Architectural delights

Tribune Architecture Critic

In this affluent suburb, 25 miles northwest of Detroit's battered downtown,there lies an extraordinary oasis of art and architecture, one whose originshave a direct link to Chicago.

This place is called Cranbrook, and it is well worth a visit, particularlyif you think that modern architecture consists solely of forbiddingsteel-and-glass buildings.

Cranbrook's 315-acre campus, which includes museums, schools and historichouses, weaves together the new and the old, the natural and the manmade, tocreate an environment that is at once serene and powerful. Here, buildingsdon't look as if they were shaped by a machine. Instead, they arehand-crafted, faced in exquisitely patterned brick and golden-hued stone.Around them are reflecting pools punctuated by graceful bronzes and evergreensthat seem plucked from the forests of Scandinavia.

While Cranbrook is a National Historic Landmark, it is no museum piece,frozen in time. Today, in fact, the campus is in the midst of its biggestbuilding boom since the late Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen laidout most of Cranbrook in the 1920s and 1930s.

Celebrated architects -- Pritzker Prize-winner Rafael Moneo of Madrid,Peter Rose of Montreal, Steven Holl of New York, and Todd Williams and BillieTsien of New York -- have been imported to shape new buildings or add to oldones.

Instead of mimicking Saarinen, these architects are reinterpreting hislegacy, striking up an adventurous dialogue with the past while makingstatements of their own. "The additions complement rather than compete," saidCranbrook's president, Robert Gavin. More than $100 million is being spent onnew construction and renovation. And while the quality of the efforts varies,a visit to the campus, known formally as the Cranbrook Educational Community,will richly reward those in search of risk-taking new buildings as well asrevered older ones.

Although Cranbrook provides a convenient escape for Chicagoans (Detroit isabout an hour by plane from Midway or O'Hare and about 265 miles fromChicago), the campus has strong Chicago ties.

Saarinen's second-place finish in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Towercompetition -- his design of a stepped-back skyscraper proved far moreinfluential than the winning neo-Gothic entry -- catapulted thealready-accomplished Finn to international renown. It also provided $20,000 inprize money that enabled him to set sail for the U.S. in 1923.

After a stop in Chicago, where he stayed at the Blackstone Hotel, Saarinensettled in Evanston, then moved to Ann Arbor so he could teach at theUniversity of Michigan. Soon after, he met the Detroit newspaper publisherGeorge Booth and his wife, Ellen Scripps Booth. They wanted to create anartists' colony on their Bloomfield Hills estate. It was the perfect match ofarchitect and clients.

During the next 25 years, Saarinen designed the majority of the Cranbrookcampus, creating such masterpieces as his house, which fuses Art Deco and Artsand Crafts sensibilities, and the campus' iconic image, an abstract, perfectlyproportioned colonnade known as the Peristyle.

He was Cranbrook's resident architect from 1925 to 1950 and the presidentof its Academy of Art from 1932 to 1946. During that time, he lured suchteachers and students as sculptor Harry Bertoia, furniture designer FlorenceKnoll and Chicago architect Harry Weese. (Saarinen's son, Eero, teamed withhis father and the Chicago firm of Perkins, Wheeler and Will to design theinnovative Crow Island Elementary School in Winnetka in 1940.)

When the elder Saarinen died in 1950, shortly after the deaths of Cranbrookfounders George and Ellen Booth, the fortunes of the campus suffered.Maintenance was deferred. In the 1970s, buildings went up that were not inkeeping with the Saarinen tradition, like a tennis bubble that looked like anoversize Quonset hut.

But the campus rebounded in the 1980s as a result of the Booths' financiallegacy. Because Cranbrook was the largest stockholder in the Evening NewsAssociation, which controlled the Detroit News, the campus reaped $38.5million when the Gannett Company bought the association in 1985. Earnings fromthat money, along with private donations, gave campus leaders the funds theyneeded to carry out much-needed rehab and new construction.

A recent visit revealed that they have proceeded artfully, nowhere more sothan in the water features on each side of the open-air Peristyle. Newlyrenovated, they contain lyrical bronze figures by the Swedish sculptor CarlMilles.

