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Talking With Architect Michael Graves About Designing Homes For Wounded Soldiers

The architect that became a household name by bringing sexy to the kitchen with his line of homeware goods at Target has lent his drafting pencil to hundreds of buildings, but Michael Graves has broadened his own horizons once again. Recently he took on the task of designing homes made to be more accessible for injured soldiers in the Wounded Warrior project. Graves, who himself became partially paralyzed after a bacterial infection, spoke with Curbed about how he merges his training with his real life experiences to come up with buildings that work. This is all in advance of an evening talk he is giving at the National Building Museum next week. Follow the jump for the interview as well as the TED talk he gave last year about designing patient-centered living spaces.

What are some specific design decisions you made that were influenced by your own partial paralysis?
After I became paralyzed, there was a day when I was asked by my therapist to get my clothes on by myself and get ready. I did all that until I got to the bathroom. The mirror was above my head. The plugs for shaving were on the floor. The faucets were out of reach. So I couldn't do any of those things.

I had a huge argument with our clients and somebody in our office when we did Wounded Warriors. They wanted the kitchen sink to go up and down so that the soldier could put his or her knees under the counter and do the dishes. If you do that there isn't a faucet that can go anywhere except in the back of the sink. Therefore you can't reach it. I asked, what's the good of this? And they would say, well some of them aren't like you. Some of them are a little bit blind, or have one arm missing and aren't in a wheel chair. There is technology not keeping up with need. We'll get that fixed. Next time I'll put the faucet on the counter and have the sink go up and down. I'll find a way on my own to get that fixed.

I require the people in my office that work on healthcare tool around in a wheelchair for a week or two. Because you can tell people who work in health care, so called experts, are people who've never been in a wheelchair and have no conception. It should be common knowledge but it isn't.

What kind of feedback have the soldiers given you?
One of the two houses that we did has been occupied since the day it was finished. They had five kids and the soldier is a double amputee with his legs. They absolutely love the house. He's the most positive person I've ever met. The first day he said I want to get out of this chair, I want to get out right now. I don't care if I have to walk up there with my stubs I'm ready for my legs, they don't think I am. I guess his wounds hadn't healed enough yet. The only suggestion was he or his wife had made the comment that the doors were a little heavy and the kids couldn't slide them very easily [note: the homes have sliding doors instead of swinging doors for a more open throughway]. They don't slide by the use of one finger, but I tend to think that they're just about right. They have to be heavy. We could have made lighter doors but they would have been more vulnerable to kids bumping into them and everything. That's the only negative that they had.

Besides being easier for physically disabled people, how does your design help with the emotional side of a soldier's wellbeing (eg post-traumatic stress disorder, depression).
PSTD is a difficult one. I did some work on schizophrenia and it's about like schizophrenics except that sometimes they want to be open and with the family. But if it's too open then they feel threatened like they're not being protected and they can attacked. So we made a room for them which you could close down pretty securely. It can be darkened and there's a television there, there's exercise equipment, and so on. But it is precisely for those times when they're feeling threatened. Now for an office building I wouldn't do that.

I did schizophrenia and modern architecture and modern architecture is about the worst thing you can do for a schizophrenic in that it's open. It's without walls, with just space from space to space to space. With little partitions that separate things. A schizophrenic will come to dinner with their coat on so that they're always protected. You need to make rooms, to give them real security. Again, like the guys with PSTD you have to give them the options for openness.

Openness and modernism are some of your specialties. How does your background apply to this project specifically?
In the 20s and 30s European modernism came to America and there was a major show at the Museum of Modern Art that kind of took over and we had modern architecture from then on. But that modernism was of a certain sort. When it was born in Europe it was born out of manufactured homes, shorter work weeks, social engagement. A lot things that weren't aesthetic at all. But we only picked up on the aesthetic aspect of modernism. We started to make spaces instead of rooms. And then we over did it, like with glass doors, and ultimately you don't have privacy.

The trick is to have both. To make rooms big enough that there is a feeling of openness and engagement with the outside depending on how you want that engagement and then also the room where you can sleep and close the shutters or the blinds and have a room that's dark so that you're not sleeping in something with a two story atrium with a glass room. So that's the kind of language I talk about. There are repetitions in buildings and houses that are always interesting to think about.

You've been quoted as saying that a house needs to tell a story. What story are you telling in these homes?
There is narrative to architecture. I don't mean to use archi-babble but I think that architecture is a language. It is established over many cultures and what the Swedes do versus what the Italians do versus what we do isn't so different. Ultimately the human being is the same. If you have somebody building in the Swiss Alps versus in the desert obviously the buildings are going to be different, but the doors are going to be about the same size.

Across different architecture styles what is the biggest similarity you see?
When people make a teepee—I'm just thinking off the top of my head—and they sit around in a circle smoking pipe and welcoming and all of that there's something to the circle they make. And when we sit down when we have friends over we arrange the couch and a couple of comfortable chairs so people can see each other it's not so different. I would say it's very much the same.

There's a picture I use as an example of a building with a chair next to a glass wall looking out to a roof terrace. The chair is just kind of forlorn sitting there waiting for someone to sit in it and look out. But it doesn't have another chair for human interaction. You need the second chair. You need the chance for conversation.

Lastly, you designed a scaffold for the Washington Monument when it had to undergo repair. Are you going to get involved again now that it needs to be repaired from the earthquake damage?
We've been down twice to talk to them about it. We've donated our drawings for the Monument. We've done everything we can but there's no money and I don't think they've found any. It's become kind of a political question because, should they be spending money on better scaffold design or should they just put up an ordinary scaffold. I'm afraid they're going to do the latter. I'm doing it pro bono and I'll do anything I can do.

In a TED talk last year, Graves spoke about his work improving healthcare settings for patients (after his extensive experience as a patient in them).

· Michael Graves Lecture, Tuesday November 13th, 2012 [NBM]
· Wounded Warrior Project [OfficialSite]
· Michael Graves [OfficialSite]
· Michael Graves TedMed Talk [TED]