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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“That’s the kind of group we’re trying to target,” Arnold said.
Loving the lines
There’s a fine local model for the care and feeding of the rarefied Modernist aesthetic.
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.
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.
Walk through the main entrance, look to your left, and you’ll see a spacious lobby backed by an imposing marble slab.
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.
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.
“We need to start assessing, which of these buildings are worth preserving and come up with the criteria for that,” Arnold said.
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.
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.”
Wood and Aubuchon touched the same theme.