Thursday, July 25, 2019

Talking black architects on WDET!

I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with Ryan Patrick Hooper on WDET's Culture Shift about my recent article for Curbed on the impact of black architects in Detroit.

Joining me for the conversation was Saundra Little, a principal at the architecture firm Quinn Evans and the co-founder of Noir Design Parti, an organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the legacy of black architects in Detroit, and whose extensive, ongoing research was the basis for my article.

The segment is about 14 minutes long and is available to listen to here!



Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Designing the future: the legacy of black architects in Detroit


(originally published 7/15/19 in Curbed)

Drive up Linwood Street, just north of I-94 in Detroit’s Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, and you will find yourself nestled among a collection of grand brick homes, some dilapidated and vacant, others well-maintained, interspersed by quiet, grassy swaths of urban prairie and towering trees.But continue on past McGraw Avenue and this organic neighborhood texture gives way to a remarkable and unlikely sight: an apparent ziggurat from the future, occupying nearly an entire block. Long, low-slung, and perfectly symmetrical, with cylindrical brick flanks to the east and west and sloping expanses of bluish gray zinc to the north and south that race down at an exhilarating 45-degree angle to a concrete berm below, this looks like it might be the home of the first colony on Mars. It’s actually the former McMichael Middle School, built in 1981, now the Detroit Police Training Academy, designed by Detroit architects Howard Sims and Harold Varner.

Clear across town, in the equally pastoral Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, follow Kitchener Street from Jefferson Avenue toward the Detroit River and you’ll happen upon a similarly arresting structure, on a smaller scale: the home that Roger Margerum designed for himself in the early 2000s. This extravagant, postmodern ode to the 45 degree angle, clad in black, white, and crimson-painted wood, cuts a fantastic figure on an otherwise sleepy block.

What unites these two buildings, and a few dozen others scattered all over the city, is not just the futurism of their forms, but the notable fact that they were designed by black architects....

Read the rest at Curbed.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The view from here

I am delighted to share the news that the second edition of one of my very favorite books, Thanks For the View, Mr. Mies, has just been publishedand that it features a brand-new preface by yours truly!



TFTVMM, originally published in 2012, is all about life in the Mies van der Rohe-designed townhouses and apartment buildings in Detroit's Lafayette Park neighborhood, where I've lived since 2008. It is notable for being a very human architecture book; it is, in fact, a book about people, all kinds, and how and why they inhabit this unique, idealized neighborhood. It is one of a kind: obsessive, funny, critical, digressive. Kaleidoscopic.



An important dimension to community life in Lafayette Park is the fact that the population here has long been economically and racially mixed. This is, of course, a rare phenomenon in a neighborhood of buildings designed by one of the world's most influential modern architects. But it's a phenomenon that gets remarkably close to the real objectives of modernism, which sought to improve society by housing the masses, not just the elite.

When TFTVMM was first published in 2012, Lafayette Park was something of a well-kept local and national secret, and Detroit was on the cusp of major economic upheaval. In the years since, the neighborhood's profile has grown, along with greater downtown's economic fortunes, and things have changed here considerably. Property values, prices, and rents are all up, and suddenly, the neighborhood feels like a hot commodity.

The Pavilion as seen from my apartment in Lafayette Towers

For my new preface, I was tasked with describing how life in the neighborhood's three high rises, in particular, has changed since 2012. Two other new pieces, one by the book's editorsDanielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandaniand the other by the writer Marsha Music, look at changes in the neighborhood more broadly.

When the book first came out in 2012, I had the opportunity to review it and publish an in-depth interview with Danielle, Lana, and Natasha. (That interview, incidentally, remains one of my favorites I've ever done; those three have such a lively and infectious energy.) Though Danielle lives in the neighborhood, I hadn't meant her until then, and after our conversations, we were both sorry that we hadn't met in time for me to contribute to the book, which includes a number of pieces by various writers living in the neighborhood. So it was with profound gratitude and delight that I accepted her invitation to write something for the second edition.

Nonetheless, this was a challenging assignment, describing flux while living among it. (While participating in it.) I think I went through more drafts of this essay than any I've ever written, struggling to get the tone rightto record accurately both fact and feeling, and to find the proper balance between the two. With the help of several wise and generous editors, I think I got fairly close in 2000 words to achieving what I set out to do, but as I told Michel recently, I have had a hard time letting this essay go; I continue to revise and rewrite it in my head as I go about daily life here, talking with neighbors, noticing new changes, and sorting through my various responses to them. I'll probably be mentally revising it for as long as I live in the neighborhood.

But despite my feelings to the contrary, "The View From Here" is in fact very much done! And now it's out there, and I greet its publication with deep gratitude for the opportunity to help tell the story of one of my favorite places, the place I am fortunate to call home.

If you're inclined to pick up a copy, you can order the book directly from Distributed Art Publishers or from Amazon.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Essay'd: Patrick Hill

Screen, 2009, wood, glass, concrete, steel, epoxy, dye, ink, 81 in x 82 in x 108 in
(originally published 3/28/19 in Essay'd)

You could be forgiven for mistaking Patrick Hill for a minimalist. After all, a cursory glance at his sculptures will tell you that he is a native speaker of that iconically laconic language. Geometric forms in clean configurations? Check. An aesthetic of carefully considered refusal and reduction? Certainly. An exquisite sensitivity to space, balance, and the materiality of matter? That’s him, all right.

