Michigan Modern Shines, Chicago Must Step Up to the Challenge

Cranbrook Art Museum

Cranbrook Art Museum

The following post was submitted by guest author Timothy Scovic.

The city of Chicago has a rich architectural heritage of mid-century modern buildings. Works of acclaimed architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Bruce Graham, Bertrand Goldberg, Harry Weese, Edward Dart, Charles F. Murphy, Gene Summers, Keck & Keck, and many more are ever present throughout the city and surrounding suburbs. However, in recent years preservationists have faced two major defeats in the effort to preserve Chicago’s modern architecture – the demolition of the Michael Reese Hospital Complex in 2011 and the imminent loss of Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. After two significant blows to modernism in Chicago, it was refreshing to witness modernism taking center stage as Michigan celebrated their mid-century modern heritage June 13-16 at a symposium and exhibition held on the picturesque campus of Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America was the result of the State of Michigan’s multi-year effort to document and raise awareness for their modern legacy – from architecture to furniture design to automotive design and beyond. The exhibition brilliantly tells the story of modern design in Michigan through photography, drawings, artwork and furniture. It runs through October 13, 2013 at the Cranbrook Art Museum and is worth seeing. The symposium featured a variety of lectures with speakers presenting on a range of significant architects and designers including Albert Kahn, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Emil Lorch, Minoru Yamasaki, Alden Dow, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Florence Knoll, Harley Earl, Edsel Ford, and more. The symposium also included captivating interviews with textile designer Ruth Adler-Schnee and architect Gunnar Birkerts. These interviews were recorded and will hopefully be made available to the public.

In addition to the presentations there was a diverse selection of tours that covered the striking architecture of Eliel Saarinen as well as buildings, landscapes and sculpture of other architects and designers on Cranbrook’s campus. Tours of other historic sites throughout the state included the General Motors Technical Center, the Ford River Rouge Plant, the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, Downtown Detroit, and the Mies van der Rohe designed Lafayette Park housing development, which features a mix of high rise apartments and two-story townhouses in a park-like setting designed by Chicago landscape architect, Alfred Caldwell.

The highlight for me was the tour of the General Motors Technical Center – a site that is rarely open to the public. Design of the complex began in the 1940s by Eliel and Eero Saarinen and was completed by Eero following his father’s death in 1950. The GM Tech Center officially opened in 1956 and is truly a masterpiece of modern architecture. The site includes several buildings surrounding a rectangular man-made lake that features four islands, two fountains and a sleek stainless steel water tower. The original Saarinen-designed buildings have glass curtain walls with aluminum frames and colored glazed brick end walls. The glass is held in place with neoprene gaskets – a technique taken from automobile windshield design. A glimmering aluminum dome structure is used to display GM’s latest and greatest cars. Interior spaces in the primary buildings feature wood paneling, travertine floors, Saarinen designed furniture, and ceilings that integrate lighting, mechanical and fire suppression systems in a strategically designed grid. At the center of the Research Administration Building lobby is an iconic spiral staircase with granite treads suspended by steel tension rods. The lobby of the Design Center also features an exceptional staircase that appears to hover elegantly over a shallow pool of water.

On the last day of the conference, daylong excursions were offered to both Ann Arbor and Midland, Michigan. Ann Arbor has an excellent collection of mid-century modern buildings, many of which were designed by architecture faculty at the University of Michigan. Midland has a remarkable compilation of buildings designed by Alden B. Dow, an architect that is little known and underappreciated outside his home state of Michigan. Other than Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, no American architect has had such a tremendous impact on one city in the way Alden Dow has in Midland. His own Home and Studio is an architectural treasure that seamlessly blends building with nature. This National Historic Landmark is definitely worth a visit.

The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, Cranbrook, and everyone in Michigan that helped to make the Michigan Modern project, symposium and exhibition a reality succeeded in developing a thoughtful, educational and exciting symposium that brought to Cranbrook from near and far a diverse group of scholars and professionals with an exceptional knowledge of the Michigan Modern story. The City of Chicago could learn from Michigan and their efforts to promote and facilitate a better understanding of mid-century modern design. I am not saying that no effort has been made. Despite its impending doom, many worked tirelessly as part of the Save Prentice Coalition to try to protect the old Prentice Women’s Hospital. Also, the Chicago Modern: More Than Mies lecture series and blog and the exhibition on the works of Bertrand Goldberg at the Art Institute were all extremely successful in raising awareness for modernism here in Chicago. But the struggle to increase the appreciation and preservation of mid-century modern architecture did not end with Prentice. The question preservation professionals and modern architecture enthusiasts must ask ourselves here in Chicago is how can we continue to find ways to bring positive attention and public support to our own brilliant collection of mid-century modern buildings? This endeavor remains a significant challenge that must be tackled head on if modernism is to survive in our great city.


Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America Exhibition through October 13, 2013. For details, click here

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    Email Chris Enck with docomomo_chicago-midwest at cjenck@gmail.com or post comments at www.saveprentice.org
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