Modern Mecca

Michigan Modern project preserves and promotes design legacy.
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Thanks to the Michigan Modern project, 100 of the top modern resources in Michigan — buildings, designers, historical information and tours — are searchable on michiganmodern.org.
Three sites recently earned the distinction of National Historic Landmarks: McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State University in Detroit, by Minoru Yamasaki (the listing encouraged Wayne State to rehabilitate the reflecting pools); Lafayette Park in Detroit, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; and General Motors Technical Center in Warren, by Eero Saarinen.

First Federal Building, Detroit
First Federal Building, Detroit. Photography courtesy Michigan State Historic Preservation Office

Michigan’s modern design heritage dates back a century, but it was the state’s thriving post-World War II economy that attracted world-renowned designers, architects and professors who found a home for their creativity and innovation.

The Michigan Modern project was established in 2008 to document and promote that design legacy.

Consider the buildings in Detroit’s financial district or visit its cultural and medical centers: Many prominent skyscrapers and public buildings stand as a lasting legacy of the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic.

The Motor City first hired Eliel Saarinen, an internationally known Finnish architect, to create a civic center and Veterans Memorial Hall in 1924. The full plans were shelved due to the Depression and then World War II, but Saarinen and his Yale-trained son, Eero, continued to revise the plan into the 1950s.

Building on the city’s automotive legacy, Detroit became a destination for industrial designers and architects, and learning institutions such as Cranbrook Academy of Arts, University of Michigan and Wayne State University trained the next generation of modernists. Their campuses reflect the spirit of the times, with many buildings designed by notable architects.

Wayne State University McGregor Memorial Conference Center, Detroit
Wayne State University McGregor Memorial Conference Center, Detroit. Photography courtesy Wayne State University

Mid-Century Modernism symbolized the future and expressed the optimism of the era. Its architects rejected the past and embraced the use of new materials, simplicity of form and unconventional, simplistic design.

“It’s symbolic of when America was at its greatest after the war,” says Amy Arnold, project manager for Michigan Modern. “As leaders in industry and architecture, it showed that forward-thinking and helped move the world forward after the war.”

Names synonymous with modern design — the Saarinens, Minoru Yamasaki, Ray and Charles Eames, Alden B. Dow, Albert Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Herman Miller — defined an era and formed the foundation for modern American design.

Michigan became an epicenter of the movement as visionaries revolutionized the look of the American automobile, home exteriors and office interiors, and public art, plazas and buildings.

Wayne State University College of Education, Detroit
Wayne State University College of Education, Detroit. Photography courtesy Wayne State University

“I think the general public became interested with the show ‘Mad Men.’ It really generated interest in modern architecture,” Arnold says. “In general, modern design is so clean, sleek — it has a whole different appeal than a Victorian house.”

The Michigan Modern project is an effort of the State Historic Preservation Office; it began in 2008 when the SHPO received a Preserve America grant from the National Park Service. Initially, the goal was to document and promote Michigan’s architectural and design heritage from 1940 to 1970. Research revealed that contributions began much earlier, just after the turn of the 20th century.

“Everyone thinks of Michigan as a Rust Belt state, but we’ve had a design history for 100 years,” Arnold says. “It’s an important story that people haven’t associated with Michigan.”

Harold and Wilma Good Residence, East Lansing
Harold and Wilma Good Residence, East Lansing. Photography courtesy Michigan State Historic Preservation Office

Michigan Modern and the SHPO also partnered with organizations around the state to develop and promote a series of walking, biking and driving tours. These free, self-guided tours give the public a chance to see examples of this architectural style in residential and urban settings. There are four tours in the Detroit area — Wayne State’s campus, Detroit Modern, Detroit Financial/Civic and Detroit Lafayette/Elmwood.

There also are tours in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. The East Lansing tour includes a variety of private residences, public buildings and churches and grew out of research by Michigan State University Professor Susan Bandes. Ann Arbor’s tour is a sampling of residential work undertaken by architecture professors at the University of Michigan in the Ann Arbor Hills neighborhood.

Ann Arbor also has a website dedicated to modern design in the city: a2modern.org.

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