Chicago: On Beans and Dumplings

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

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

A Road Trip by Design, Part 1

Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, 1953-57
Location: Columbus, IN
Date:  February 22, 2013

I love a good road trip. Chintzy roadside attractions, late-night caffeine stops, full-blast radio singing—I’m quite at home behind the wheel at 65 MPH. Road trips satisfy my compulsion to wander while feeding my admiration of classic American kitsch. My recent talk at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft provided the perfect excuse for a meandering journey from Michigan to Kentucky in my trusty ’91 Toyota Camry. At the behest of our preparator extraordinaire and resident design nerd Mark Baker, I scheduled a stop in Columbus, Indiana on the way down. Why Columbus, you might ask? The answers are so awesome and numerous that they require two blog posts.

The first, and perhaps awesomest, is Eero Saarinen’s Miller House. Eero completed a relatively small number of residential commissions in his lifetime; Miller House certainly counts among the most remarkable of these. Check out these views:

Exterior view in spring. Photo: Indianapolis Museum of Art

View towards the dining room and open circular fireplace designed by Balthazar Korab. Photo: Indy Star.

Industrialist J. Irwin Miller, perhaps one of the greatest American architectural patrons of the 20th century, commissioned the home from Saarinen in 1953. Miller’s belief in the power of good architecture to set the public mood inspired him to offer to pay all the architect’s fees for public buildings in Columbus. As a result, the 45,000 residents of this town enjoy world-class facilities built by veritable giants in post-war architecture including I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and Gunnar Birkerts among many others. But it was Eero whom Miller chose to design his personal residence.

Often considered classically Modernist in its open plan, reduction of ornament, and use of steel and glass, Miller House in fact reminded me of another famous residence back on Cranbrook’s campus in Bloomfield Hills: Eliel Saarinen’s 1930 art deco masterpiece Saarinen House. Compare the dining rooms, for instance:

Left, Saarinen House dining room. Photo: Cranbrook Art Museum. Right, Miller House dining room. Photo: Leslie Williamson via "Dwell Magazine"

In its circular format, emphasis on spatial relationship in horizontal and vertical planes, and attention to unification between decorative and structural elements, Eero’s dining room directly recalls that of his father. Of course, Miller House’s overall palette and interior décor—conceived by modern master Alexander Girard—radically differs from the warm tones favored by Eliel and his wife Loja, who designed the textiles for the home.

Stay tuned for part two of my road trip…where did it take me next?

I thought I was on vacation.

Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center site, 2003-
Location: New York City
Date:  January 3, 2013

Over the recent holiday, I spent a glorious week in New York City, where I had lived for three years before accepting my position at Cranbrook. During my stay, I caught up with good friends and former colleagues, revisited old stomping grounds, and reconnected with important burritos of my past (El Centro in Hell’s Kitchen). Of course, as a museum professional and art historian, I also reveled in the sheer breadth of art experiences available to denizens of Gotham. At Ann Hamilton’s installation at the Park Armory, I swung on a giant swing in the company of pigeons and robed monklike actors. At the divine Ferdinand Hodler show at Neue Galerie, I faced the artist’s unflinching, obsessive portraits of his dying lover and muse. And at the Rosemarie Trockel retrospective at the New Museum, I stood slack-jawed in a white-tiled room with a faux palm tree sprouting from the ceiling while motorized birds chirped and whirred, mocking me from a nearby cage.

Heady stuff. So heady, in fact, that I needed a moment of fresh air, and luckily, the New Museum’s Sky Room on the seventh floor offers stunning views of lower Manhattan from a narrow terrace on the south and east sides of the building:

I snapped this picture, undoubtedly like many of the other art tourists around me, with the intent of manipulating it later in Instagram, hopefully inspiring of deluge of “likes.” But as I reviewed the photograph from the comfort of my friend’s couch, I became curious about the Freedom Tower, the building under construction at the center of the photo. I fired up Wikipedia, and lo and behold: hundreds of miles and a holiday away from Cranbrook’s campus, the institution managed to elbow its way into the very center of my touristy snapshot.

Daniel Libeskind, the famed architect who won the competition to design the master plan to rebuild the World Trade Center site, served as the Artist-in-Residence in the Architecture department at Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1978-1985. (Other architects designed the individual buildings within the plan; David Childs of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill designed the Tower itself, though Libeskind chose its height of 1,776 feet.) Libeskind’s tenure at Cranbrook, which preceded the completion of his first building, might be understood as foundational to the development of his design ideas. While he was here, the architect worked closely with Katherine and Michael McCoy, the Artists-in-Residence in the Design department who pioneered the so-called “semantic” approach to design. Elements of this approach, which relies on metaphorical links as a method to solve design problems, extend throughout the architect’s most famous commissions—including the one at the heart of my photo.

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

Getting “T-Square” All Square

Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Tony Rosenthal, T-Square, 1975-76
Location: Detroit, MI
Date:  September 24, 2012

Monday morning, 9 a.m. On a typical Monday at this time, I’m settling in to my sweet Knoll-designed desk in our newly-renovated office space at the museum. “Settling in” for me means checking my calendar and email, guzzling Diet Coke, and chowing down on granola bars. But this is no typical Monday: I stepped out of the car with my three museum colleagues into a gritty, industrial corridor on Detroit’s East Side—worlds away from the meticulously manicured lawns and bubbling fountains of Cranbrook’s campus.

This is the setting for Venus Bronze Works, a local firm specializing in the conservation and restoration of outdoor sculpture. Giorgio Gikas, the founder and president of Venus, met us in his massive, hangar-like space to examine and discuss his ongoing conservation of T-Square (1975-1976), a large-scale outdoor steel sculpture by Tony Rosenthal (1914-2009) in the museum’s collection. Works of art that are situated outdoors present their own unique challenges of preservation, and T-Square is no exception: after decades of sitting directly on those aforementioned manicured lawns, the massive sculpture plainly begged for restoration and repair. Years of exposure to rain and snow had caused some elements to rust through, threatening the work’s long-term stability and preservation. Of course, Rosenthal anticipated that his outdoor steel sculptures would develop a layer of rust as they aged. In fact, these installation photographs from the object file show a lovely orange oxidation over the surface of the object in 1978—just two years after its completion!

But by the middle of the 2000s, the deterioration of the steel at the sculpture’s base had begun to compromise its structural viability. In 2004, Gregory Wittkopp, Director of Cranbrook Art Museum, contacted Rosenthal to discuss best practices for conservation and preservation of his outdoor sculpture. The artist recommended a number of steps to conserve the work, including repair of the steel tubes followed by sandblasting, priming, and painting with industrial epoxy coating to preserve the steel. Enter Giorgio, a highly skilled sculptural conservator with over 25 years of experience, and voila—we have the first step in a repaired T-Square.

So far, Giorgio has refabricated interior brackets that had rusted through and reinforced the interior sidewall and other portions of the steel tubing. The next step: sandblasting the weathered surface so that the sealant can adhere. When all is said and done, T-Square can triumphantly return from Giorgio’s workshop—30-odd miles away—back to its home at Cranbrook, where it will rest atop a newly-poured concrete pad to protect it from pooling moisture. One of the potential sites for the sculpture is just outside my window here at the museum…perhaps one Monday morning at 9 a.m. in the not-too-distant future, I can look out my window with a mouth full of granola and smile, knowing that T-Square is in better shape than ever.

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