Hi! blurts this guy running from his beach palapa, pausing for a moment by my cabana. He thrusts his hand at me while standing naked, but for a bit of towel, announcing his name. Guy Battle. Nice to meet you. Ive been in a bloody plane for 11 hours and must take a dip and purify myself. Said with an almost parody of British ethos, he runs off bare-assed, diving into the Caribbeans trade wind-driven surf.
That was my recent hilarious introduction to Battle, the internationally known British green engineer, who, along with architect Daniel Liebeskind, designed the Freedom Towers wind-generated energy system at New York Citys Ground Zero. In the week that followed, he talked openly about the unimaginative state of U.S. architecture, arguing for more dialogue between engineers and architects. He agonized over the archaic use of fossil fuels to power our lives, about using the sun for light and heat (um, duh) and about using the breeze in which we bathed for electricity. He talked about seemingly backward countries commitment to ecologically friendly, sustainable design while corporate America goes on its disastrous way.
After a week of R & R on the Caribbean, nurtured by conversations with Battle about sustainable design, art and culture and the state of the world, living in Detroit, with its belching incinerator and insulting city stewardship, seems like living in the penumbra of the apocalypse.
I arrived home with a newly energized disrespect for arts self-indulgent aesthetic gymnastics and a staunch resolve to never set foot in another art gallery. And yet, ironically, at the center of my desk, there sat a summer schedule from Cranbrook Museum of Art, announcing Living Light on the Land: Prototypes for Sustainable Architecture and Design, an exhibition at Network Gallery, curated by artist and Cranbrook graduate Fabio Fernandez.
Its not very sexy to think of a chair made from mashed aspen trees, heat generated by discarded wine bottles or carpeting and furniture made from old blankets and clothes. Nevertheless, these are the things you encounter at the Living Light exhibition. And they are small but significant gestures made in a world hell-bent on self-destruction.
In the intimate space of the museums lower gallery, a series of installations illustrate a fresh approach. From the origin of materials to the method of construction to an objects final form, process is always evident in the product, and its a useful learning tool.
Marianne Desmarais and Liz Sargent, 2002 graduates of the architecture and fibers departments, respectively, collaborate on a project that recycles found wool blankets, clothing and industrial felt into two extraordinary pieces. Floe, a carpet constructed from bonded strips of recycled wool and clothing, resembles a topographical map. Adaptable Prototype for an Interior is a unique folding and layering of felt and wool blankets into malleable furniture.
Cranbrook architecture grad Will Wittig, currently assistant professor of architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy, has created the poetically titled Homespun, three proposals for modernist houses whose forms are each determined by the type of recycled material utilized. At the gallery, wall fragments represent separate sections of the houses, made from recycled wine bottles and newspapers, as well as wood from the floor of a deconstructed house. His Plank House, Water House and Paper House conceptions play cleverly on language.
Two other installations focus on recycling urban waste and preserving natural resources. A project by Cranbrook metalsmithing grad and University of Michigan faculty member Jonas Hauptman is already being used outside the gallery: his reSeat chairs, composed of palm tree waste from the city of Los Angeles, are being manufactured by a company producing handsome modernist chairs in the Eames tradition. And architecture graduate Gustavo Crembils prototypes for roofing and siding panels are made of pressed recycled paper.
As one tarries around the projects, there is the desire to fit them into a predictable framework: How are these things beautiful? How do they relate to Cranbrooks mandate of high craft and design? That doesnt work here. Craft and skill with materials are evident here, but thats where these objects seem to stray from the Cranbrook tradition. This work has a different agenda that, in turn, calls for a new set of criteria in order to engage with it.
While Living Light on the Land seems like a modest set of proposals, one could easily spend the rest of the summer considering its ramifications. Its not hard to wonder if Detroit, with its vast vacant acreage, infrastructure of roads, electricity, sewerage systems and legacy of brilliant workers, is a blank slate awaiting an inspired Green Plan. We can dream.
Through Sept. 25, at Network Gallery, Cranbrook grounds, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-645-3323.
By Glen Mannisto
An artist uses technology to create a cloud.