BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich.—In this affluent suburb, 25 miles northwest of Detroit's battered downtown, there lies an extraordinary oasis of art and architecture, one whose origins have a direct link to Chicago.
This place is called Cranbrook, and it is well worth a visit, particularly if you think that modern architecture consists solely of forbidding steel-and-glass buildings.
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 biggest building boom since the late Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen laid out 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 Billie Tsien of New York -- have been imported to shape new buildings or add to old ones.
Instead of mimicking Saarinen, these architects are reinterpreting his legacy, striking up an adventurous dialogue with the past while making statements of their own. "The additions complement rather than compete," said Cranbrook's president, Robert Gavin. More than $100 million is being spent on new 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 as revered older ones.
Although Cranbrook provides a convenient escape for Chicagoans (Detroit is about an hour by plane from Midway or O'Hare and about 265 miles from Chicago), the campus has strong Chicago ties.
Saarinen's second-place finish in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition -- his design of a stepped-back skyscraper proved far more influential than the winning neo-Gothic entry -- catapulted the already-accomplished Finn to international renown. It also provided $20,000 in prize 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, Saarinen settled in Evanston, then moved to Ann Arbor so he could teach at the University of Michigan. Soon after, he met the Detroit newspaper publisher George Booth and his wife, Ellen Scripps Booth. They wanted to create an artists' colony on their Bloomfield Hills estate. It was the perfect match of architect and clients.
During the next 25 years, Saarinen designed the majority of the Cranbrook campus, creating such masterpieces as his house, which fuses Art Deco and Arts and Crafts sensibilities, and the campus' iconic image, an abstract, perfectly proportioned colonnade known as the Peristyle.
He was Cranbrook's resident architect from 1925 to 1950 and the president of its Academy of Art from 1932 to 1946. During that time, he lured such teachers and students as sculptor Harry Bertoia, furniture designer Florence Knoll and Chicago architect Harry Weese. (Saarinen's son, Eero, teamed with his father and the Chicago firm of Perkins, Wheeler and Will to design the innovative Crow Island Elementary School in Winnetka in 1940.)
When the elder Saarinen died in 1950, shortly after the deaths of Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth, the fortunes of the campus suffered. Maintenance was deferred. In the 1970s, buildings went up that were not in keeping with the Saarinen tradition, like a tennis bubble that looked like an oversize Quonset hut.
But the campus rebounded in the 1980s as a result of the Booths' financial legacy. Because Cranbrook was the largest stockholder in the Evening News Association, which controlled the Detroit News, the campus reaped $38.5 million when the Gannett Company bought the association in 1985. Earnings from that money, along with private donations, gave campus leaders the funds they needed to carry out much-needed rehab and new construction.
A recent visit revealed that they have proceeded artfully, nowhere more so than in the water features on each side of the open-air Peristyle. Newly renovated, they contain lyrical bronze figures by the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles.
On one side of the Peristyle, in the Triton pools, are bronzes based on the classical myth of Triton, a sea god with the head of a man and the tail of a fish. On the other side, in the Orpheus Fountain, is a circle of figures based on the myth of Orpheus, the son of Apollo and a player of the lyre.
The combination of the fountains and the Peristyle, which leads to Cranbrook's Art Museum and Library, is one of most memorable urban groupings in America.
Yet Cranbrook has much more to offer, and it tantalizes on a scale that is domestic as well as civic.
Saarinen's house, open to the public for tours since its restoration was completed in 1994, is a must-see for anyone who cares about the art of architecture.
Deceptively simple on the outside, the 69-year-old brick rowhouse reserves its most memorable flourishes for within, where there are elegantly paneled walls, handsome geometric carpets and other superb decorative features. One is a stylized bird that forms the centerpiece of the dining room table, echoing peacock-shaped andirons in the living room fireplace.