Want to know what’s wrong with Detroit? It’s not the schools or streetlights that don’t work; it’s not bad roads and idiot drivers, or fallen-apart neighborhoods; not casino greed or craven politicians. (Not that these aren’t in the mix.) It’s the lobbies. They’re the entries to the rest of our troubles.
Now the lobby, as we all know, is where capitalism stages its answer to the perennial question, "So, what have you done for me lately?" It’s where we’re invited into the house — and the city — that money has made. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got no beef with money or those who make it. My complaint is against stupidity, and various forms of pandering that these days try to pass themselves off as civic virtue.
Which makes this a then-and-now kind of story. Then was the city of heroic extravagance, of opulent squandering in behalf of public spectacle. And now? I’ll get to that. But first, a word or two about the "good old days" when it really meant something to be a citizen of this place, capital of Fordism and machine-made plenty. Detroit was in every sense a destination, which is the truth the great lobbies conveyed: People who lived here were specially entitled because of the wealth they were making together.
Take, for example, the Fisher Building (Albert Kahn, 1928). Now that place is all about arrival and the sense of entitlement that breathing city air — this city air — once carried with it. Consider this over-the-top lobby; its multitiered, marbled grandiosity represents only a single element of Kahn’s original design — the rest was never built. And Kahn wasn’t even a great civic architect, merely an extravagant one. His real genius was reserved for the industrial buildings — Highland Park, the Rouge plant, the Packard plant — that inspired a generation of European designers, whose Bauhaus-style modernism Kahn, in turn, criticized for its "box-like forms," dismissing it as "shaven architecture."
Or think about the Guardian Building downtown (Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, 1929), now undergoing restoration; it’s the one made of beautiful red-orange brick, with the flagpole on top. The lobby is arrived at gradually, in stages of ascent, as befits a grand destination. And what a destination it is, with its eccentric deco styling and vaulted immensity, all done in spectacular Pewabic tiles, each handmade in Detroit.
Or there are the vast kitsch palaces dreamed up by C. Howard Crane — the Fox Theatre (1928) and the Detroit Opera House (1922) being two examples. These are structures dedicated to the gaudy politics of gawking, each lobby fitted out with wraparound galleries to accommodate pay-per-view ogling.
The heroic lobbying of capital continues through Minoru Yamasaki’s design for what was then the MichCon building (1963) at Jefferson and Woodward, with its immaculate, marble gallery on which — like so much thin air — the whole structure seems to float. Wonderful! But that was then. And now?
The sole point of recent lobbies — so far as 150 West Jefferson (Heller & Leake) and One Detroit Center (John Burgee) are concerned — is to provide a faux-luxe accommodation for the security desk: no galleries, no heroism, no grand arrival. "State your business and move on" — that’s the message. Witless though this may be, it’s still ahead of the "point" being urged by the Millender Center (Eren Krantz), which is that you needn’t have any ideas at all to create public architecture today — at least not here. Millender’s lobby is to arrival what the Hudson’s demolition was to urban renewal: an implosion.
Which might suggest that everything post-1960s is wrong. But that’s not the case. Witness the Renaissance Center (1972), John Portman’s meditation on space and publicity alike. As for the inside, it’s still hard to love his get-lost joke on lobby making. But it’s what Portman has done with the outer skin of the Ren Cen that demands admiration. He’s turned a cracked mirror back on the whole external environment, air and water and sky. Now, that’s a lobby. Here, capital erects a vast, empty screen, on which the city gets to project its "comeback" — again, and again, and again.
Question is, when will there be anything heroic to reflect on? No time soon, it seems, if current lobbying is any indication.E-mail comments to [email protected]