Material Honesty in Saarinen’s Structures

Eliel Saarinen wasn’t much for philosophizing about his work. Cranbrook’s principal architect demonstrated his beliefs about architecture through the bricks and stones of his buildings, rather than through academic lectures or theoretical treatise.

When I give tours of campus, I often highlight the fact that in Saarinen’s buildings, a brick wall is a structural brick wall, and a stone column is a structural stone column. If that sounds obvious, well, it’s because architects are excellent at deception.

Bricks and Mankato Kasota stone pilasters at Cranbrook Art Museum. Photograph by Daniel Smith CAA Architecture 2021. Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

In the 1920s and 1930s (and straight through to today), it was much cheaper to build a wall of concrete block or wood and then cover it in a façade of brick, or to design a reinforced concrete column and then wrap it in thin stone veneer. Solid brick walls and true stone columns are more expensive and more limiting to the designer (you can build taller, wider, and cheaper in steel and concrete). Regardless of a building’s style, by the early 20th century most of our country’s institutional buildings were constructed of modern materials and wrapped in traditional ones.

This habit of facadism (a focus on the material appearance without regard to the structural reality) was abhorrent to devotees of modernism. In International Style modern architecture, then, architects simply did away with brick walls and stone columns—materials used in construction for millennia—in favor of concrete, glass, and steel. The structure and the appearance of the architecture were one in the same.

But at Cranbrook, with its deep roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Saarinen went the other direction. True stone and brick construction was integral to our founding ethos, and to Saarinen’s designs.

Detail of brickwork on the dormitories of Cranbrook School for Boys (Cranbrook Campus, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School). Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

While many of Saarinen’s contemporaries were dealing with so-called ‘dishonest’ forms of architecture (steel and concrete frames clad in traditional styles rooted in masonry construction), Saarinen avoided the problem of ‘dishonesty’ by building modern buildings traditionally. Saarinen did use concrete vaults and floor slabs, as well as steel trusses, but he connected these to brick load bearing walls and stone columns.

Adding to the unusual fact that Cranbrook’s brick walls and brick vaults are structural, the beauty of Saarinen’s brickwork stands out. He achieved a special blend of true engineering and true artistry. This combination of beauty and utility was key to the Arts and Crafts Movement, and to the form-following-function ethos of Saarinen’s modernism.

More simply, the brickwork of Cranbrook is a visual delight.

Patterned brick and Mankato Kasota stone bench at Kingswood School for Girls (Kingswood Campus, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School). Photograph by James Haefner, Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

In Edward Ford’s The Details of Modern Architecture (1996), the architecture historian and professor writes that:

“Few Modernists were less interested in industrialization and standardization than Eliel Saarinen, and it is more than ironic that fate was eventually to place him at its heart, Detroit, and that he was to spend the second half of his career…at Cranbrook, fifteen miles from Highland Park and twenty miles from River Rouge, designing schools for the children of auto executives.”

Basket-woven brick barrel vault in the Arts and Crafts Courtyard, Cranbrook Academy of Art. Photograph by James Haefner, Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

There is much more to say about Saarinen’s brickwork, and bricks at Cranbrook more broadly. On October 25, 2021, I invite you to join me for the Center’s next Uncovering Cranbrook virtual lecture: The Bricks of Cranbrook: Humble Material, Monumental Design. I’ll discuss the history of bricks, where our bricks came from and what makes them unique, and, most importantly, revel in the beauty of the billions of bricks on this campus. And, after the lecture, join me on campus for a special behind-the-scenes brick themed tour!

Kevin Adkisson, Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

What’s in a Brick?

There are many beautiful bricks around Cranbrook’s campus. From the Roman brick details at Cranbrook School, the buckskin “Cranbrook brick” at the Academy and Institute of Science, or the beautiful green and gold bricks of Kingswood, Eliel Saarinen was a master of the ancient building material.

The richness of this legacy made architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien extremely diligent in specifying materials for their own addition to campus, the Williams Natatorium. Completed in 1999 and sited within the heavily wooded area adjacent to the Saarinen-designed Keppel Gymnasium, the 26,000-square-foot swimming facility features very few details that are not custom made. This includes the bricks.

The entrance to the Cranbrook Natatorium, showcasing purple Norman brick, glazed blue and green brick, concrete, and lead-coated copper. Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The architects wanted glazed bricks (a material famously used by Eero Saarinen at the General Motors Technical Center), but they couldn’t find any product available on the market that meet their needs. Project architect Martin Finio told Construction Association of Michigan Magazine (Fall 2000) that:

Typical glazing tends to resemble a painted surface. The glaze becomes the object of interest. The brick behind it could be anything. What we were interested in was trying to find a way of glazing brick in such a way that you can feel the body of the brick through it.

The architects turned to Endicott Clay of Fairbury, Nebraska to help craft custom glazed brick, with a base of ironspot brick the company already produced. In ironspot bricks, manganese in the clay creates dark spots when fired. The goal for Cranbrook was to have these spots remain visible behind the glaze.

After receiving dozens of sample test glazed bricks that weren’t what the architects wanted, Martin Finio, Billie Tsien, and project manager Gary Scheuren traveled to Nebraska to learn more about the process and to work on getting the Natatorium bricks just right. When they arrived, Tsien saw a stack of samples Endicott Clay had deemed failures, rejected, and never sent to the architects in New York. Within the trash pile was the exact finish the architects wanted. Endicott Clay simply reverse engineered the once-rejected bricks and made enough mottled blue and green glazed bricks for the building.

Beyond the colors’ ties to water and earth (appropriate for a pool in the woods), the specific shade of blue and green have special Cranbrook associations. The blue is the famed “Grotell blue” of Cranbrook’s longtime Head of Ceramics, Maija Grotell, while the green relates to the lovely shades of aqua used by Pipsan Saarinen Swanson inside Kingswood and that building’s great patinated copper roof.

The Norman bricks above the green glazed bricks. Notice the raked horizontal mortar lines. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Alongside the glazed bricks, the architects specified manganese ironspot Norman bricks in deep purple. Norman bricks are longer than standard bricks and enhance the horizontality of the building. Using a tradition made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright and also used by Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook, the horizontal mortar is raked and the vertical mortar is flush, casting the horizontal joints in shadow and increasing the sense of compression across the façade.

This hinge joint of blue glazed and purple Norman bricks terminates the east-west axis running from George Booth’s office in Cranbrook House, past the Art Museum and Orpheus fountain, and to the Natatorium. Daniel Smith, photographer. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Other materials used on the exterior of the Natatorium include cast in place concrete (sandblasted to give it a warmer feel and richer texture), warm toned ground-faced concrete block (custom made in Grand Blanc), Honduran mahogany, Mexican river rock, and Pietra Cardosa Italian slate.

—Kevin Adkisson, Curatorial Associate, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: