Bruce John Graham, one of the greatest architects of the mid-century era of Modernism, died in Hobe Sound, Florida on Monday. For as long as they stand the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Building, Graham’s two most well-known (and well-designed) buildings will be dressed in black.
Over a dozen years ago Graham sat down for a lengthy interview as a part of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project that the Art Institute of Chicago was underwriting. Often portrayed as a gruff and demanding figure, Graham reveals a sensitive side along with an intolerance of anything that is done without passion and honesty.
In a town in which so many architects over the years have been so successful in sharing their passion and honesty with the world, Bruce Graham’s voice spoke just as loud as Sullivan’s or Root’s or Mies’s. It’s interesting to listen to some of the things he had to say about his career, about the field of architecture, and about the city he loved.
Born in Columbia and raised in Puerto Rico along with six brothers and two sisters, Graham began thinking about architecture at an early age.
“I used to draw cartoons for my younger brothers and flip them for them. I used to draw people, trees. And I took drawing lessons. I was also interested in the city of San Juan,” Graham said. “I used to plot the slums of Puerto Rico. I made maps of them. I loved it.”
Finishing high school in three years, Graham applied to the University of Dayton. He said, “. . . you have to remember that I really had only heard of two or three universities: Notre Dame, because it was Catholic, the University of Pennsylvania, because my brother George went there, the University of Virginia, because my brother Charles went there, and Harvard. I originally didn't know any others. But I got a scholarship to Dayton, that's why I went there.”
He finished the undergraduate engineering program by the age of 15. “But that's nothing, because my brother was thirteen,” he said. Graham joined the Navy Air Force at 17 and entered a pre-officer training program at Case School of Applied Science, concentrating on civil engineering.
He washed out of the flight program because “I had an accident with an airplane,” and entered the Navy’s radar training program at Chicago’s Navy Pier.
The young recruit was impressed with Chicago’s ethnicity. In the 1988 interview he lamented, “But it's not the same any more. Once you built the expressway, the wealthy left downtown for the suburbs after the war. That was the biggest curse on urban planning in Chicago, but not only Chicago, in the entire United States. These expressways were funded in a terrible way by a gas tax that can only be used for building roads. So the more you drive, the more roads they build and the 'highway road gang' loved it. Even though you don't need the roads, and we proved that a number of times, they built it anyway.”
After serving in the South Pacific. Mannis Island and the Philippines during the invasion of the Philippines, Chief Petty Officer Graham came back to the United States to attend the University of Pennsylvania, convinced that he wanted a career as an architect. He experienced some frustration with the Beaux Arts focus of the curriculum.
While in Philadelphia Graham made a trip to Chicago to see Mies van der Rohe. His observations on that first meeting as well as on a number of other aspects of his long and distinguished career follow.
On Mies van der Rohe
. . . he received me. He was a very nice man, a very simple man. You know the story of why he never moved into the top of 860 Lake Shore Drive?
I heard him say in his old apartment, he had an easy chair, with a table and his cigars and his martini, and all the furniture against the wall. Somebody asked him—I forget who asked him—why he didn't move into that building, and he said, "There's no place to put the furniture. I was born in a little village of Germany. I can dream and imagine this new world, but I can't live in it."
On the artistic sensibility
. . . painting is two- dimensional. And sculpture is three-dimensional. But music is four- dimensional. There's an element of time. And that's architecture. When you design a building, that's a shape, a sculpture. It has to have a sense of space, it has to have a sense of... What's the beauty of Chartres Cathedral? Not standing outside and looking at it. It's going into that space. The first time I walked in there, they were playing Mozart's Unfinished Requiem, there was a funeral. I had to cry . . . I had a feeling for the whole time, not just for the epoch, when I walked in there. That's not true in painting and sculpture. There isn't a sense of movement, of going through. A building can tell you, give you a hint, of what's going to come, but more important, where you were. Ballet is the same way. Ballet is movement in which you remember where you were, and you get a sense of where you're going. That's architecture. That's why a city, a building, is not by itself architecture. It has to be in a locale, in a place, be it in a jungle or be it in a city. The sense of movement through it and to it...
That's why I tell you that the architecture in each part of the world should reflect the ecology of that place. The ecology shapes the people, not the other way around. Man destroys the
ecology and then he has to live with that non-ecology. The ecology is the basic formation of the culture. The Nile made Egypt. It wasn't the other way around. The Mediterranean made Greece, they didn't make the Mediterranean. You have to make the buildings sympathetic with God's
On a choice of “career path”
I don't think that designing houses for wealthy people is a problem. It's a non-problem. The problem is to make the city beautiful.
