Modern in Moline - John Deere World Headquarters in Cor-Ten steel, by Eero Saarinen. "Nothing rusts like a Deere."

    John Deere World Headquarters
    Eero Saarinen
    Moline, Illinois.  Opened 1964

    Eero Saarinen's John Deere World Headquarters looks better and better as the years go by; as do all of Saarinen's works.  The approach is carefully choreographed as you rise up out of a valley, and first see man-made lakes.  Saarinen created a working monument that glorifies with dignity industry, technology and craftsmanship, all in balance with nature.  The building is in, of, by and for the land- the land which is this building's reason to be.  Thomas Jefferson would be proud.  The offices seem to be satisfy the workers needs for light, calm, and dignity.     

    The Deere brochure says,

    John Deere and Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect who designed the building, both created masterpieces in steel. Deere used steel to forge the plow that tamed the prairie; Saarinen used it to build a structure that reflected the character of the company that bears Deere's name.

    Deere's plow had to be strong enough to till Midwestern soil.  The building is not of shiny steel like many office buildings of the day, but rather, rugged Cor-Ten® steel, made to rust.  Cor-Ten dated to 1933 and was developed for the railroads.  John Deere World Headquarters was the first use of Cor-Ten in such a major architectural application.  Over the years here it has picked up ever more hues of the Land of Lincoln, and of the all important oak trees, among which it nestles.

    Saarinen's large "universal space," half-buried in the earth like a plow digging in; the exhibition space where they display the John Deere combines, tractors and plows.

    This elegantly detailed glass box is the fanciest farm shed in the world.  Since the late 1930's John Deere has hired industrial designers to make their products aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.  With the building, as with the products, one marvels at the design and engineering.

    In the showroom you will also find one odd wooden bench, I saw just one.  Its oddness recalled for me the prow on Saarinen's Ingalls hockey rink at Yale, though I don't know if Eero Saarinen had a hand in designing this bench.  It is sculpted as if over time human bottoms have polished indentations into the wood.  One seats one's bum in it, in this natural material, much as the building itself is embedded in the land.  

    I was surprised to learn that Saarinen's first proposal for John Deere headquarters was an inverted pyramid.

    Saarinen sketches for John Deere headquarters, 1957-63

    This struck me as I've recently returned from the Shanghai World Expo where the national pavilion of China is an inverted pyramid.  I'm glad Deere didn't go with that, it would have likely dominated the nature, and created too much space where the sun don't shine.  As built, the John Deere building has an Asian feel to it with a harmony, equilibrium and delicacy that especially when the lights are on can remind one of the Golden Temple in Kyoto; in the end this is a fine American work- rugged and right for the frontier - its "sticks" and "logs" of steel stacked, fastened, and demonstrating its will to endure.

    The critic John Jacobus places the John Deere headquarters in "a particular American pictorial vision of a metallic industrialized building style set in an ordered, uncluttered landscape - the vision of Sheller, Demuth and Hopper."

    The surrounding landscape by Hideo Sasaki and associates is as brilliant as the building -  balancing structure and building art with land, water, trees, brush, sky, water and air.  Sasaki's mid-century works are American masterpieces; often better than the acclaimed "land art" created by "land artists" in the following decades.

    Sasaki knew Illinois, he had studied at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 1946 (Sasaki and his firm have done design and landscape work there for decades). He later worked at the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill.  (I regret that it was a Sasaki landscape that was brutally ripped from the earth earlier this year at the campus of Michael Reese hospital in Chicago.) John Deere had begun to make smaller tractors for lawns and gardens just before work on the headquarters building began in 1955, so it's appropriate that much of the landscaping is well-trimmed lawn.  

    Alexander Girard composed the huge mural on the display floor with memorabilia from company history.

