Last week, I was biking along Center Street in Lansing, because the River Trail was under repair. A building I’ve never noticed before caught my eye: the Oakland Plaza.
It’s a mundane mix of medical offices and nonprofit organizations, the kind of building I’ve biked past all my life without noticing, but something about it called out to me. The low-slung, horizontal lines, the glassy façade, the rectangular stones: mid-century Modern!
Once your eyeballs are attuned to mid-century Modern architecture and design, you can never go back. And the Modernism bug is in the air. Two hefty coffee table books on Michigan’s contribution to Modern design came out this month, both of them linked to “Minds of Modernism,” a new exhibit at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing.
“Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America” is the product of several years of work by Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO (say “ship-oh”). The tome is so lavish and definitive it’s likely to establish once and for all the state’s leading role establishing America’s Modern style.
For a Lansing-area perspective, Michigan State University art Professor Susan Bandes has written “Mid-Michigan Modern: From Frank Lloyd Wright to Googie,” a massive opus full of fascinating stories and widescreen images of homes, offices, churches and stores you have probably driven by many times but never appreciated.
Think of the SHPO book as the assigned text — albeit more fun than most — and Bandes’ book as the local field guide.
Both books dovetail with “Minds of Modernism,” a walk-in wonder of an exhibit that kicked off last week at the State Historical Museum.Impressive newness
Modernism took many forms in the 20th century, from the organic, earth-hugging flatness of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style to the glass-and-steel slabs of International Modernism to Art Deco streamlining to roadside restaurants with crazy, attention-grabbing shapes.
What makes these things Modern? For all the talk about form following function, there’s a lot of gratuitous fun — huge tail fins, whooshing lines and bulbous bits of all kinds — in commercial forms of Modernism. Even Frank Lloyd Wright couldn’t resist putting Saturn-like rings into orbit around almost everything in his designs, from carports to shelves. The boundary-less bounce between high and low art is part of the joy of Modernism.
One of the contributors to “Michigan Modern,” New Jersey architect Gabrielle Esperdy, took a stab at pinning down the essence of Modernism. The common thread, she wrote, is “a desire to impress with newness of materials and of forms, depending on how those were defined at any moment from the 1930s to the 1960s.”
The case for Michigan’s primacy in all things Modern, according to “Michigan Modern” and the “Minds of Modernism” exhibit, starts with the glassy, cube-like factories Albert Kahn built for Henry Ford in the 1920s. Kahn’s factories, made possible by newly developed reinforced concrete, inspired the International style of architecture that defined Modernism in the 1930s. (A local example is Lansing’s hulking Motor Wheel factory, converted to lofts in 2004.)
Starting with factories that turned out millions of flivvers, the world has taken a wild ride through modernity, and the vehicle has usually been the automobile. A series of chapters in “Michigan Modern” lovingly caress the curves and fins of automotive design, delve into the “World of Tomorrow” boldness of architect Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center and investigate the lasting impact of car culture on every aspect of life.
From there, the pages pop with modernist designs for everything from playground equipment and boats to fabrics and home appliances. Sleek think tanks like the Cranbrook Academy and University of Michigan’s architecture program get their due as well.
Modernism at risk
Until recently, most of this stuff wasn’t even on Brian Conway’s radar screen. Michigan’s state historic preservation officer and co-editor of “Michigan Modern,” Conway was more of a traditional guy. But his feelers started to quiver in 2008, when the Grosse Pointe Public Library was listed on the World Monuments Watch, a listing of at-risk cultural heritage sites around the world.
“There was an international outcry,” Conway said. “We realized that there is a lot of interest in this period.”
Architect Marcel Breuer was a Hungarian-born master trained at the cradle of modernist design, Germany’s Bauhaus. Breuer’s boxy, glassy library in Grosse Pointe was one of his first big commissions in the U.S.
A movement to keep the building gained momentum, thanks largely to a grant from the World Monument Fund’s Modernism at Risk program.
“They did a beautiful restoration job, to bring it up to contemporary standards while maintaining its historic character,” Conway said. “That was a success story, but it was one of the cases that brought national and international attention to Michigan.”
A different fate befell the mighty Quo Vadis theater in Westland, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the World Trade Center.
A group of high school students mounted a social media campaign to save the theater, but the building was demolished in 2011. The failed campaign got the attention of Conway and his colleagues.
“We realized we were totally out of it, so we got into social media as a result,” Conway said. “We saw a trend of properties from the mid-century era being threatened, and our role is to identify, recognize and promote the preservation of historic resources.”
That same year, Conway got a tip that Yamasaki’s architectural office in Troy was being dismantled and all of the firm’s records were headed for a dumpster.
SHPO, the Michigan State Archives and the Michigan History Foundation assembled an emergency team to rescue the files.
“Within 24 hours, we had a U-Haul truck over there,” Conway said.
A trove of original drawings, photographs, models and boxes full of other corporate records are now safely housed at the state archives. Some of them pop up in the “Minds of Modernism” exhibit.
“People just didn’t realize how important this stuff was,” Conway said. “Those cases got us thinking seriously of preservation of properties from this era.”Eye Diet
Preserving Victorian banks, rustic barns and Gothic churches is one thing, but modernism was new territory for Conway and his colleagues, and for much of the public.
