if you aren't in a wheelchair.

The generous room for wheelchairs counteracts the tendency of some exhibition designers to concentrate people in claustrophobic spaces for emotional effect. Floor-level lighting that helps people locate the edges and the walls of the exhibition adds a pleasing lighting nuance even for people who didn't need the assist. Compared with the haphazard, junk-box design of this year's Whitney Biennial in New York, the Graves exhibition is a small revelation.

The effect is one of calm and openness, even in a room that is fundamentally charmless.

In the same 1982 essay in which Graves defended his ideal of architecture, he made a distinction between standard and poetic language, borrowing from literature and poetry an idea he'd like to see applied to architecture. The poetic language of architecture, those cultural references that he saw embodied in traditional windows and other elements, had been neglected by the form-and-function-mad modernists.

To use Graves's own terms, the problem with ADA design today is that it has yet to become part of our poetic language of architecture. ADA elements still feel like add-ons, afterthoughts, purely functional efforts to make buildings accommodating, which makes them easy for politicians like Paul to attack. Until they become part of the poetic language of architecture -- desirable for their cultural and aesthetic value -- they will always have misguided opponents.

The Smithsonian's new exhibition isn't architecture, and it doesn't address the thornier problems of ADA design. But it does show how accessibility, if done right, can disappear into the landscape, how it may become, over time, part of the basic poetic language of design rather than a laundry list of accommodations required by law.

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