Savvy to the Max

Finally! Somebody got it right — it being the way we imagine our relationship to the past. No easy matter in this town, with its dueling predilections for brainless demolition and nostalgic rot. But architect Donald Schmitt has pulled it off at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, a project as admirable as it is remarkable and architecturally rare.

Schmitt has drafted an exemplary case study in how to engage the past without suffocating it. Stuffy is just what this project is not.

With the Max Center project, Schmitt, who is principal in the architectural firm Diamond and Schmitt, confronted a formidable assignment: Take one of Detroit’s iconic “jewels,” and make something of it. Not just to restore, but to reimagine C. Howard Crane’s 1919 masterpiece. Not just to preserve the historic structure, but to achieve a whole new life and setting appropriate to today’s Detroit.

In the Max Center, everybody will have favorites to be pleased with. There’s Schmitt’s application of materials and textures, and the industrial counterpoint of his luxuriant interior, with exposed I-beams sinking right through beautiful wood railings. There are ebullient chandeliers, and chain-work doubling as curtains. It’s the things of industry called upon to delight us, which is the business Detroit has been in for a century and more.

Here’s what Schmitt has achieved: First, the restoration of Crane’s Orchestra Hall has left the structure looking finer than ever — from the marquee to window frames, with lighting and interior details that sparkle like new, except better, because they’re not new. Schmitt has accomplished a sly trick, getting the past to look more like itself than time allows.

To the north of Orchestra Hall are two major elements of Schmitt’s own design, the first a see-through jewel box to hold the new lobby and four-story atrium. Adjacent to the lobby area is a structure that contains the Music Box performance space and offices. The impromptu intimacy of the 450-seat venue for avant-garde chamber music, jazz and world music is seductive with its marsupial, variegated walls.

The whole, from the outside, is a study in proportion and balance, and proof that there’s no need to get the last word when you mix the present with the past. Better a conversation than a shouting match, and this is a conversation filled with wit and historical insight.

The real drama goes on inside the Max, and that’s where Schmitt’s work shines, literally, with its exuberant use of metal, glass and wood. This guy really gets it, when it comes to Detroit, and that’s what makes this place so remarkable and extravagantly American.

Schmitt says he’s most proud of “being able to make an addition that stands on its own, but is connected to the original, so that it reanimates and re-energizes the original without being nostalgic.”

The great architecture of Detroit’s heroic past — such as the Fisher, the Guardian and the Book buildings — is all about excess and the prideful entry into a culture of plenty. Those are heroic places, scaled to the aspirations of the men and women who made Detroit possible.

In his design, Schmitt comments on both the city’s history of exuberance and the industry on which that past is founded. So, good for him, and good for all of us, since we’re the beneficiaries of his design.

People will be talking about his soaring atrium, the grand staircase, the tiers of galleries and the extravagant chandeliers for a long time. And we ought to be talking about the beauties of Schmitt’s work. Not because we have to say nice things about Detroit, but because work this full of intelligence and wit is deserving of high praise.

For me, the finest aspect of this project remains the conversation it opens between present and past. Just look down the corridors that link old to new, and you’ll see how fine an intelligence is at work here: The proportions are delightful, framing at each end a picture of the future seen from the past, or else played the other way, the past sighted for contemplation now. It’s a wonder. Work this fine can’t help but make a Detroiter smile. Heroically.


Read a musical review from the Max here. From jazz to interpretations of the music of Ravi Shankar to folk to Richard Strauss, the DSO has a packed inaugural schedule. More information can be found here. Jerry Herron is an architecture enthusiast and freelancer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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