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.
Philip Kennicott on Michael Graves's 'Revealing Culture' exhibit

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; E03

In February 2003, architect Michael Graves came down with what he thought was a cold. After a long and frigid site visit to one of his projects, it got worse. A spinal infection was ravaging his body and left him paralyzed. He now uses a wheelchair.

Graves visited Washington earlier this month to speak to a Smithsonian audience before the opening of an exhibition called "Revealing Culture," dedicated to the work of artists with disabilities. The show is in one of the Smithsonian's least glamorous places, the International Gallery located in the underground S. Dillon Ripley Center, sandwiched between the Freer and Sackler galleries. It is a long room with an ugly ceiling and no natural light, and you can't help but think that the exhibitions that get placed there have nowhere better to go.

But the Smithsonian hired Graves's firm to undo that impression. It's rare to have an architect of Graves's stature designing museum exhibitions, and even more rare to have an architect who knows life both as a fully ambulatory, jet-setting, golf-loving man and as a man now thoroughly familiar with how public space can aid or thwart people with disabilities.

Graves is an excellent raconteur, and he seems by nature a happy man. He shared only two dark thoughts with his June 9 audience. He regretted time lost for research on spinal injuries and diseases during the previous presidential administration, when stem-cell projects were slowed by restrictive new policies. Given those lost years, Graves, 75, wonders if he'll ever walk again.

His other dark thought was saved for Rand Paul, the Republican running for the Senate in Kentucky. Paul has emerged as a vocal opponent of aspects of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the landmark legislation signed into law 20 years ago this July. Among other things, the ADA ensured that new construction of public buildings would comply with strict guidelines for accessibility. Like so many laws that seem sweeping in their ambition -- "to establish clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability" -- it also includes reams of exceptions, a fact that Paul glossed over during an appearance on NPR and in an editorial published in a Kentucky newspaper.

"Should a small business in a two-story building have to put in a costly elevator, even if it threatens their economic viability?" Paul wrote in an op-ed that likened his treatment in the media to communist purges in Stalin's Soviet Union. "Wouldn't it be better to allow that business to give a handicapped employee a ground floor office?"

That angers Graves, and not just because it's patently wrong, as proved by Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, who hit the books and found chapter and verse: " . . . this section shall not be construed to require the installation of an elevator for facilities that are less than three stories," reads the ADA. It angers Graves because he, like others with disabilities, doesn't want to be confined to the ground floor, doesn't want to experience buildings as a second-class citizen, doesn't want architecture to unnecessarily exclude people when it can so easily be accommodating.

'Heightened' awareness

Graves says he didn't undergo any particular intellectual revolution when he became paralyzed. But he did become much more attuned to the issues that people in wheelchairs face.

"It wasn't the kind of heightened issue that it is for me today," he said in an interview. "But that's only because I know more today, not because my personality has changed."

He reminded the audience he is still very much the architectural traditionalist he was back in the 1980s when he was crossing swords with orthodox modernists, railing against the cold concrete and steel boxes that (he felt) have lost cultural and natural connections to human beings.

It's curious how those old arguments for architectural traditional center on the body, the standing, moving, ambulatory body. In a 1982 essay, "The Case for Figurative Architecture," Graves argued against the Modern Movement's "dismemberment of our former cultural language of architecture." Windows, he said, were traditionally related to the standing body, with their base somewhere around the level of the waist. The ornamental division of walls, horizontally, relates to the human form as well.

"As we stand upright and are, in a sense, rooted in the ground so the wall through its wainscot division, is rooted relative to the floor," he wrote, in just one of several passages where he is clearly thinking like, and arguing from, the perspective of the fully physically able-bodied person he was in 1982.

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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