    Even if I hadn't just seen proud and optimistic China, re-visiting John Deere reminds me of the  American commitment to greatness, pride and belief in the value of creating a place of beauty, when corporate America had the fortitude to create such a showplace as this pilgrimage temple to agribusiness.  Such work strengthens us, shows us we are made of, and what we are capable of as a nation.  I know that spirit still exists here. Maybe we just have to dig around to find it.


    "Nothing runs like a Deere" says the ad, but I try.  I leave what is wrongly called the "rust belt," and until I stop again: well, if John Deere is where rusty Cor-ten steel architecture started, see here where it has gone.  I leave Moline, and cross the Mississippi. 
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What's Chicago without a little Frank Lloyd Wright?

    Heading west from Chicago, looking for modernity, had to stop at


    No, that's Bruce Price in Tuxedo Park, New York (1885/86).

    I stopped at

    Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois - 1889/98.  Restored to its 1909 appearance.

    Wright pushes six panes together, lifts the arch above them and all but begins to make a modern ribbon window!

    The triangle reminds me of Venturi's post-modern house for his mother, in which he also plays with the windows, and I loved the proto-post-modernism or maybe more mannerism, in Frank Lloyd Wright's Studio, when he stops the posts before they rise up to meet the heavy beams.

    How does it all stand up?  Show off!  Between the posts and beams, tranquilly repose, at least now, houseplants, as calm as the magician's girl about to be sawed in two, or the innocent bloke standing unknowingly under a grand piano.  At first you're shocked to see it, then your eyes tell you it will all be alright.  The man in charge here has some talent, indeed, is masterful.  Look up and you'll see chains holding his dome together, a wink in the studio perhaps to architectural history, to the medievalism of H.H. Richardson or even to the Renaissance when Filippo Brunelleschi famously circled chains around the base of the otherwise impossible to construct dome of Florence Cathedral.

    I hadn't been to Wright's place in a while, not since the business and marketing of Frank Lloyd Wright really took off. Sure I'd seen the recent knicknacks and novels, but I didn't realize there's a whole lotta Loving Frank going on.  Is this nostalgia?  People catching up with homegrown American genius?  A new definition of the "Ken Burns effect"?  On this day Italians abound.  I overhear one U.S. couple ask another, "Didn't we see you at Monona yesterday?   (Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin- a post-Wright Wrightian work for all Wright-lovers.)

     At Unity Temple you wander on your own.  Led and conducted by Wright's rigorous, flowing and "musical composition" you absorb this sacred space as you will, pass through it as you like, and as it passes through you.

    At the FLW Home and Studio you first enter the gift shop to buy tickets for the tour.  That's a sad sequence of spaces confusing the soul seeking beauty.  Next it's a docent-led tour.  You can't but marvel at the creativity here, the modernity and the genius; that Wright designed in this place Robie House, the Larkin Building and Unity Temple, and that he designed his house in so many ways to instill creativity in the six children he raised here with his wife Catherine.

    The docents are well-informed and tell Wright good stories, but I would also appreciate the option of visiting in silence.  Facts can be learned before you enter, on YouTube or a smartphone.  The architecture can only be experienced here; and you've made the effort to physically come here.  Let the architecture do its thing.  If conditions are right and you're quiet and open, architecture can do things to you that nothing else can.

    So now I head in the direction indicated by the prow of Wright's Robie House.  As we all do at a certain point in our lives, I head west.
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From the Getty Tomb to the Getty Center. Archi-road trip. 2,000 miles plus from Chicago to L.A.

    A plaque in front of Louis Sullivan's Getty Tomb in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago says modern architecture in America starts here.  Thus it's a fitting place to begin my archi-drive west, to see great buildings along the way.  Destination - a city of the future -  Los Angeles.  Where the continent ends in a wash of golden light.  This tomb too says sunset.

    Graceland looks great today, having recently had its landscape sensitively restored.  The administration buildings also sing delightful prairie songs to me as they too have been restored.  They feel like the turn of the century and early twentieth century wooden buildings you find in America's national parks.  I wonder if the toll booths and other public buildings I am about to encounter along Midwestern roads will be as humane and appropriate to their sites as these little "cabins" in Graceland.  