On one side of the Peristyle, in the Triton pools, are bronzes based on theclassical myth of Triton, a sea god with the head of a man and the tail of afish. On the other side, in the Orpheus Fountain, is a circle of figures basedon the myth of Orpheus, the son of Apollo and a player of the lyre.

The combination of the fountains and the Peristyle, which leads toCranbrook's Art Museum and Library, is one of most memorable urban groupingsin America.

Yet Cranbrook has much more to offer, and it tantalizes on a scale that isdomestic as well as civic.

Saarinen's house, open to the public for tours since its restoration wascompleted in 1994, is a must-see for anyone who cares about the art ofarchitecture.

Deceptively simple on the outside, the 69-year-old brick rowhouse reservesits most memorable flourishes for within, where there are elegantly paneledwalls, handsome geometric carpets and other superb decorative features. One isa stylized bird that forms the centerpiece of the dining room table, echoingpeacock-shaped andirons in the living room fireplace.

Bird imagery occurs throughout the campus, as stylized cranes appear inchairs, on walls and in gates -- all playing on the word "crane" that isembedded in "Cranbrook."

The image of a bird also influences a new entrance canopy for Cranbrookdesigned by the campus architect Dan Hoffman and completed in 1994.

Made of copper mesh and stainless steel, the Y-shaped canopy resembles apair of wings in flight. In addition, it reorients the once inward-turningcampus outward toward heavily traveled Woodward Avenue, which extendsnorthward from Detroit. A new sign along Woodward spells out Cranbrook's namein titanium letters, their gold surface -- a swirl pattern created byhigh-tech machines -- an homage to those responsible for Detroit'sstill-impressive industrial might.

"Machinists are the core of the city," Hoffman said. "They make themachines that make the cars."

Walking the campus, you grasp how Saarinen's architecture evolved, movingfrom the Arts and Crafts aesthetic of the Cranbrook School for Boys (1929) tothe stripped modernism of the Cranbrook Institute of Science (1938). And youalso see how a new crop of architects is trying to extend the design traditionof Cranbrook into the present.

A deft little footbridge by Hoffman (1993), known as the Trellis Bridge,recalls a woven basket, its curving pine members creating delightful shadowpatterns. Indeed, while it has become a cliche for architects to speak ofweaving their buildings into "the fabric of the city," that phrase has realmeaning at Cranbrook. Saarinen's wife, Loja, was a leading weaver, and thecampus claims to have the largest collection of working looms in the nation.

Rose's 1996 addition to Brookside, Cranbrook's pre-kindergarten to5th-grade school, possesses the right scale and intimacy for its inhabitants.A handsome tiled roof, brick walls and a variety of concrete blocks recall theCranbrook tradition of buildings that resemble tailored suits. Still, theaddition seems heavy-handed, too tough for small children.

Holl's 1998 addition to the Cranbrook Institute of Science, a museum ofnatural history and science, is clad in a golden-hued limestone, known asKasota stone, also used in the Peristyle. It has a 42-foot-high entrance hallwhere different types of glass reflect or refract light in different ways andan open interior that lures visitors along sloping pathways. It is a buildingfull of big moves -- perhaps too many. The addition lacks the richness ofdetail for which Cranbrook architecture is noted.

While Moneo's low-slung addition to the Cranbrook Academy of Art has yet tobe constructed -- it will provide a much-needed expansion of studio space forthe blacksmiths and other artisans at the Academy -- an enclosed swimming poolby Williams and Tsien will be dedicated on Oct. 10.

It is Cranbrook's first exercise in environmentally conscious or "green"architecture, with circular ceiling hatches that allow chlorine fumes toescape, louvers in the walls that bring fresh air into the building, and a bigrectangular window through which swimmers can peek into the forest.

Like Cranbrook's older buildings -- a simple shape, clad in richly coloredbrick -- but meeting new needs, the enclosed swimming pool holds out thepromise that Saarinen's progressive design tradition is still capable oftaking flight. If you are an architecture buff -- or even if you're not -- byall means go and see Cranbrook.


Cranbrook offers tours of its campus, the Saarinen House and garden,outdoor sculpture, the Cranbrook Art Museum and the Cranbrook gardens. Fortour information call 877-462-7262. Web site is

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