KERN BLOCK DETROIT 1966

HIGH RISES ARE THE CROWN OF THE WESTERN SOCIETY.  WHO CAN MAKE IT TALLER? WHO CAN MAKE IT SENSATIONAL? WHO CAN MAKE IT A SYMBOL OF SUCCESS? HIGH RISES HAVE REPLACED THE CATHEDRALS OF OLD AS TOUTING THE SUCCESS OF A CITY.  THE DUBAI SOM TOWER BEING THE LATEST ONSLAUGHT OF MAJOR HIGH RISE MONUMENTS.

MY BREAK CAME WHEN I WORKED FOR THE DETROIT CITY PLANNING ONE SUMMER IN 1966, WHILE TAKING MY MASTERS AT CRANBROOK ACADEMY OF ART WITH AN ELIEL SARRINEN SCHOLARSHIP UNDER GLEN PAULSEN.  GLEN RECOMMENDED ME TO CHARLES BLESSING THE DIRECTOR OF PLANNING.  CHARLES WAS ROMANTIC AND LOVED MONUMENT VALLEY IN ARIZONA AND WANTED THE  BEAUTY THE VALLEY  TO COME TO DETROIT.  MY ASSIGNMENT WAS THE NEW CENTER AREA NEXT TO THE FISHER THEATER AND GMC WORLD HEADQUARTERS. ANOTHER BLOG.  I DID TWO HUGE INK RENDERING OF MY SCHEME THAT CAUGHT THE EYE OF MORT PERSKY, THE EDITOR OF DETROT MAGAZINE, A SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT OF DETROIT FREE PRESS.  ONE OF THE TWO MAJOR PAPERS IN TOWN, PART OF THE KNIGHT EMPIRE.

MORT’S CONCEPT WAS TO GET INVOLVED WITH CITY ISSUES AND MAKE AN IDEAL PROPOSAL TO PUSH THE THINKING AHEAD.   WE WERE THE PERFECT FIT.  FOR A COUPLE OF HUNDREDS BUCKS HE WOULD GET A MIND BLOWING PROPOSAL,  AND I WOULD GET MY EGO FED WITH THE PUBLICITY.  ALWAYS THINKING A MAJOR CLIENT WOULD COME MY WAY AFTER SEEING THE PROPOSALS. I AM STILL WAITING FOR THAT TO HAPPEN.

PICTURE THE TIMES.  THE ERA OF THE MIES HIGH RISE MONUMENTS IN NEW YORK AND CHICAGO.  THE VICTOR GRUEN SHOPPING CENTERS BOOMING. THE MOVE WAS OUT OF CITIES TO THE CHEAPER LAND IN SUBURBIA.  DETROIT WAS STARTED ON THE RIVER WITH A DENSE CORE THAT WAS SPREADING NORTH TO PONTIAC WITH BEDROOM COMMUNITIES SPRAWL.  AT THE SAME TIME THERE WERE EXPERIMENTS LIKE HABITAT 67 BY SOFTIE HAPPENING, BUT THESE WERE IN WORLD FAIRS, NOT DETROIT.

THE KERN BLOCK IN THE CENTER OF DETROIT HAD BEEN RAZED WITH URBAN RENEWAL MONEY TO DEVELOP, YET WAS SITTING VACANT. 5 ACRES IN THE HEART OF DETROIT.  THE KERNS WERE IMMIGRANT GERMANS WHO MADE IT BIG IN THE DRY GOODS BUSINESS,  AND OVER TIME PURCHASED THE WHOLE BLOCK.  THE BLOCK HAD LOST ITS APPEAL OVER THE YEARS AND ENDED UP IN URBAN RENEWAL.

MY ASSIGNMENT:  SHOW A DEVELOPMENT SCHEME.    THIS WAS A CHALLENGE FOR ME.  I WAS AT MY DESK IN CRANBROOK STRUGGLING WITH PUTTING TOGETHER A SCHEME WITH MASSING BLOCKS,  WHEN GLEN PAULSEN, THE ARCHITECTURAL DIRECTOR OF CRANBROOK, FORMERLY WORKED WITH EERO SAARINEN,  SAW MY CONFUSION.  IN JUST A FEW SHORT MOMENTS HE SAID A FEW WORDS ABOUT APPROACHING THE SITE  PLANNING AND MASSING AND LEFT.   I IMMEDIATELY  I BANGED OUT A SCHEME.  HE SAID JUST THE RIGHT THINGS TO BRING MY DESIGN ALIVE.  I FELT GUILTY ABOUT HIS IMPUT,  BUT THAT IS ALL IN THE WORLD OF TEACHING,  I HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO MANY A SUCCESSFUL DESIGN OF MY STUDENTS.  I REMEMBER GLEN PAULSEN COMING INTO MY STUDIO AND SEEING THE PUBLISHED FRONT PAGE PROJECT AND BRISKLY LEAVING.  I NEVER KNEW WHETHER  HE APPROVED, WAS DISGUSTED , JEALOUS OR  WAS LATE FOR LUNCH, HE DID NOT SAY.

WE REMAIN FRIENDS, A HUGE POSITIVE INFLUENCE ON MY LIFE WHO RECOGNIZED MY TALENT WITH A SCHOLARSHIP,  OFFICE JOB,  AND TEACHING AND OFFICE PERSONAL RECOMMENDATIONS.  AN EXCELLENT  ARCHITECT,  DESIGNER, AND PROFESSOR.  HE TAUGHT NUMEROUS YEARS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN.

MY SCHEME WAS TWO TALL TOWERS WITH FACADE REGULARITY. THE TOWERS CONTEXTUAL TO THE BUILDINGS SURROUNDING   AND NEW ONES PROPOSED, LIKE BOOK ENDS HOLDING THE LIVELY STUFF IN BETWEEN TOGETHER.THAT STUFF  BEING ROTATING INCLINED STRAIGHT ELEMENTS HOLDING RECTANGULAR ELEMENTS IN BETWEEN MAKING A CURVED SWEEP OF A HUGE INTERIOR SPACE.THAT ROSE AT EITHER END TO EMBRACE THE ANCHOR TOWERS.  THIS WAS JUST A BEGINNING THAT I LATER DEVELOPED ON A GRID THAT WAS MUCH MORE BUILDABLE.   I USED IT  AS AN OBJECT FOR PERSPECTIVE DRAWING CLASSES AT CAL POLY POMONA YEARS LATER.

I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED HUGE INTERIOR SPACES,  THE BRADBURY BUILDING IN LOS ANGELES,  CLEVELAND SHOPPING CENTER,  LA RAILROAD STATION, ETC.  THEY ARE SO UPLIFTING TO ME.  NOW THIS IS COMMON PLACE WITH ALL THE SHOPPING CENTERS,  BUT IN THE 1966 THIS WAS COMMERCIALLY NEW TO THE ERA. THERE WAS A HUGE INTERIOR PLAZA BASE  AT THE BOTTOM THAT SPILLED OUT TO  AN EXTERIOR PLAZA AND  EXTENDED TO COVER A COUPLE OF  THE SURROUNDING STREETS.

I WAS JUST BEGINNING MY RENDERING YEARS AND REMEMBER THAT I LIKED DRAWING PEOPLE FROM THE REAR BECAUSE IT WAS EASY.  EVENTUALLY USING MAGAZINE CUT OUTS THAT I TRACED FOR FIGURE DRAWING, THAT WAS MUCH MORE SUCCESSFUL.  I FELT GUILTY FOR NOT DRAWING THE FIGURES MYSELF.  LOOKING BACK ,   WHAT A WEIRD THING.  I WAS NOT A FIGURE ARTIST,  ALTHOUGH I HAD TAKEN THE COURSE AND HAD DONE WELL.  NO I WAS AN ARCHITECT DOING A RENDERING AND NEEDING ALL THE HELP I COULD GET.

THE CONCEPT WAS TO CREATE A HAPPENING PLACE NIGHT AND DAY OF MULTIFUNCTION THINGS LIKE HOTEL, OFFICE BUILDING, COMMERCIAL, RESTAURANTS AND ENTERTAINMENT. IT WAS  THE TIME  OF NO COVER CHARGE AND  REASONABLE PRICES.  I FELT THIS WAS TOTALLY BELIEVABLE AND STILL DO TODAY. A PLAZA  CENTER OF ACTIVITY TO BRING THE CITY TOGETHER.  DETROIT WAS A CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF THINKING TOO CONSERVATIVELY.   JUST A FEW YEARS LATTER AN OUTBURST OF  RIOTS OCCURRED WHICH DETROIT TO THIS DAY HAS NEVER RECOVER FROM.  YES DETROIT NEEDED MY SCHEME  AND OTHER INVESTMENTS TO IMPROVE THE COMMUNITY MORE THAN THEY COULD EVER IMAGINE.  IT WAS A CHEAP WAY TO RENEW DOWNTOWN AND INSPIRE DEVELOPMENT.  ONE OF MY PET THEORIES IS THAT THE WELL TO DO, NEEDS TO CONSTANTLY BE POURING MONEY INTO AREAS THAT HELP THE GENERAL PUBLIC.  IF NOT THE POPULUS WILL CRY OUT AND COME TO HAUNT THE WEALTHY.  THE WHOLE IDEA OF THE POPULOUS SHOULD JUST WORK HARDER IS FLAWED.

THE SCHEME WAS NOT GREEN, BUT I REALIZE NOW THAT IT ALL COULD BE WITH THIS GREEN HOUSE INTERIOR SPACE AND ALL THE ROOF DECKS GREEN. FACING SOUTH FOR ALL THE COLLECTORS AND EASILY COLLECTING THE RAIN AND RECYCLING THE WATER.  THE PLAZA BEING LACED  GREEN PARK WITH POOLS INSTEAD OF ENDLESS HARD SURFACE.

INCLUDED IN THE  DETROIT MAGAZINE ISSUE  WAS A STORY ON ME STUDYING AT CRANBROOK  DOING THE VERTICAL CITY.  THE QUOTE ON MY STUDIO WALL BEING   ”THINK BIG, DON’T COMPROMISE, WORK HARD” . THE KERN BLOCK PROJECT REPRESENTS A CONFLICT OF INTERESTS.  I DID NOT MAKE THE CONNECTION OF THE REAL WORLD WITH MY IDEAL WORLD AT CRANBROOK.  CRANBROOK GIVING ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO THINK ANEW WITHOUT HAVING TO MEET A BUDGET OR SATISFY A CLIENT.  YOU WOULD THINK I COULD HAVE BROUGHT MORE OF THAT TO THE KERN BLOCK,  BUT IN 1966 SUSTAINABILITY WAS THE LAST THING ON A DEVELOPERS MIND.  IT WAS NOT AN ISSUE.

AT THE TIME OF PUBLICATION,  WHERE EVERYBODY IN THE DETROIT REGION THAT COULD READ AND CARRY ON AN INTELLECTUAL CONVERSATION WOULD BE EXPOSED TO MY KERN BLOCK SCHEME,  I THOUGHT I WOULD BE A HOUSEHOLD NAME OVERNIGHT.   WELL IT DID NOT HAPPEN.  ONE DEVELOPER CAME OUT TO CRANBROOK TO VISIT, BUT THAT WAS IT.  THE FORDS AND GM EXECUTIVES AND THE OTHER MOVERS AND SHAKERS OF THE COMMUNITY WERE SILENT.  I SENT A COPY TO HOWARD HUGHES.  NOTHING.

IT IS THE ROLE OF THE VISIONARY.  SHOW THE WAY,  BUT SELDOM EVER BEING INVOLVED WHEN THE IDEA FINALLY GETTING BUILT.  SORT OF PRIMING THE PUMP.  BUT TO ME IT WAS REALITY FOR THE MOMENT. SHOULD I BE BITTER?  TONS OF PEOPLE SAY NO, BUT THE BOTTOM LINE IS DETROIT HAD ITS CHANCE AND BLEW IT.

LOOKING AT THE SCHEME NOW IT SEEMS DATED, BUT I HAVE YET TO SEE ANYTHING LIKE THIS PROPOSAL.  CLUE ME IN IF I AM WRONG.

I AM AN ARRANGER.  MY PROJECTS ARE A RESULT OF WHAT I HAVE OBSERVED, READ AND EXPERIENCED BROUGHT TOGETHER WITH MY ARRANGEMENT TALENT.   WE DO NOT LIVE IN ISOLATION AND MY DESIGNS ARE A RESULT OF BEING INSPIRED TO PUT THINGS TOGETHER.  CALL IT CREATIVITY, COPYING, OR STEALING ALL PART OF A DESIGN SCHEME.

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4 comments

  1. That would have been far more iconic than Detroit’s renaissance center, which just looks like it is trying to give the finger to Windsor across the river…

    Great blog post.

    • ARRON,

      THANKS FOR THE COMMENT. IT IS OBVIOUS THAT YOU KNOW DETROIT. THAT OTHER HALF LIVING EAST ON THE RIVER.

      WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON DETROIT THESE DAYS?

      IT LOOKS LIKE THE GLORY DAYS ARE OVER.

      THERE ARE TWO MORE BLOGS COMING ON DETROIT, I WOULD LIKE YOUR FEED BACK.

      THANKS,

      GLEN

  2. “IT IS THE ROLE OF THE VISIONARY. SHOW THE WAY, BUT SELDOM EVER BEING INVOLVED WHEN THE IDEA FINALLY GETTING BUILT. SORT OF PRIMING THE PUMP. BUT TO ME IT WAS REALITY FOR THE MOMENT. SHOULD I BE BITTER? TONS OF PEOPLE SAY NO, BUT THE BOTTOM LINE IS DETROIT HAD ITS CHANCE AND BLEW IT.”

    had you at SCI Arch. inspirational then. inspirational now. bitter? oh what the hell. bitterness can be fun and can be a generator of great witty and sarcastic comments about the likes of idiots who get popular (mayne or any of the rest who really ruined SCI Arch. what do you think rotundi’s or fred fisher’s i.q.s are? i m actually surprised they can walk upright.) to get stuff build you have to appeal to a common thought and thought process. YOU, mr. Small need to remain inspirational.

    face it mr. Small…. if this or a portion of your ideas about this got built…. you would have evolved further in your thinking and been disappointed at something else not being built there.

    i am not too familiar with detroit but a friend just sold his mother s house for…. $9,000 for a 3-bedroom house in perfect shape.

    i enjoy my bitterness. i enjoy doing wheelies on my motorcycles at times as well. the rational, the logical, is fun to abandon isn’t it? isn t that one of your great attributes. i’d embrace any bitterness if i were you. more grinning robots is not evolutionary. it is boredom. the average house in america is fundamentally designed for people to do 3 things… eat, watch t.v. and sleep. the average american works at least 40 hours at a job they can’t stand (if they are lucky enough to have a job) so they can get to the weekend so they can complain about having to go back to work on monday. and these people reproduce ad nauseum.

    i love the bitter. they always take me to a “fun” location. go do a wheelie and don t explain it to anybody. it would make me smile. in fact the vision of Glen Small doing a wheelie is a smile in itself. you can even flip the bird with one hand if you want. the world needs people like you.

    • STEVE,

      SORRY TO TAKE SO LONG GETTING BACK TO YOU, I JUST NOTICED YOUR LETTER LOOKING FOR SOMETHING.

      YES I AM A FUN LOVING PERSON, YES I AM BITTER, YES I DO NOT WANT TO CHANGE PLACES WITH OTHERS, YES I WOULD LIKE A RICH SPONSOR TO BUILD MEANINGFUL THINGS AND EXPLORE IDEAS WITH THE HELP OF A TEAM OF LIKE MINDS, BUT LIFE IS NOT FAIR, BUT I DO HAVE A LIFE WORTH LIVING.

      THANKS FOR THE KIND WORDS.

      KEEP CLOSE,

      GLEN

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