Saturday, 18 April 2009

Friendly Enemies: How the American Barbarian Must Learn from the Reformed Vikings

I first became enchanted with things Scandinavian as a college student of 19 in Detroit. Except for two years service in the Navy in the Southern United States (I was studying to be an aviation electronics technician) my experience of the larger world was limited to boarding school in Bay City, Michigan and summers at a cottage on Lake Huron.

My favorite Am Lit teacher at the Jesuit University of Detroit added to his meagre earnings as a professor by running the pro club at the Detroit City Golf Course. We used to feign an interest in golf just to palaver with him. He liked the extra attention but was an overworked man so one Saturday he suggested we visit nearby Cranbrook. He thought it would slake our rapidly deepening cultural thirsts (as well as give him some freedom from Higher Pestering.)

We were fascinated by what turned out to be the architecture of the Finnish immigrant, Eliel Saarinen. We later learned that George W. Booth, publisher of the Detroit News, concerned about the spiritual aridity of the leaders of the booming new Automotive Capital of the world, had urged the new nabobs to seek deeper meanings in their lives in the cultural center which came to be called Cranbrook. Saarinen had attracted national attention in 1922 with his second place winner in the international competition to create a new Chicago Tribune Tower.

(A new generation of architects generally scorned the pretentious of the NeoGothic high rise that won the contest, and were exhilirated by the sleek modernism of the Finn's design preceding by several years the PSFS building in Philadelphia generally conceded to be the first modern skyscraper on this continent.) Saarinen had the good sense to hire the Swedish sculptor to head the sculptor department.

And his own wife was a gifted textile designer. So what you had in effect was an American Bauhaus paralleling the German one, with a more substantial Social Democratic tradition of training artists to serve the general public with good dlesign. Until the GI Bill fueled the ambitions of other institutions of higther elducation to expand their design programs, Cranbrook was the most important such scfhool in America for 50 years. (It still has very high standards, as I noted on a recent nostalgic trip, but it now has much competition in the field.

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