    I always regret leaving Chicago and as usual I delay my inevitable departure.  This time, in addition to not having seen you,  I wish I had seen Louis Sullivan's Idea, the exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.  It must be illuminating as it was conceived and designed by the incomparable duo of Tim Samuelson and Chris Ware.  I promise myself to return to Chicago before the exhibition closes.

    Next stop... ?
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Traveling Man

The most memorable pavilion at Shanghai Expo

Still in China

    Dear Reader, 
        Yes, I'm still enjoying Shanghai and the World Expo 2010.  What particularly interests me are the millions of Chinese people here from the provinces who are "seeing the world" for the first time.  These are mainly people with no passports, who have seen few westerners.  This gives me some sense of what that aspect of Chicago's 1893 fair might have been like, at a start of America's great boom and migrations and industrialization.  I don't envy Milano, Italy having to follow China with a fair in five years!  No way they'll top this one.  And the visitors will have less of that wonderful curiosity that goes along with seeing a new world for the first time.   
         The UK pavilion sends me.  It's "emptiness" in which you can re-find your Self is valuable after a busy day at the Expo, walking miles and being bombarded by messages and propaganda from all over the world and flashing lights, video monitors, music, food etc.  In this architecture is also a message to the Chinese, as they build up their cities with more and more pizzazz.  Thomas Heatherwick and his studio - designers of the U.K. Pavilion only filled part of the site.  The rest they left as open space, also for contemplation, or relaxation or for kids to play in.  The message is of - balance.  The effect is powerful, you'll in photos - because you've never seen on object like the spiky U.K. pavilion at its size.  It's an enlarged sea anemone.  The spikes are acrylic tubes some twenty-five feet long.  Each one has seeds at the end.  Seeds threatened with extinction, seeds showing bio-diversity.  The architect calls this a "Seed Cathedral."  The Gothic cathedrals with their pointed arch roofs resembled grown trees leaning together.  Now we are back to seeds.  A new beginning.  When you spend time in China that is how it feels.  The modern era is a new era, life has changed drastically for so many hundreds of millions of people who knew otherwise for centuries.  It's good to include art in the design of the new world.  Thank you United Kingdom.  The building feels organic, with curves, and the landscape its in is angular, of folded planes.  This catches you off guard.  You've left the earth you know for a moment.  Then reality returns but your perceptions are altered.  Your sensory receptors are heightened.  You experience something new and yet familiar - because ultimately what you experience is your Self.  You return a bit to who you are.  This is not a normal pavilion of distraction and presenting a message.  Its message, if written out, would be, London was one of the first cities to bring nature and parks into the city in a deliberate way.  That urban balance is important for internal balance in the citizens.

         I will compare the U.K. pavilion to Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building and plaza.  It's "simplicity" and "empty" plaza are also a great act of resistance, as America went whole hog into commodification, commercialism and consumerism after World War II.  My message to the Chinese - enjoy this moment.  When you replace Confucianism with too much consumerism the result will be decadence. 
         Am I the only one who doesn't swoon at the Spanish Pavilion?  I see too much ersatz Gehry in it, - and while I like the idea of the wicker, I find it too dark and mottled and pasted on.  And inside - what about that giant blue-eyed baby!?  I found Finland to be very powerful - a Pantheon-like open air courtyard defined by curving white walls and an anvil and a boulder in the middle.  But then, the Finns tend to have a lot that is worthwhile to say, quietly; and to understand how to convey profound meanings in architecture, don't they?  The Danish pavilion - a Möbius strip or double-helix rising and descending stairway includes bicycle paths!  A strong message here where not long ago that's how people got around.  It's interesting here how many pavilions use circulation spirals with atria and oculi that seem to spring from Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim.

         The U.S.A. Pavilion is my least favorite at the fair.  Forget about the bland, suburban, corporate, grey building.  The worst of it is that the Chinese are herded through it in groups, disallowing individual freedom - the very thing that makes America great - and they are shown Americans as corporate entities, spokespeople for corporations; not the creative, clever, risk-taking, liberty-loving people we are. The films inside are poorly conceived, acted and/or produced; many of the Chinese stumble out of our pavilion deadened.  As if they had seen nothing they could connect to.  I spoke with many Chinese people leaving the U.S.A. pavilion who seemed dumbfounded.  "Surely the USA is greater than that?" they correctly asked and I answered, "yes, by far.  I hope you can visit some day."  

         I regret that visitors to the fair must queue three to five and sometimes up to nine hours to visit the most popular pavilions, such as the one from Saudi Arabia.  Yes the Chinese are patient, but there must be a better way, particularly in the raging heat here, and also so they can make better use of their limited time at the fair and see and learn more.  Better designs for circulation and passage are needed, but then, how to have an meaningful encounter with anything inside?            

         I'll post photos when I return in a few weeks.  This blog is blocked from China.  Is it something I said?  Dunno, I'm quite fond of this country and it's people.  They have an honor and a spirit for the collective good that the west could use more of.  Thank a clerk in the U.S. for helping you and you get, "No problem."  Thank a clerk in China and you hear, "It's my pleasure."  I did see women pulling weeds in the lovely city of Suzhou - eight hours of back-break in terribly hot and humid weather for about fifty cents an hour.  That is nobody's pleasure.  Even though the China People's Daily newspaper just ran a story about a traffic cop who loves her job, says it's the best job in the world, standing in the middle of traffic directing cars, bikes, buses and every kind of moped.  Because the town used to be disorderly she said, but she is helping to bring order to it, and to help the town, and China, develop.

         And what of the workers who built this fair?  Many are migrant laborers, traveling from one building site to another, living in containers or the like.  They left the site when the fair opened, probably only to return to tear it down.  Underpaid, poorly housed, hard labor.  They are the unseen heroes of this exhibition.  And they're not even here to to see it. 

         Despite low incomes for most people in this country a most wonderful thing here is that you feel safe.  I can walk down and got lost in any maze of tiny narrow lanes, with housing like hutches, and poor ventilation and hardly a ray of natural light.  Quarters subdivided so family members share what they have.  And as I walk by I get smiles, invitations to dinner, laughter and attempts to connect and to communicate.  Most Chinese seem to love at least the idea of America.  I met a young woman yesterday whose favorite book is "Walden Lake."  With small living quarters and a developed social sense and a homogenous population much of life here is lived in the street and it's pleasant.  I'm reminded of bygone idyllic America, whether New England square or post-war suburb, when Americans too lived more with each other and liked and trusted one another, spent more time outdoors. That all adds to life and I soak it up here.  We from the States crave community in ways we don't even know.    

         Summer in Shanghai is terribly hot and humid and the Expo fairgrounds can be almost unbearable.  Water is plentiful and some awnings and misters to cool you down and even sometimes huge ice-blocks are set at stations.  On one day too hot to be outside I went in to the giant flying saucer-like (think pumped-up Oscar NiemeyerExpo Culture Center.  Inside was a stage show innocent in a US 1950's sort of way.  It reminded me of nothing more than the old Jackie Gleason television show with the dancers and simple singing.  I had to leave when one of the Chinese actors started in that discordant fashion.   

         Luckily we have some days of blue skies here - these are really rather rare in Shanghai.  The fair looks even better then, even though it's still in the upper 90's and drenchingly humid and you must walk along wide open concrete expanses.  On one of those beautiful days I made it a point to visit the old Yu Yuan Gardens by the old city.  Being there, in the beauty, with the wooden pavilions, the landscape and the shade trees, made Expo's theme of "Better City, Better City" seem like, well, a slogan.  

    All my best, 

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