“The philosophy in preservation is, if you’re trying to preserve something, the public needs to understand why it’s important,” Conway said.
At first, the idea for the “Michigan Modernism” project was to look at Michigan’s role in Modernism and “help identify and understand the importance of these resources,” Conway said, but “it evolved into this much bigger story that has national significance.”
As the exhibit vividly demonstrates, Michigan was a leader in the development of Modernism. 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.
The big trends are detailed in the book. Michigan was home to leading designers in the auto and furniture industries, as well as Michigan-based architects like Yamasaki with global reach. After World War II, architect Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero 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, and 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 Hollywood, stars lounged in chairs built from design principles Charles Eames developed while studying at Cranbrook.
Closer to SHPO’s role of encouraging historic preservation, Conway cited individual buildings of national importance.
“We have things here in Michigan that just don’t exist anywhere else,” he said.
The list is long, from a house designed by Charles Eames in Zeeland, one of only two houses in the country designed by him, to buildings designed by George Nelson, the furniture designer. One of them, the former Liebermann’s store, stands vacant but more or less intact in downtown Lansing.Obsessed With Modernism
Lansing’s elusive legacy of mid-century Modern buildings has long fascinated MSU art Professor Susan Bandes.
“‘Obsessed’ is a good way to put it,” Bandes said.
By the time Bandes got involved in the SHPO “Michigan Modern” project in 2012, she had already written a book about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Goetsch-Winkler house in Okemos and was ready to expand her search for Modern gems in Greater Lansing. (A spectacular walk-in display of the Goetsch- Winkler House is part of the “Minds of Modernism” museum exhibit.)
As part of an upper-level art class at MSU, Bandes and her students inventoried the mid-century Modern architectural legacy of East Lansing and put together a Lansing-area bicycle tour featured on the “Michigan Modern” website.
The more Bandes looked, the more she found, but it wasn’t easy. Pockets of modernist design, she said, are more often than not “sandwiched between Colonial two-story brick houses and bungalows.”
Along the way, she uncovered a lot of fascinating stories, from the collapse of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia 2 project in Okemos to the contrasting success of East Lansing’s pioneering Lantern Hill subdivision, a cooperative housing cluster built in the 1950s on 23 acres north of Burcham Drive. (Two original members still live there.) Bandes also chronicled a story about a lady who sawed a barn in half to build a Modern-style house.
Despite her book’s impressive heft, Bandes said it’s only an introduction to a subject that has been far from exhausted.
“Right after we sent it to press, I found two or three more houses I wanted to include,” she said.
She found that in Mid-Michigan, Modern design rarely meant embracing the glass and steel aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe or Walter Gropius and the International style. The façade of the downtown Lansing library, for example, twinkles with quartz crystals and stylized publishers’ logos, and a sunken, Japanese-style garden graces the east side of the building.
Nevertheless, hard-core modernism is represented all over the area, from the slab-like Lansing City Hall — identical twin to the skyscraper used in the credit sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” — to any number of MSU residence halls.
To Bandes, a book on Mid-Michigan Modernism was timely because original owners and people who knew them are dying off. But the strange clocks of design and fashion tick both ways. In popular culture, mid-century Modernism is getting younger, not older.
“Architecture and style in general has its peaks and valleys,” Conway said. “It rises in popularity and then wanes. For many different reasons, the mid-century era is popular right now. We see it on television, in art and definitely in architecture.”
Even new builds are paying homage to Modernism in its multifarious forms. The lovingly restored Sputnik-ball sign of Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern is a small example. On a grander scale, the annex to the world headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. in downtown Lansing is a modernist box of glass curtain walls, modified by touches that harmonize it with the adjoining 1939 Ottawa Power Station.
“I’ve seen in preservation where you go through these eras of what people love or cherish,” Conway said. “There’s a great deal of elegance and detail in a lot of mid-century design. The idea of ‘clean and simple,’ ‘less is more,’ is popular right now, along with the whole concept of living simply and minimally.”
In other words, Baby Boomers who once wanted to blow up their Modernist school now want to live in it — or their kids do.
“If you grew up with this stuff, you look back and you want something different,” Conway said. “The next generation are nostalgic and they look back.”
Tours and talks by Susan Bandes:
Mid-Michigan Modern Architecture
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15
Abrams Planetarium 755 Science Road, East Lansing
(517) 355-4676, abramsplanetarium.org
Mid-Michigan Modern: Sacred Spaces
1-3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18
MSU Federal Credit Union Farm Lane Branch 4825 Mt. Hope Road, East Lansing
Curator’s tour of ‘Minds of Modernism’ exhibition at the Michigan History Museum
Sponsored by the Lansing Historical Society
1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4
Michigan Historical Museum 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing
(517) 282-0671, lansinghistory.org
“Mid-Michigan Modern: From Frank Lloyd Wright to Googie,” by Susan Bandes, MSU Press
“Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America” Edited by Amy L. Arnold and Brian D. Conway, Gibbs Smith
“Minds of Modernism”
Through April 9 (Included with museum admission)
9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday
$6/$4 seniors/$2 children 6-17/ children 5 and under FREE/all visitors FREE on Sunday
Michigan Historical Museum 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing
(517) 373-3559, michigan.gov/mhc