Le Corbusier Comes to Cranbrook

On November 21, 1935, celebrated French architect Le Corbusier arrived in Detroit and promptly demanded to be taken to Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex. That one of the world’s leading modernist architects wanted to visit Ford’s factory shouldn’t have been too surprising, as for the previous two decades Le Corbusier—born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret—had been advocating for a revolution in architecture like Ford’s revolution in transportation.

In his groundbreaking 1923 book, Toward an Architecture (or, as it was titled in its first English translations, Towards a New Architecture,) Le Corbusier made the famous claim, “A house is a machine for living in.” As he believed, “Machines will lead to a new order both of work and of leisure.”

Le Corbusier told reporter Florence Davies of the Detroit News that “Detroit is the logical city for the production of the houses of tomorrow, the pre-fabricated efficient mass-production house.” He went on to claim that it would be automobile manufacturers, not architects, who would “undertake the production of the homes of tomorrow” because they understood the problems of mass production.

But while Ford may have attracted Le Corbusier to visit Detroit during the his one and only trip to America, it was Cranbrook Academy of Art and its president Eliel Saarinen that played host to the great architect.

Le Corbusier, with pipe, and Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

After seeing the Ford complex and a making a few stops downtown, Le Corbusier wound his way up to Bloomfield Hills. On display in the Cranbrook Pavilion (now St. Dunstan’s Theater) were twenty-four enlarged photographs, a selection of movies, fourteen building and city plans, and a single model documenting his work. These items were part of a small show on the architect open from November 19 to November 22. But the main event was Le Corbusier’s lecture at 8:00pm on November 21, 1935.

Delivered in French and translated by his American associate Robert Jacobs, Le Corbusier enthralled an at-capacity audience with his theories of architecture. He spoke of his work in Europe, including the recently completed Villa Savoye in Poissy. The focus, however, were his theories of city planning and mechanization. Le Corbusier used a sheet of tracing paper some 8- to 12-feet-long and pinned along the wall to execute large, colorful pastel sketches that illustrated his ideas of architecture and planning. This drawing was saved by the Academy, though it has since, sadly, been lost.

Installation view of Modern Architecture:
International Exhibition
at the Museum of Modern Art with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at center and in photographs on left, February 9–March 23, 1932. While no photographs of Le Corbusier’s lecture or exhibition at Cranbrook survive, it was likely similar to this installation. MoMA Archives.

Le Corbusier lectured throughout most of his career as an architect. As he told an interviewer in 1951:

I never prepare my lectures…Improvisation is a wonderful thing: I draw, and when you draw and speak at the same time, you create something new. And all my theory—my introspection and retrospection on the phenomenon of architecture and urbanism—derives from my improvisation and drawings during these lectures.

After the Cranbrook lecture, Le Corbusier was the guest of the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary Richard Raseman and Instructor in Interior Design Rachel DeWolfe Raseman. The couple had both studied architecture at Cornell (Rachel Raseman was Cornell’s first woman architecture graduate) and resided at Academy Residence #3 across Academy Way from Saarinen House. In the morning, Le Corbusier continued by train to the next stop on his cross-country journey.

As the Detroit Free Press reported November 22, “With a few deft strokes Thursday, Le Corbusier, the famous French modernist-architect…sketched the vision that he sees through what is perhaps the most ponderous pair of eyeglasses ever fabricated.”

Le Corbusier in his famous eyeglasses at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Alongside an earlier lecture in April 1935 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the visit to Cranbrook by Le Corbusier was one of the highlights of the Academy’s first decade. Reflecting in his Annual Report to the Cranbrook Foundation, Richard Raseman wrote that:

The Le Corbusier lecture, although delivered in French, was a good show, and as he is a world figure we were well satisfied…the public must have agreed with us as these lectures [by Wright and Le Corbusier] were by far the best attended of any of our functions…men of this caliber are rare indeed.

To learn more about Le Corbusier and his visit to Cranbrook, sign up for the Center’s History of American Architecture: Cranbrook Visitors Lecture Series! For the next five weeks, I will be discussing visitors, like Le Corbusier, who have lectured at Cranbrook since the Academy opened in 1932. From Le Corbusier, Wright, and Alvar Aalto in the 1930s through to Jeanne Gang, Greg Pasquarelli, and David Adjaye in the 2010s, I will tell the story of American design through architects who’ve spoken at Cranbrook. Learn more and sign up on our website. “See” you Monday at 11:00am or 7:00pm EST for our first virtual lecture!

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Playing our Part

As performance venues prepare to reopen in Michigan today, I thought it timely to take a look at the storied history of a group that’s nearly as old as Cranbrook itself: St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild of Cranbrook. With ties to Cranbrook’s founding family, staff, and the physical Cranbrook campus, combined with its enduring cultural role in the surrounding community, this nearly ninety-year-old institution has a rich history. Allow me to share with you a few fascinating details from its early years.

View of St. Dunstan’s Playhouse from Lone Pine Road looking east. Balthazar Korab, photographer. Copyright Korab and Cranbrook Archives.

“The worst thing about it, it’s named for a saint. But don’t think it’s holy, ‘cause it certainly ain’t.”

Sheldon Noble, an early and active Guild member

The Theatre Guild was indeed named after St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the ninth century and patron saint of the arts. As St. Dunstan lived in Kent, England, from where Cranbrook founder George Booth’s family hailed, the Guild’s name was fittingly suggested by his son and founding member, Henry Scripps Booth. Shortly after the Guild began in 1932, members were writing and producing their own one-act plays. In an April 1933 letter announcing an informal evening  of a “Home Talent programme,” for the 100 Guild members and their guests, Jessie Winter, Guild Secretary and Brookside School Headmistress, implores them to “Be kind, be understanding, be generous . . . give the actors and authors the warm reception which such offerings warrant.” One such author was Henry Scripps Booth. Billed as Thistle, his play, Sedative Bed, was one of four being performed that April 28th evening at Brookside School for just $1. It was the tail end of the Great Depression, after all!

The first public performance of St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild took place at the Greek Theatre with The King and the Commoner. Taking supporting roles were the likes of Annetta Wonnberger (Cranbrook Summer Theater School), Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (daughter of Cranbrook architect Eliel Saarinen), and Henry Scripps Booth, among others.

A scene from The King and the Commoner. Henry Booth on right. Detroit newspaper rotogravure clipping. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The cast and crew of the 1940 production of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney again reads like a who’s who of Cranbrook, including Harry Hoey (Cranbrook School Headmaster), Templin Licklider (Cranbrook School Faculty), Dorothy Sepeshy (wife of Cranbrook Academy of Art President, Zoltan Sepeshy), Rachel Raseman (wife of Richard Raseman, Cranbrook Academy of Art Executive Secretary and Vice President), the aforementioned Annetta Wonnberger, and various members of the Booth Family. Henry Scripps Booth, part of the Guild’s Scenic Design Committee, and his wife Carolyn, the production’s stage manager, created the sets.

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