NORMAN — As I continue the series of articles on the aging process and how it influences creative people in Norman, I elected to interview, not only my first architecture employer, yet the most influential individual in my life when it came to the development of my approach to the practice of architecture — Ben Graves.
Our relationship began while I was a junior in the architecture school at OU, almost 40 years ago. I was enrolled in the preceptorship program, designed to place students in architecture firms, allowing the student a broad-based work experience while in school.
Ben had just opened his architecture practice not more than two years before he hired me; I was in fact, his first employee. He had rented space on Campus Corner with the vision of his firm becoming a highly successful entity in school design and development in Norman.
At the time I came to work, Ben was already building houses in various subdivisions around town. He also had started limited residential development projects. I spent time sweeping floor slabs at construction projects learning the ropes on the construction process, which I applied later in undertaking design/build myself.
My education focus incorporated an excessive amount of time going to school board meetings across the state. At the time, I considered Ben extremely competent, self-assured and personable on one hand, yet extremely egotistical and abrasive on the other hand. He was not tolerant of people he perceived as having little or no ambition. There were few people that I knew who had his level of passion for perfection, looking back; I can say I still haven’t met many with his drive. He took a no-holds-barred approach to life and work and did not allow anyone to get in the way of pursuing and completing a project, when he thought we were the only ones that could do a competent job. This was 100 percent of the time. In order to arrive to the school board meetings on time (often two to three a day), he sped through life in his Porsche 911 Targa Carrera.
Ben was actively involved, and remains so, in the Norman social and business community. He has hung with the movers and shakers, those that were changing the build environment of Norman while hotly orchestrating its growth and expansion. He had a few partners in the land deals and used these deals to develop architectural projects the office designed and produced. I had the opportunity and privilege to work on many of those projects.
As I have thought about the experience and my relationship to Ben, I looked at this interview as a way of discussing a plethora of impressions and thoughts that perhaps may not be discussed on how my or others life’s ambitions and goals interact with and influence other people. This has led me to consider more in depth how I influence my students as well as past employees who have worked with me. I have grown to appreciate the seriousness and passion with which Ben has taken on life and how it has affected those around him.
Ben has always taken what he does with a strong conviction; he has been criticized for being hard to work for by many people, including myself. What I have begun to understand is that not everyone that worked for him or beside him has taken life’s journey the same way he does; therefore Ben allows little tolerance for a less than passionate approach to life through his eyes. Because of his commitment to not cutting corners in life, I have witnessed clients and business associates that have become long term friends; I am honored to be included in this list.
Now that Ben has conceded his portion of Architects in Partnership to the next generation of movers and shakers, what may have changed in his view of life goals and successes? Nothing he declares when it comes to being immeasurably passionate about what he does when “working the deal.” He is more patient, calmer, more willing to sit and read a good book and play with his dogs or call up one of his sons to meet him for dinner. He is spending more time at the lake house where he, like in everything and everyone else in his life, is working to perfect and change, creating the ideal, transforming and molding to help bring out the best. I can see it. I also can see the passion that has always been there and the honesty that has made clients and potential clients take him at his word and trust that what he does will be the best or pretty close. Yet, now he has developed a more patient approach to achieving the changes he wants to see while enjoying what’s going on around him in the process.
David L. Boeck is associate professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture.