Alexandra Lange | Essays

See the USA

In 2003, which now feels like a lifetime ago, my now-husband and I embarked upon a three-week modern architecture tour of the Midwest. Most of the sites on our list were topics for my dissertation, but the others were not incidental: to truly understand the history of modernism in the United States, you have to get off the coasts. Our roughly circular trip took us from New York to Pittsburgh (Wright, Harrison), Detroit [Saarinen, Saarinen, Mies (image from Dwell above)], Zeeland (Nelson, Eames, Girard), Chicago (Mies), Racine (Wright), Spring Green (Wright), Moline (Saarinen), St. Louis (Saarinen, Sullivan), Bartlesville (Wright), Columbus, IN (Saarinen, Saarinen, Noyes, Weese) and some other places I am sure we have forgotten. At the General Motors Technical Center we were the only foreign car in the lot; in Zeeland, a dry town, the only restaurant seemed to be Boston Market and the Herman Miller archivist couldn’t believe we lived blocks from the location of his favorite film, Moonstruck; when we got out of the movies in Tulsa at 9 p.m. the vast mall parking lot was empty but for our car. It was a strange trip, mostly strange because, except at the Wright sites, we seemed to be the only people interested in the buildings. I have written about the private proximities of major postwar designers like Noyes and Knoll and Saarinen and about the corporate proximities of the same, but I never thought to rearrange the names and careers geographically.

I was reminded of this trip by the discovery of the website Michigan Modern (which subsequently posted a link to my Design Observer piece on Aline and Eero Saarinen, Love & Architecture), the online front for a just-launched project by the State Historic Preservation Office intended to highlight the many modern architects and buildings in Michigan. Examples are thick on the ground, with loci of invention in Detroit (and suburbs like Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe) and Zeeland (home of Herman Miller, and close to furniture town Grand Rapids). Cranbrook, the Bauhaus-like academy of art and design founded by auto entrepreneur George Booth and run by Eliel Saarinen, was a node in what became an international design network of teachers, students, and alumni. At one point, of a cold Michigan evening, you could find yourself at a party with Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard and Minoru Yamasaki, men who defined postwar architecture and design from what was then a booming city. Everyone seemed to have a bentwood chair in his backseat, or a skyscraper based on a new structural system on the drawing board. And Girard’s pioneering 1949 exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, “For Modern Living” brought all of these people and more together for the first time.

Everyone knows that Los Angeles — to which Charles and Ray Eames soon decamped — and New York — where the Museum of Modern Art created its own design society, were style centers, but other cities and other states certainly had their moments (Kansas City, where the Halls of Hallmark decided to remake the downtown in the 1960s, certainly comes to mind), much as other cities and other states are now at the forefront of thinking about green living, sustainability, affordability. I hope Michigan Modern inspires other states to get excited about their more recent heritage as a matter of American history and preservation. It is all very well for the media, and out-of-state historians, to try to tell a city what they are trying to tear down, but it is much better to have locals retrace the intertwined histories of industry, innovation and (oftentimes) suburbanization for themselves. The results will be less formal, and closer to the scrappy, personal culture that spawned the icons.

Posted in: Architecture

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