Phenomenologically Speaking

Ok, so I have to admit, I had no idea what the term “phenomenological” meant until yesterday when the Archives was host to a group of architecture students from Lawrence Technological Institute. Phenomenology was defined by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl as the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. So how does this fit in with architecture? Well, the idea that we experience architecture with all of our senses does seem perfectly logical and of course Cranbrook is a perfect example of that.

The two buildings the students focused on were the Cranbrook School Dining Hall and the Natatorium. If you have ever walked into either of those spaces, you can absolutely understand the phenomenological experience – the dining hall with its’ high vaulted ceilings, the Orrefors glass pendant light fixtures, and the 12 foot leaded glass windows that line the walls and throw patterns of light across the room – all of these contribute to both our visual and non-visual senses as we experience the space.

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Head Archivist, Leslie Edwards, discusses drawings with LTU students.

The Natatorium illustrates this concept even more dynamically. The complex use of materials – glazed exterior and interior brick, concrete block interior walls, the gray stone pool deck, the hand-glazed tiles in the locker rooms, and the use of mahogany for the walls, railing, and vertical louver panels – all contribute to the total sensation of the space. Add to that the windows that look out to the woods and the ceiling oculi that open up to the sky and you definitely experience phenomenology.

So thanks LTU students for teaching me something new when you came to the Archives to look at the architectural drawings. Days like this are another one of the perks of being a Cranbrook archivist.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Frank Lloyd Wright & Cranbrook

With the strong lineage of Modern masters here at Cranbrook, it is no surprise that Frank Lloyd Wright has some relationship to the campus and its history. As a renowned architect, Wright had many projects all over Michigan from Kalamazoo, Okemos, Benton Harbor, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Bloomfield Hills. Many of these homes came out of his “Usonian Architecture.”

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Photograph by James Haefner ©

The term Usonian means “of the United States,” and was used by Wright to emphasize his architecture as uniquely American, specifically the American Midwest.  The Usonian style was Wright’s solution to the rise of suburbia where people moved outside of cities. This was his solution to what he deemed “the small house problem,” a direct response to post war needs and the growing necessity of affordable and comfortable homes.

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Photograph by James Haefner ©

Partnering with The Towbes Foundation, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research will be providing tours of one of Wright’s Usonian homes in Bloomfield Hills, the Melvin Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House. Known as “My Haven” by the owners, Wright called the house, “my little gem.” Designed in 1946 and completed in 1950 the home is a great example in Wright’s oeuvre of a Usonian home.

Another of Wrights’ Usonian homes within Bloomfield Hills can also be connected to Cranbrook.   Commissioned by Gregor S. Affleck, a chemical engineer who invented an automotive fast-drying paint, the Affleck House was completed in 1941. Affleck’s son, Gregor Porter Affleck, attended Cranbrook Academy of Art and studied Architecture with Eliel Saarinen from 1944-1945. In 1978, the Affleck children donated the house to Lawrence Technological University.

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Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Foundation Records.

Saarinen and Wright were colleagues who supported each other in the field of Architecture, at least as much as two established architects with considerable egos could get along. Wright visited Cranbrook at least three times, for lectures in 1935, 1936 and 1937. All were sold out to standing room only.

The Melvin Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House will be open for tours May – October on one Friday and one Sunday of each month. For more information on the tours, please visit our website.

Stefanie Dlugosz-Acton,  Collections Fellow, Center for Collections and Research

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