Chicago: On Beans and Dumplings

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #8
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Jun Kaneko, Dango sculptures
Location: Millennium Park, Chicago, IL
Date:  May 26, 2013

I spent the recent Memorial Day holiday in the Chicago area, seeing several awesome things for the first time: the Bean, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and the Art Institute of Chicago among many others. As I traipsed through Millennium Park on my way to the AIC, frankly giddy at the prospect of viewing Grant Wood’s American Gothic, I stopped cold in my tracks, captivated by a series of large-scale ceramic sculptures that looked vaguely like giant ice-cream pops.

Thinking that perhaps these were the work of famed Cranbrook alum Toshiko Takaezu, I hopped the metal barrier to snap a couple of pictures (the open-air exhibition was closed that day for some reason; in the far distance of the image above, you can see the figure of the guard who yelled at me). The surfaces of the ceramic forms undulated with repeating pattern and variegated glazing. They were—in a word—scrumptious.

As I approached the sculpture—and before I was shooed away by the guard—I read on the exhibition placard that the work was not by Takaezu, but rather by another Cranbrook ceramic artist of note: Jun Kaneko, who served as Artist-in-Residence and Head of the Department of Ceramics from 1979 until 1986. Kaneko’s work often uses pattern, repetition, and surface painting to achieve effects that imply conceptual endlessness. The artist calls these outsized sculptural works Dango, meaning “dumpling” or “rounded form” in Japanese. Such an idiom positions Kaneko in a long line of ceramic artists at Cranbrook who pushed the medium to new heights of sculptural achievement, from Maija Grotell to Takaezu and continuing through to current Artist-in-Residence Anders Ruhwald, whose exhibition in Saarinen House is now on view. Kaneko’s alien-yet-familiar forms, echoing both the organic line of the Bean and the repetition of the Chicago architecture, reminded me once again that even far afield, Cranbrook’s always just around the corner.

Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow

A Road Trip by Design, Part 2

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #6
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, 1940-42; Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, 1964; Harry Weese’s Cummins Engine Company Tech Center, 1968
Location: Columbus, IN
Date:  February 22, 2013

Part one of my road trip from Michigan to Kentucky brought me to the doorstep of Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, IN. Here, then, I submit for your consideration part two: the rapid-fire highlights of my whirlwind, self-cobbled tour of Cranbrook in Columbus.

3:02 PM, Friday afternoon: I need to be in Louisville, KY—about 75 miles away—by 5 PM. Short on time but long on curiosity, I decide to hit as many of the Cranbrook-related local gems of modern architecture as possible before I hit I-65 South.

3:04 PM: I wander out of the Columbus Area Visitor’s Center, map in hand, attempting to plot an architecturally significant route while walking. As I ponder which cool building is closest, I look up from my map to be confronted with the answer:

Crisp lines, modern geometry and repetition, minimal ornament: the soaring tower of Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church breaks my nerd-alert map concentration. It’s difficult even now to imagine how such a monumental reduction of form emerges so early in the century: Eliel begins work on this project in 1940 (at the same time as he develops the design for Cranbrook Art Museum, with which the church shares numerous stylistic attributes). Composed of three rectangular wings surrounding a sunken garden, First Christian Church comprises an essay in clarity of thought and unity of overall form. Taking cues from the earlier models of his Finnish countrymen Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggmann, Eliel—in concert with his son Eero—imbued the rational, linear form with the tactile material warmth of buff stone panels and tan brick. Bonus vintage shot of the church under construction on March 19, 1941, courtesy of Cranbrook Archives:

3:19 PM: I try to enter several locked doors of the church. I fail. I curse.

3:21 PM: With no time to linger, I hop into Celeste, my beloved ’91 Camry, bound for yet another Saarinen church—but this one is Eero’s. As I drive up the winding path, North Christian Church looks as if it could lift off at any moment. In his architectural vocabulary of simplified forms, Eero sought a language that would “clearly and logically express the form and character of the church.” Hexagonal in plan with a 192-foot spire, the building cuts a knifelike silhouette through the high cloudbank of a February storm:

Given the chilly drizzle and the fact that it’s early Friday afternoon, I have the place to myself. I steal a moment of quiet under the curved awning, reveling in Eero’s visionary forms and sensitive materials.

3:30 PM: I try to enter several locked doors of the church. I fail. I curse.

3:36 PM: With only time for one final drive-by, I plot my next move on the way to the I-65. I settle on the quirky, proto-Brutalist Cummins Engine Company Tech Center designed by Cranbrook alum Harry Weese in 1968. I’m always drawn to the concrete construction and repetitive form of American architecture of the late 1960s and 1970s—it’s often so withholding, so dutiful in its drilled-down muscularity. Weese enlivens the façade with idiosyncratic pre-cast concrete sun shades over each of the glass exterior windows. I find a certain awkward charm in this strange detail, so I snap a photo through the fence:

3:45 PM: Kentucky beckons. With Weese’s blocky concrete in my rearview mirror, I hit the highway headed south—with Cranbrook Sighting #7 no doubt just around the corner.

 

Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow