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 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.