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By Jonathan H
We were about four days into our urgent scurry through the abandoned entropication of Chicago and Detroit. We stared, eyes agape at the crumbling edifices that rolled by our window like a spinning zoetrope; perhaps, for some, zoetrope isn’t the right word. In the late 19th century, daedalum was more common. The translation isn’t lost in the analogy. When the daedalum was named thus, it referred to an amusement that would have led to sin. It literally was translated, “wheel of the devil.”
So depending on how you look at it, Detroit – as seen through the passenger-side window of our moving bubbles – was either the daedalum, or the zoetrope, whatever one may choose in proclivity. As a zoetrope, Detroit is an apparitional narrative of glory and achievement, but seen through the eyes of the daedalum, it is a city of fire and brimstone. Perhaps most importantly, much like any other city in the U.S., it could lead to any number of rebellious actions.
The four of us parked in front of the downtown park and focused on the surrounding buildings. We knew that the boulevard’s most significant buildings would be largely vacant. And looking at all of these sad, empty reminders of the past, I couldn’t help but imagine Detroit as Richard Nickel had with Chicago, four decades earlier. Nickel’s Chicago of 1968 was undergoing its own “urban renewal,” and the Windy City was brimming with bold buildings from a grand past.
Richard Nickel’s Chicago, however, was no longer the city of the Columbian Exposition. The breakup of the city’s two most celebrated architects, Sullivan & Adler – akin to the sour music that usually results after a semi-decent rock band parts – meant that their architectural prowess fizzled. When Nickel, a former paratrooper, arrived back in his home town from the Korean War, he saw that the buildings of his childhood – the buildings that flourished under Adler & Sullivan – were quickly disappearing.
His obsession started with a thesis for the photography school that his GI bill helped fund. Under the tutelage of Aaaron Siskind, he set out on an ambitious project: The complete cataloguing of every building designed by Louis Sullivan. Some of Sullivan’s commissions were unknown; and the problem was compounded by the fact that all of the architectural notes and blueprints had ironically gone the same way as the buildings that burned in the Great Chicago fire of 1874 – a fire which had inspired so many Chicago architects to build some of the most awe-inspiring architecture of our modern time. Perhaps, it was better as such, because without that need for documentation Nickel would probably have never been inspired to uncover the unknown Sullivan buildings and photograph them with such contemplative purpose.
But there we were in Detroit – a place that was so foreign to us that I personally felt that I had little right to pontificate on its lot. Why should I judge this place? I’m an outsider, an invader, a curious spectator, an overzealous eavesdropper. Yet, I couldn’t help but judge. I know Detroiters have great pride in their city – as they should. But why not put that pride into action? Detroit has enormous wealth – but it’s not the wealth that most would recognize. It’s an architectural wealth that competes with the greatest urban city centers in the U.S. Why not put that wealth to use. Is it really too simple of a solution?
We strolled through the empty boulevards of Woodward Avenue and looked up at the empty windows. After spending four days touring crumbling architecture, many of us had already had enough – at least temporarily. Detroit’s beauty was quickly fading in its reality. We needed something new, inspiring to reinvigorate our creative gumption. And there I stopped, looking up at the jewel box in front of me – the iconic Farwell Building – Detroit’s most beautiful and least appreciated possession. What Detroit borrowed from Chicago – namely its style of architecture – it made better in the Farwell.
When Richard Nickel saw the Garrick, his jaw dropped. “Nothing can replace the joy and satisfaction this single building has given me. No new building in Chicago, be they of the finest materials, appears to offer what the Garrick does: The mind and heart of a great man.” Nickel understood the subtle metaphor of the building in his own life – and the effect that great architecture has on one’s understanding of humanity, and – most importantly – its inextricable connection to Nature.
We had taken considerable physical risk to reach the inside of the Farwell, but I knew immediately that it was my Garrick. I believe that great buildings (and great built landscapes for that matter) form a bond with oneself akin to that of a human being; a neglected building evokes the same empathy as a broken and neglected human. Sure, it may sound like blasphemy. After all, it is an inanimate object. But contained within a building is its own little zoetrope, its own story told through obsolescence. They are stories told through clues that – should you fail to pay attention to the spinning of the wheel – you could easily miss the whole narrative.
Nickel paid the ultimate price for his photography. In 1974, after sneaking past demolition crews at the Chicago Stock Exchange, he disappeared deep in the rubble of “his” building. But the story told through his life and death has captivated generations of preservationists and photographers. It’s not only a story of the death of a glorious man, but also that of a glorious building. And fittingly – the two of them collapsed into oblivion together, as if to mock the world that so easily discards the past. Fittingly, too, was how Louis Sullivan’s philosophies applied just as much to Nickel himself as they did to the buildings that Sullivan spent his life designing. “And decay proceeds as inevitably as growth,” Sullivan wrote. “Function is declined, structures disintegrate, differentiation is blurred, the fabric dissolves, life disappears, death appears, time engulfed. The eternal life falls. Out of oblivion into oblivion, so goes the drama of creative things.”