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

Milles: “Please do not knock”

A research request put me in search of Carl Milles this week. In the process of research, I noticed again a short letter written by Milles to Richard Raseman, Executive Secretary and Vice President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1932-1943, which demonstrates a wonderful sense of humor:

Milles letter 1981-05 24-23

Letter from Carl Milles to Richard Rasemen, September 12, 1938: “Richard, Please Print in your shop following, [Please do not enter without knocking/please do not knock]. Big letter, thick bristol paper. I need 6 such prints. Carl.” Cranbrook Foundation Records, Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

 

While Cranbrook Archives does not have a discrete collection of Milles’ papers, there are many letters written by him to his friends and colleagues within several collections. For those minds that become curious to know more about Milles (who served as Head of the Department of Sculpture from 1931 to 1951), we have a subject guide to help in finding his handwritten treasures hiding within our collections. Milles’ letters show a great sensitivity to the recipient of his writing and his descriptions of the ups and downs of circumstance reveal a man of great warmth and fortitude.

COM3286-1

View of various sculptures in side Carl Milles’ studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art, c. 1940. Harvey Croze, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

I am often inclined to read the letters of an artist or historical figure alongside a study of their work in the world–what a person writes and how they write it provides a wonderful glimpse into a person, and enhances an understanding of the context of their work and deeds.

Cranbrook has many offerings for things to do this summer–through the Center for Collections and Research, Cranbrook House and Gardens, Cranbrook Art Museum, and the Institute of Science. There is something for everyone, and while you are here you can use this guide to walk and view the Milles sculptures on the Academy’s campus.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Landscapes

While George Booth may have had carved “Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art” above the fireplace in his library, I’m not sure anyone adored nature as much as the inimitable Frank Lloyd Wright. Known for his organic architecture, his buildings are sited to be viewed as one with nature. Wright went so far as to say “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.

In the Fall of 1941, Richard Raseman (the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary from 1932 to 1943) traveled to Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. In beautiful photographs he captured the balance Wright achieved between the desert landscape and architecture. In Raseman’s many photographs, foregrounds of cacti and sand with backdrops of mountains and sky form a nest for the rambling estate. Water also plays a part in these compositions, as it often did in Wright’s work.

raseman002

View of Taliesin West, Fall 1941. Richard P. Raseman, Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

No Wright project is as associated with water as the Kaufmann House, “Fallingwater“, of 1936 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Last week, I had the honor to meet with the head Horticulturalist from Fallingwater, Ann Talarek. She was in town on the invitation of our friends at Lawrence Technological University, to speak to architecture students there and assist in ideas for the historic landscape of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Affleck House, owned by LTU. (A mere mile north of Cranbrook’s Woodward Avenue entrance, the Affleck House was completed in 1941 and Affleck’s son, Gregor Affleck, studied Painting, Design and Modeling at Cranbrook from 1944-45.)

Affleck House

View of Affleck House, c. 1945. Harvy Croze, Cranbrook Staff Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

More than most historic house museums, for a Wright project the intimate association between site and structure means that maintaining the landscape is just as important as maintaining the building. When working on the landscape, you have to study both historic images and what you can see on the ground today. Ann let us know that one of the most important things you can do with a Wright landscape is to edit: “Keep the view sheds Wright would have been working with, editing out trees that may be pretty but block important views. It may be counter intuitive, but add by reducing.”

Today, the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research serves as the educational steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950 Smith House, just a mile west of our campus. Ann also visited the Smith House, where she was impressed (as most visitors are) by the majestic canopy of oak trees surrounding the house and the dappled light they produce. Whereas the Affleck House has lost some of its view sheds, the Smith House still retains its open views toward the pond dredged by Melvyn Maxwell Smith. She also noted how architectural the landscape was: its perfectly placed pond, trees, and the arc of shrubs along the western end of the house.

Smith House with Farmland

Smith House, c. 1952. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

What’s impressive about the Smith House is the stuff inside: the fine and decorative art collection of things acquired and displayed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith, much of it from Cranbrook Academy alumni. After meeting with Ann and then looking through family photo albums of the house’s landscape, I realized that the grounds too were a project of the Smiths: he was constantly adding, cutting back, and reshaping the landscape. It’s most famous iteration may be an impromptu plan developed by the landscape architecture celebrity Thomas Church (for that story, sign up for a Smith House Tour!), yet like any site, the landscape has changed over the years.

Smith House later

Smith House, c. 1975, with landscape attributed to Thomas Church. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

Ann talked at the Affleck House about how they might eliminate certain invasive species (as she has done at Fallingwater) or how trees might be cut back. At Smith House, she helpfully noted some trees nearing the end of life, but suggested the historic photographs be studied to figure out what the Smith’s wanted. “Unlike Fallingwater or the Affleck House, the Smith House is ultimately suburban. What we now call invasive species would have been considered fashionable in the 1950s and 60s, and in a place as personal as the Smith House, you have to consider what Mr. Smith would have done as much as what Wright would have planned.” It’s an interesting idea. I think the most important goal is to make the architectural, landscape, and personal stories of the Smith House dynamic, relevant, and beautiful for visitors. That, and, as Ann said, “Don’t let anyone plant anything that’s going to overrun Bloomfield Hills.”

– Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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