But in its reductive simplicity, minimalism ultimately leads to a conceptual dead-end. “What you see is what you get” only gets you so far in a time when art aspires to boundlessness. Taking cues from feminist artists, Hill circumvents this impasse by using minimal forms to go deep inside, to explore the body and aspects of subjective experience like identity, sexuality, frailty, and failure. (In his words: “It’s Richard Serra, only less ‘dude’.”) He finds source material not just in material itself, but in his personal experience and the wider worlds of fashion, pop culture, art history, and Eastern aesthetics and spirituality—a sprawling mixture that accretes, in his hands, into fragile monuments to interiority and human imperfection....

Read the rest at Essay'd.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Essay'd 3 launch this week!

This Thursday marks the launch of Essay'd 3, the third volume in our continuing series of books that grow from the Essay'd website, where we publish short, illustrated essays about contemporary Detroit artists.


Essay'd 3, published by Wayne State University Press, includes essays #61-90 in our ever-expanding and non-hierarchical survey of Detroit art, which is intended for the general reader. As in the previous two volumes, I served as editor-in-chief and contributed a handful of entries. I'm really delighted to share this volume with the world, as it marks a significant shift in Essay'd, away from content created by a small core group (as in Volumes 1 and 2), and toward a real multiplicity of voices and perspectives. The main editorial team was joined this time by 12 guest writers, everyone from Art History students to professional art critics, and as a result, the project has grown and expanded in an exciting way.

If you're in Detroit and available to join, I'd love to see you at MOCAD on Thursday from 6:00-8:00! We'll be signing and selling books (including copies of the first two volumes), and enjoying some delicious Bangladeshi foods from our friends at Bandhu Gardens. Come out and show your love for the incredible community of artists and writers that call Detroit home!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Essay'd: Bailey Scieszka

Thirsty Olde Pitre, 2017, 16:9 HD Video, 17:38 minutes. Edited video footage from from March 8th, 2017 performance at 13th Street Repertory Theatre in New York City. Music by Valerie Keane.

(originally published 10/29/18 in Essay'd)

In his 2017 bestseller Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen makes the convincing case that an essential aspect of the American character is a brazen disregard for the line between reality and fantasy. This is a congenital condition, he argues, that dates back to the nation’s founding.

Andersen’s thesis provides a useful lens through which to view the work of Bailey Scieszka, a multimedia artist and writer with a voracious appetite for history, on one hand, and popular fantasies like conspiracy theory, live action role playing, and end times prophecy, on the other. But for Scieszka, it is not just our eager and longstanding embrace of the irrational that makes Americans Americans; it is also the will to violence that is so dangerously entangled with our mania for make-believe.

Scieszka’s work has a great deal to do with violence. It’s “the only way to tell a true story,” according to her unbridled alter-ego Old Put—a murderous, shapeshifting, basket-weaving demon clown and pro wrestler who is the star of her elaborately-conceived plays, performances, and videos, and who features prominently in her prodigious drawings. Indeed, Scieszka’s astonishing output to date can be understood as an extravagant explosion of American violence, fantasy, and myth—a deranged, bedazzled, go-for-broke freak show that is informed by history, interpolated by trash and post-internet pop culture, and framed by anxiety about the horrors of contemporary life. Her work is a funhouse mirror reflection of the world today, hilarious at one turn and terrifying the next....

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Mid-Michigan modern

We recently ventured to Midland, two hours north of Detroit, to tour the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio, and to Flint, where we visited Lawrence Halprin's Riverbank Park. Both sites were recommended to us by friends, and both represent significant but perhaps underappreciated achievements in modernist design in Michigan. I'm grateful to have had the chance to get to know both of these developments, and to assess the startling contrasts between them.

 



ALDEN B. DOW HOME AND STUDIO

Alden Dow (1904-1983) was a son of Herbert Henry Dow, founder of Dow Chemicals, and the philanthropist Grace A. Dow. He was a prolific modern and organic architect (after Frank Lloyd Wright), leading the design of more than 500 buildings across the country. In Midland, in particular, his influence was profoundhe designed dozens of residential, civic, and commercial buildings, and his promotion of modernism evidently attracted a number of other similarly-inclined architects to Midland, resulting in a remarkable preponderance of modernist structures in this curious, conservative company town.

Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, also designed by Dow (That fascia is made of glass! And was evidently just restored last year.)

Dow designed his home and studio, nestled among extensive greenery and a manmade pond, between 1934 and 1941.


Seen from either its commercial entrance (above) or residential, the sprawling, low-slung building belies its astonishing 22,000 square feet. I learned from our tour guide that it is constructed primarily out of block made from recycled ash from Dow Chemical. The architect called this material "unit block," and it distinguishes many of his other residential buildings throughout Midland.


The block is everywhere in the house and on the grounds, and also extends the home into the pond via a scattering of pedestrian islands made from the same material, which elegantly collapse the border between the structure and the landscape. This is also a playful gesture, one that invites a visitor to explore, to wander, to hop among the stoneswhich, according to our guide, was typical of Dow's sensibility.





We couldn't take pictures in the house, but that spirit of adventure or escapade permeates inside, whether in the extreme compression and expansion of space from room to room, in long interior and exterior hallways, or the surprisingly vivid use of bright, saturated colorspinks, purples, and greens that reference the lush flora outsideto draw one's attention up toward windows and ceilings that soar and fold.







The tour was an extraordinary experience, a rare opportunity to spend time in a truly beautiful, expansive, and well cared for place that was nonetheless human-scale, vivacious, warm, and idiosyncratican enlivening, playful, ever-shifting wonderland of ingenious and humane design.

Afterward, we embarked on a couple-hour interlude that basically consisted of us driving around Midland, spotting and pausing to admire more than a dozen modernist homes, and getting to know a friendly local named Laura who was initially suspicious of our interest but then proud to point out a few key streets where we could maximize our mid-century rubbernecking. Then we hit the road to Flintjust about halfway back home from Midland to Detroit.