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Home Arts and Culture  Hidden in plain sight
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Wednesday, October 13,2010

Hidden in plain sight

by Lawrence Cosentino and Amanda Harrell-Seyburn

The Michigan State Medical Society, where Sheri Greenhoe works, is like no other building on Earth — a delicate caterpillar of glass and concrete topped by 31 rippling arches.


Thousands of cars zoom by each day, but inside the building, all is serenity.


A floor-to-ceiling glass wall makes Greenhoe and her colleagues feel as if they are drifting in a pine grove. The glass curls an extra two feet around the corner to enhance the floating feeling.


Dark interior wood, seamed like the panels of a Japanese screen, anchors the outside light to the earth.


“It’s a warm space,” Greenhoe said. “The scale is very human.”


Tucked into the sprawl of East Lansing at the northeast corner of Saginaw Street and Abbot Road, this masterpiece of world architecture (which is illustrated on the cover) was designed in 1961 by one of the world’s greatest architects, Minoru Yamasaki, famous for designing the World Trade Center.


The building whispers the words of modernist architect Mies van der Rohe: “We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity.”


Check it out some time. It’s just across the street from the Rite-Aid.


Hundreds of mid-20th-century modernist gems still gleam from the haphazard sprawl of Michigan’s major cities. Sometimes they’re hidden in plain sight, like the medical building. Sometimes they’re just plain hidden, like the Frank Lloyd Wright homes laying low in the suburban Okemos woods, where there are three — and a fourth that may be Wright’s.


Next to California, Michigan has the nation’s richest heritage of buildings from the heady period called “mid-century modern,” but it’s a heritage that hasn’t always been preserved, respected or even noticed. The Lansing area, along with Detroit, Ann Arbor and Midland, has a generous share of that heritage.


Michigan Modern, a new project from the state’s Historic Preservation Office, is a massive effort to locate, catalogue and appreciate the designers, architects and buildings that made Michigan a mecca of modernism.


Amy Arnold, a preservation officer working on the project, hopes Michigan Modern will change the way people see Michigan.


“The state’s contribution to design has been as great as its contribution to manufacturing, yet it has been largely overlooked,” Arnold said.


The project has just gotten started, as more and more buildings are catalogued and listed on the Michigan Modern website.


One goal is to identify the state’s 100 most important modernist buildings and recommend 10 of them for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.


The state hopes a wave of cultural tourism will follow. But there’s more to the project than a list of cool buildings.


Arnold thinks the visionaries of mid-20th-century modernism have a message: Michigan once led the way to a brave new world of design, and it can do so again.



20th-century unlimited


The middle of the 20th century was a good time for Western civilization to go on an eye diet. After centuries of heavy ancient temples, hulking medieval castles, Gilded Age frou-frou and Art Deco glitz, a new wave of architects and designers were projecting bold cubes, slabs and planes onto the landscape.


Fortunately, builders could actually hold these shapes up, thanks to the strong glass, reinforced concrete and cantilevered steel developed in the industrial revolution.


(Some of them had a bit of trouble holding up — see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater — but that’s another story.)


Michigan was at the center of this design revolution, for several reasons. After World War II, architect Eliel Saarinen brought top designers and artists to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. The booming auto industry was turning its attention from production to design. Modernism ruled the architecture college at the University of Michigan. In west Michigan, the furniture industry was thriving, with Herman Miller Inc. on the cutting edge.


In recent years, Arnold and her boss, preservation officer Brian Conway, have spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, where Conway’s son is an architect.


Los Angeles, a mother lode of modernist buildings, is vigorously cataloguing and promoting its modernist resources.


Arnold thinks that’s great, but also finds a go heavy castles, a were planes hold glass, steel trouble Wright’s this After Saarinen the Bloomfield was to architecture In was the boss, have where and finds it a little annoying.


“Everything they are using to promote modernism in Los Angeles got its basis in Michigan,” she said.


Somewhere in Hollywood, stars are lounging in chairs built from design principles Charles Eames developed while studying at Cranbrook in Michigan.


Arnold knew that Eames and other modernist giants walked the earth in Michigan long before retiring to the West Coast.


“Why isn’t Michigan doing more to promote itself as the beginning of what happened in Los Angeles with modern design?” she said.


The appreciation gap is as glaring among Michiganders as it is for outsiders.