On the Middle West
I'm sure that America, the power of America and the character of America, is strongest from the Alleghenies to the Rockies. You take that part of America out and it's just another European nation. It's the power of the water, and the land, and the steel mills that makes the United States . . . From the top of the Standard Oil building I showed some Arabs the lake and they wondered what sea it was. I said, "That's not a sea, it's a lake." They said, "We'll trade you all our oil." That's the power of America. Without that, and the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Chicago, we would never have won the war. What were we going to do? Throw rocks from California at the Japanese? Or from Oregon? It's the Middle West that makes us wealthy.
On Nathaniel Owings (Founding partner, along with Louis Skidmore of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill)
That guy, he knew everybody. I don't know how he did it. He knew absolutely everybody, in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Portland, Oregon. People in the government. He could be very attractive . . . He scared me most of the time. He went around firing people like they were going out of style. He fired Harry Weese. And Harry said, "You can't fire me. I quit."
On Ego in Architecture
And historically in architecture, an architect without craftsmen doesn't exist. He's nobody. This is true today that architecture is not a personal art. It's an art that, number one, involves a community to start with.
On Frank Lloyd Wright
He was a mean old man . . . one time he came to an AIA meeting in which he was invited to give a talk. He came in with his cape and his hat and he ran up the aisle and went
up and said—we were celebrating Sullivan—he said, "Oh, you killed Sullivan!" and he got up and walked out. What an animal! "Oh, you killed Sullivan!" He was meaner to Sullivan than anybody else.
On a uniquely “American” architecture
You can't build the same thing in Florida that you can in Alaska. You can't build the same thing in Florida that you can in California. Maine is different, Chicago is different. We have to stop thinking about all this one... This country is too big to think about a single architecture that covers everything. You have to have one in Florida that comes out of the sun and the land and the heat. And one in Maine that comes out of the snow and the rocks. That's what architects have to search for locally.
On Sears Tower
It was very simple, there were no big stainless steel interiors. There were white plastic elevators. And the building was very simple. And who was the sculptor? Sandy Calder. What have they done now? They've changed the lobby and made the ceiling higher and they changed the proportions of the Calder. They're animals.
Originally there were more tubes, it wasn't just nine. The original design had six more tubes, so it was fifteen, a series of tubes going up and down. Harry Weese cried one night and said "Bruce, I wish I had thought of that." It was the best compliment I ever got from Harry Weese. We were in a bar under Wacker Drive.
When the chairman—at that time Sears was different than it is now, it was strictly a marketing department and it did not have all the corporate things that it does now—the chairman wanted to build downtown. He first wanted to move out, those were the two choices, move out or build downtown. Mayor Daley and he made a deal, so he decided that he would move downtown. It was not so much to occupy a monument—in fact the building that they had in mind was only sixty stories high, but with a massive floor. I told the chairman that if you ever move out of this building, nobody else is going to be able to occupy it and it will be a black cow in the middle of the city of Chicago. So he agreed. And I made the tube thing so that the top floors would accommodate smaller floors and I made the other floors smaller too so that they could be used by other users than Sears Roebuck.
The cigarette pack story in his own words
One of the things—the chairman's name [of Sears], by the way, was Gordon Metcalf, and he was brilliant—Gordon said that he didn't want any of those damn diagonal things like the Hancock building. So by this time, I was working with Fazlur Khan on a lot of tube buildings, like the Shell Plaza building. It's very efficient, and costs a lot less than any of the New York skyscrapers, and you can build taller. We had built so many single tubes that I took out my cigarettes and I said to Faz, "Why don't we build a whole bunch of little tubes that stop at different heights?" This was at the Chicago Club . . . So I built my cigarette structure and it worked. And it doesn't need diagonals because the structures go through.
On the difference between Chicago and New York
Chicago is a city of skyscrapers. New York is not. New York is a city that's a huge rock that has been carved out to make streets . . . I was actually standing in front of the Empire State building with Roy Allen and a couple asked me where the Empire State building was. I said, "You're standing right in front of it." They didn't have any idea. You have no sense of the buildings. Rockefeller Center was the first one that you could see, and after that there were really none. Even Mies tried to do that by setting the Seagram back and then the architect next door took his building back, so it takes away from what Mies was trying to do which was to salvage a little plaza that was surrounded by buildings so that you could see the Seagram. So in Chicago, most buildings you can see. People love living in apartment buildings. They move there deliberately. In New York you can't help it. My son lives in New York and he can't help it, he's got to live in an apartment building. But in Chicago, people actually fight to see who's going to be over the twenty-first floor. You never build an apartment building less than twenty-one stories in Chicago, forget it. You can see the lake and the city and the airport.
Listen to the conversation in the New York subway sometime. They really think that apples came out of the factory. They're totally unrelated to the land or to anything. They're one hundred percent abstract people. The businessmen are abstract and you should just talk to any of the insurance people there. They're totally abstract. They have no visual capabilities whatsoever. Zero. That's New York, and New York is always going to be New York, because that's the rule of people. Those people are mathematically oriented, they're not visual people.
On Chicago’s construction unions
My personal experience with Chicago construction workers was terrific in every sense. The union trained them . . . Who else trains them? If you think the schools on the South Side train them, they don't. They're trained by the union. Apprenticeship. That's the way architects used to be trained. How do you think Sullivan was trained? He was an apprentice. How do you think Frank Lloyd Wright was trained? He was an apprentice . . . I learned architecture by working at Holabird and Root as an apprentice and at Skidmore as an apprentice.
On Fazhur Khan (called the "Einstein of Structural Engineering")
It's quite a different thing to visualize the structure in mathematical terms in your head, which Faz could do. And he could explain it to architects. That's why people loved him. He was the only engineer I ever met who could explain structures to architects in a poetic way. He had a very gentle way.
He was the best architectural engineer in the United States of America, if not the world, there's no doubt in my mind about that. Not only did he understand the mathematics, but he understood the architecture. Most engineers don't . . . The purity of his structure and the purity of his thinking was what I fell in love with.
On Chicago’s Early Architects
In Chicago there was an architect named David Adler. He designed most of the houses for the very wealthy. He realized that most of these people were industrialists who were uneducated and had never gone to a university and didn't know the difference between Michelangelo and Richard Haas. Adler used to travel and bring back postcards of buildings in Europe. When he went to a client, he would flip through them until they would find one that they liked. Then he would say that they were going to have a palazzo like this or that. He would design that. But he went beyond that. He told them what furniture to use, how to cook meals, what wine to drink. Think of what these men were. These clients were brilliant and brave, but they were animals. None of them had gone to any university. They just came west to Chicago from the East Coast. Look at pictures of Chicago from before the fire and then after the fire. It was ugly, badly built. Then the fire gave Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan the great opportunity to rebuild in a vision of a beautiful city. They loved it because they were powerful men. I loved those men, they were pioneers. They built the city of Chicago and they influenced the world.
On bringing the Henry Moore sculpture (Large Interior Form) to the Art Institute
So we came to visit Moore about Three First National Plaza and when we were having dinner and I said to Henry, 'You know, Picasso gave his piece to the city for free. Miró gave a piece. Calder gave a piece. Why don't you give a piece for free?" He had agreed that the bronze for Three First National Plaza would not be reproduced, which was very unusual. Usually he could make five copies and keep one or two, sell two and have one for the owner. He said, "You know, I've always wanted to see the child inside the mother and child. What if I give that one to the city of Chicago?" I said, "Why don't you give it to the Art Institute?" He said he thought that was a good idea.
On art and architecture
Architecture contains life. People move through it. Part of life—perhaps the most neglected part of life, although maybe less in Chicago than elsewhere—are the arts . . . I like to see not just sculpture and painting, but poetry and music in the piazzas, for example. In most cities in the world, they use the piazzas that way, but we don't in Chicago. There should be music playing in First National Bank Plaza. Look what's surrounding it: Inland Steel, Helmut Jahn's Xerox building, and Walter's Harris Trust building on another corner. It's a great place to have music. It should be the same in the Civic Center Plaza.
On the double role of architect and businessman
Sometimes I wouldn't charge a client for the time that we spent because I didn't think that we had earned it. That's not being a good businessman. But it does mean that you are being honest, and that I tried to do all my life. I tried not to cheat the clients, not cheat the employees, but to treat them fairly. I happen to think that's one of the things that good businessmen are not doing now, and that's also bad.
On architecture and urban planning
The problem in the United States is that in the schools, they're split when they teach urban planning from architecture. That's a mistake. The great urban planning in the United States has all been done by architects, if you think about it. In New York, Olmsted did Central Park. They don't even teach urban planning in the landscape architecture schools now. Urban planning has almost become the enemy in-house and a lot of planners go on to work in the government. Some graduates with an urban planning degree haven't studied any architecture at all. That's the mentality of it; they study the laws and the government, not the structure and the architecture of it. I think that the greatest visions of buildings, even imperial ones, were from architects, not urban planners . . . You can't teach it in school. But you do it as an architect. You teach architecture and architecture includes exterior spaces. You can't think of a building without thinking of where it fits or the spaces it creates . . . The Parthenon wasn't casually done by a graduate of urban planning of the University of Pennsylvania, it was done by architects.
On the Future
I think that the major cities are in such disaster that the great opportunity is for visionaries to repair them. The solution is not going to be office buildings alone. It's got to be in residential communities and rearranging the cities visually and structurally. Chicago is an easy one because you still have the transit system. But you must destroy things like the Taylor Homes . . . It's just a terrible mistake to put all the poor in one area, it just makes a ghetto. You have to destroy that and make it possible for the poor to move to any part of the city.
John MIlton ended the well-known sonnet On His Blindness with these words, "They also serve who only stand and wait." Bruce John Graham served by avoiding, at every turn, the temptation to stand on blind traditions and cultures that he felt were harmful to the beauty of the urban environment. The buildings that he designed will stand as monuments to his genius, his honesty and his passion.