Belt’s Midwest Architecture Journeys
Midwest Architecture Journeys, an unusual and ambitious book from Belt Publishing, takes us on a tour of the region’s monuments, above and below ground, imaginary and actual. As Alexandra Lange says in the introduction, the book stems from an itch to explore a region that is far more than flyover country. You will want to visit these places.
There are four sections: Journeys, People, Places, and Midwestern Vernacular. The contributors span Michigan-based art historian Jonathan Rinck, Chicago-based composer/performer/writer Corey Smith, and Brooklyn, N.Y. writers Dante A. Ciampaglia and Allison C. Meier.
The stylistic spread encompasses the warm musings of David M. Trubek about Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship to Trubek’s Robert Venturi home in Nantucket and Ryan Scavnicky’s passionate, if overwrought, meditation on new life for Cleveland’s decaying industrial buildings.
What unifies this book, edited by Chicago-based design journalist Zach Mortice, is its variety, reflected both in topic and stylistic diversity. I read it over several months; it lends itself to leisurely absorption. I wish there were more pictures, but I like it very much. We got an advance copy via PDF.
At the same time, some of the articles are more accessible and entertaining than others. Start with Jordan Hicks’s philosophical excavation of the Indian mounds of southern Ohio. Marvel at the silos of central Illinois in Lynn Freehill-Maye’s essay, an exploration of the deflation of meaning of something monumental. It is nostalgia as travelogue.
The book ventures into sociology and urban studies in Ciampaglia’s “Under the Big Dome,” a dispiriting, all-too-familiar story of urban renewal gone off the rails in Pittsburgh. Realign your gaze at the stone and metal eagles carved into vintage Detroit buildings as you read Bryan Boyer’s “The Geo-ornithology of Detroit.
“If ornithology is the pursuit of observing and tracking migratory birds, geo-ornithology is the study of power, how it moves through cities, and the role that architecture plays in this ebb and flow,” he writes. (Page 59.)
The People section covers such architects as Wright, Oklahoma’s Bruce Goff, Chicago modernist Bertrand Goldberg, and the father of the skyscraper, Louis Sullivan. In “Louis Sullivan in Central Ohio,” Milenko Budimir argues that the small-town banks Sullivan designed in Sidney and Newark, Ohio, are just as significant as high-rises he designed in Buffalo and St. Louis. “That these exquisite examples of modern design still stand across a swath of middle America is a testament to the foresight of their architect and the enduring design values of beauty, function, craftsmanship, and pride,” Budimir concludes. “They may not be as tall or as well-known as Sullivan’s skyscrapers, but their power to motivate as well as their sheer beauty is every bit as real.” (Page 84.)
The Places section takes the reader into Minneapolis, Chicago (Mark Clemens’s “Beneath the Cross in Bronzeville” is a marvelous tour of a Streamline Moderne temple and the culture that birthed it), Flint, Michigan—and Cleveland.
Flint is notorious for its water problem, but Bob Campbell explores another facet of that tormented city in “The Flat Lots of Flint: A Liminal State of Mind.” Opening with lines from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” he takes us on a tour of the grand, late-19th– and early-20th-century buildings of Flint, effectively set into relief by the parking lots. The subtext is that capitalism is cannibalistic.
A new structure is the focus of “FlexCleveland,” Erik Piepenburg’s story of a giant, Streamline Moderne gay bathhouse.
“The Cleveland skyline is like an old-school gay porn star,” the zesty story commences. “Butch. Firm. Solid. A top.
“Watching over Public Square like an eagle-eyed Secret Service agent is the Terminal Tower, the city’s fifty-two-story signature skyscraper, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. On the shore of Lake Erie like a geek-punk Poseidon stands I. M. Pei’s geometric record player for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ameritrust Tower, the Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith building at East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue doesn’t give a damn what you think about its rigid brutalism. It’s now part of a swank hotel and residential complex called The 9. Then there’s the building at 2600 Hamilton Avenue. It’s a sturdy architectural gem planted firmly on the ground like a guard dog. It’s a living throwback to Cleveland’s industrial, working-man roots that also happens to be the biggest gay sex club in the world.” (We’re uncertain how to investigate that claim, but there it is. – Ed.)
The final section, Midwestern Vernacular, begins with Amy Elliott Bragg’s “Mausoleums,” a brief history of an industry that took root in the Midwest. It covers Roseland Park Cemetery in Detroit; Rosehill Mausoleum and the Queen of Heaven in Chicago; and Angeles Abbey, in Compton, California.
Andy Sturdevant’s weirdly related “Groundscaper City: Touring the Subterranean Structures of Minneapolis-St. Paul, 1978-1983” examines “earth-sheltered structures” that accommodate the area’s extremes in temperature. While the editing could have been tighter, this tour of underground terrain is fascinating.
These glimpses of Midwestern architecture afford a new look at a region too often associated with blandness and flatness. Some even suggest pathways toward a new, more collective society. Take “Form Follows Values: New Glarus Brewing Company’s Hilltop Brewery,” a piece Bill Savage clearly enjoyed writing.
I’m a rare beer drinker, but I’m tempted to travel to that Wisconsin brewery to see this curious place and support it and the way its owners have woven it into the greater community. “Automation at New Glarus is not a labor-saving device, it is a laborer-saving device,” Savage writes. How quaint. How cool. (Page 251).
Cleveland writer Carlo Wolff recently co-wrote Designing Victory (Act3), the memoir of Robert P. Madison, Cleveland’s first black architect.