“Most people understand about Henry Ford and the manufacturing aspect of the car industry, but the whole Henry Ford idea ended in 1915,” Arnold said. “They don’t realize that beginning in the 1920s, the automobile industry was all about design, and the same was true of the furniture industry.”


Conway and Arnold applied for a grant from Preserve America, a federal program that funds planning initiatives relating to cultural tourism.


They had already scored a Preserve America grant to promote the West Michigan Pike, a historic tourist route along Lake Michigan’s east shore.


“I love projects that get us into the 20th century,” Arnold said. “We’re still thinking of Michigan in terms of lumbering and maritime history. To get young people interested in Michigan, we need to look at something that’s more current.”


For Michigan Modern, they got $118,000, which has to be matched by 50 percent, for a total project budget of $236,000. The rest of the money came from private groups and foundations and the state of Michigan.


Lord, Aeck & Sargent, an Ann Arbor consulting firm, was hired to do the research and survey work at beginning of September, but the state has final approval of its work. Arnold said people are welcome to contact her with ideas for buildings that should be included.


The present Michigan Modern website, while fascinating enough, is only temporary. The goal is a glitzy website that will make the state’s modernist treasures irresistible to architecture buffs around the world, and wake Michigan up to its own modernist treasures.




Lansing’s legacy


At 50 or so, modernism is recent history — sometimes much more recent.


Take a ride down Moores River Drive, a wealthy strip of lavish homes along the Grand River in Lansing, and clap an eye on 2222, the ultramodern home of Lansing architect Barry Wood of the Keystone Design Group Architects.

Wood, born and raised in
Lansing, is a pure modernist. He designed and dropped his cool cube of a
home on the river in 2006, when a parcel of land opened up near the
Lansing Country Club — a rare opportunity. Neighbors grumbled at first,
then came to appreciate the home’s elegance and simplicity.

The nub of modernism, said Wood’s business partner and architect Jim Aubuchon, is “the interplay of materials and forms.”


“Less is more,” Wood said. “Simplicity and elegance.”


“It lets the material look like itself,” Aubuchon added. “The expression of beauty inherent of the material comes out.”


Several
high-profile modernists, like Yamasaki and Wright, worked in Lansing.
However, Wood pointed out that most modernist buildings in Lansing were
done by local architects, including Kenneth C. Black and the prolific
firm of Manson, Jackson and Kane.


The
downtown Senate Office Building, a classic slab of sky-loving glass,
ranks high in Black’s legacy. So does the main downtown library, with
its unique shell of interlocking symbols representing the leading
publishing houses of the time.


Every
buff has a Lansing favorite, or several. Arnold loves designer George
Nelson’s Lieberman’s Department Store, now the Lansing Art Gallery, a
chic grid of tile and glass tucked between contrasting neighbors on
Washington Square.


“That’s huge — to have a small storefront like that that’s still intact,” Arnold said.


Aubuchon is a fan of barrel-vaulted Schmidt’s Supermarket, now a Playmakers athletic footwear store, on Grand River in Okemos.


“Schmidt’s Supermarket achieved an elegant expression of form,” Aubuchon said.


Wood compared Michigan Modern to the popular “Be a Tourist in Your Own Town” promotion.


“It will get people out and enjoying world-renowned architecture that is unique to Lansing,” he said.


Arnold doesn’t foresee busloads of people trundling around Lansing, but hopes people will add a day or two to a stay.


Michigan’s other centers of modernism — Detroit, Ann Arbor and Midland — may fare better.


Midland has 130 properties designed by Alden Dow, including Dow’s stunning home and studio complex.


Detroit
is studded with modernism, including a complex of Yamasaki buildings at
Wayne State University that are of exceptional interest. Lafayette Park
in Detroit boasts the largest concentration of van der Rohe-style
buildings in the world. There are over 250 modernist houses in Ann
Arbor, where several architecture professors were active in modernism. A
modernism-loving group in Ann Arbor, A2 Modern, already has a program
of tours and lectures planned.


Should
anyone scoff at the potential draw of Michigan modernism, Arnold
pointed out that the Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper,
draws thousands of international architecture tourists to the prairie
town of Bartlesville, Okla.


“That’s the kind of group we’re trying to target,” Arnold said.




Loving the lines


With
recognition of Michigan’s modernist legacy will come better care and
preservation, the state’s historic preservation team hopes.


There’s a fine local model for the care and feeding of the rarefied Modernist aesthetic.


Unlike
many modernist buildings, Yamasaki’s Michigan State Medical Society
building has enjoyed a run of luck. For one thing, the original clients
still own the building. There’s been no subdividing or sweeping
“re-purposing,” the death knell for buildings that were designed like
temples, down to the smallest detail.


Most important, the building’s users love and appreciate it.


“We’ve worked real hard to work with the building, not against it,” Greenhoe said.


You’ll
find no cheesy paintings of the CEO or “Hang In There” posters here.
Modernist Barcelona chairs and books on Yamasaki grace the lobbies.
Until Yamasaki’s offices closed last year, CEO Julie Novak worked with
Yamasaki’s successors to harmonize repairs, renovations or additions
with the architect’s intent. The carpeting is new, but the cream color
doesn’t detract from the minimalist look.


Greenhoe’s only complaint is fairly mundane.


“I don’t think Yamasaki envisioned a woman occupying a corner office,” she said. “There’s no toilet seat cover.”


But it’s unusual for a Michigan Modern building to get that kind of love.


Lansing
City Hall, a modernist office building designed by the local firm of
Kenneth Black, has been subdivided and altered without concern for the
original minimalist design.


Walk through the main entrance, look to your left, and you’ll see a spacious lobby backed by an imposing marble slab.


In
back of the slab, hidden from view, shallow stairs ascend to a
speaker’s dais. The grand space is a modernist version of a public forum
befitting a great city — Lansing’s version of the Greek stoa where
statesmen orate and argue.


But the feature has been ignored for years.


A partition hides the right side of the dais and idle Christmas decorations are heaped on the steps leading to the lectern.


Head
north from City Hall along Capitol Avenue and a second modernist slab
by Black rears into view — the Billie S. Farnum Senate Office Building,
home of Black’s offices in the heyday of mid-century modernism.


Viewed
from the State Capitol area, the building still floats like a glassy
modernist cube, but inside, almost nothing is left of the detailing and
design work. Like many modernist landmarks, it has been subdivided,
drop-ceilinged and repurposed.


The first step to proper care of Michigan’s modernist legacy, Arnold said, is recognition.


“The first thing is to raise awareness, because most people don’t even think of them as historical or significant,” Arnold said.


It’s
a good time to single out modernist buildings, if only because the
National Register of Historic Places sets a rough cutoff of 50 years for
historic designation. Many modernist buildings are near or past the
mark.


Next summer,
the state will recommend 10 buildings listed on the Michigan Modern
website for National Register status, which entitles the owners to tax
credits.


“We need to start assessing, which of these buildings are worth preserving and come up with the criteria for that,” Arnold said.


The
project is also timely because many modernist designers or their
associates are still alive. As part of the Michigan Modern project,
researchers will gather oral histories to go with the website.


The
Michigan Modern project is also meant as a spur for research. Even big
names like Yamasaki have blank spots in their histories, and
surprisingly little is known about many of the regional Michigan
architects.




No faux


Modernism has never lacked critics.


Long before terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, more people wished it would vanish than would care to admit it now.


“People
think modernist buildings are cold,” Aubuchon said. “Any style building
can be cold. In fact, many modernist buildings have warmth. Warmth is
about scale, not just materials.”


Modernism is also linked with a series of disastrous public housing projects in cities across the United States.


“You cannot blame the entire movement for certain failures, Aubuchon said.


“Public housing projects were a universal failure that occurred during the modernist movement, but does not define it.”


Wright
tussled with many of his clients over the practicality of his designs,
but there’s good reason to look past modernism’s hubris and intermittent
implosions.


Today,
after a jumble of post-modernist detours (most of them involving pointy
heaps of bricks), mid-century modernism still fascinates by virtue of
its boldness and innovation.


Arnold
listed one more goal of the Michigan Modern project: to foster a better
appreciation of good design and generate “new architectural
masterpieces.”


“As
preservationists, we find that people are surprised we don’t like faux
historic,” Arnold said. “We’d rather see someone being really creative,
and creating a building you would really want to save in 50 years.”


Wood and Aubuchon touched the same theme.


“How
will people define what we do today?” Aubuchon asked. “Will they
celebrate our architecture like Michigan Modern?” “We will see — in 50
years,” Wood mused.


(Designer
Amanda Harrell-Seyburn has a master’s in architecture and contributes
weekly to the "Eyesore/Eyecandy!" feature in City Pulse.)




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