Spectacular Ruins of Motor City

  • by Sura Wood
  • Sunday October 13, 2013
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"Belle Isle Aquarium, Architect: Albert Kahn, 1904," photographed in 2011 by Philip Jarmain
"Belle Isle Aquarium, Architect: Albert Kahn, 1904," photographed in 2011 by Philip Jarmain

Absent habitation, care and tending, even the greatest architectural achievements can degenerate into deserted shrines to human aspiration and crumbling grandeur. That's a potential response to "American Beauty: The Opulent Pre-Depression Architecture of Detroit," a stirring exhibition of Philip Jarmain's extraordinary large-format color photographs of the exteriors and interiors of decaying public buildings, now at the Meridian Gallery.

Jarmain, a Canadian photographer who lives in Vancouver and whose grandfather was a Detroit architect, made these pictures with a sense of urgency as the city's magnificent buildings were - and still are - being stripped by scavengers and demolished at an alarming pace. Starting in 2010, he spent three years documenting Detroit's early-20th-century architectural heritage that, at its pinnacle, was equal to that of New York and Chicago. A long way from its high-rolling Motor City days and a time when it was an industrial powerhouse home to wealthy residents and art patrons, Detroit's edifices are imperiled by the corrosive effects of neglect and economic disaster that have plagued a city which, according to the New York Times, is currently running a deficit of a million dollars a day.

"When I visited Detroit in 2010, it was in such an exponential decline it was terrifying," recalls Jarmain, who raced against the clock to archive buildings before they disappeared. "Iconic pre-Depression structures were being scrapped, demolished or burned at an unprecedented rate. I recognized it was going to be a scramble to document the best structures as quickly as I could."

Once known as the Paris of the Midwest, Detroit was a melting pot of architectural styles - Gothic, Classical, Greek Revival, Mediterranean Revival - and a magnet for top-drawer architects including the prolific Albert Kahn. The title of the exhibition is derived from Kahn's American Beauty Iron Works, a factory built in 1908; it was demolished in 2012, before Jarmain could shoot it, and all that's left is a gravel parking lot. Kahn also designed the Fisher Building (as in Body by Fisher), an Art Deco wonder; and Belle Isle Aquarium (1904), the oldest aquarium in North America, whose ceilings and floors are tiled in an emerald hue one would expect to find in Oz. The way Jarmain has shot its electrifying green interior, it feels as though the entire structure is submerged underwater. The hand-made tiles, ubiquitous in Detroit's iconic buildings, came from the Pewabic Pottery Company. Founded in 1903, it's one of the few surviving craftsmen businesses that flourished in the area

What energized Jarmain about Detroit, he says, was the relationship of its architecture to a wild entrepreneurial frontier. "The people who built this economy in the early 1900s were inventors, craftsmen and innovators. These weren't bankers and moneymen. These were people who got their hands dirty - inventors and machinists like Edison and Ford. At some point, things went horribly sideways, and in my opinion it was a loss of appreciation for this innovation and craftsmanship that destroyed the city."

Jarmain, whose personal practice focuses on architectural photography, used "deadly sharp" wide-angle lenses and a high-resolution Phase One digital back on a compact Cambo Technical Camera that allowed him to correct perspective in-camera and produce spectacular color prints that achieve remarkable depth. Structural and decorative details are astoundingly clear, so vivid and crisply defined they appear to be only inches away, like the exposed-brick walls and archways and corroded pipes visible in a pair of images depicting the bowels of the formerly luxurious Book Cadillac Hotel. Built in 1924 and designed by Louis Kamper, the 31-story, 1,100-room skyscraper was vacant for 20 years. During that time its basement remained flooded, leaving behind a rusty ochre color that makes the dungeon-like space and ruined boiler rooms look like a movie set for a dystopian thriller.

Though most of the architecture of the early 1900s was European, some of the most impressive structures were Art Deco with seemingly incongruent Native American and Central American iconography, like what's on display, a little worse for wear, in the Vanity Ballroom (1929). The vast space is a scene of faded glamour where torn red streamers hang from a soaring, hand-painted ceiling with blue Aztec motifs, floors are trashed and the word "murder" is etched into a back wall.

The immense size of the 18 prints here (most are 4x6 feet or 5x7 feet) is essential to their emotional impact and, in a poetic sense, matches the dreams and enterprise of the builders and architects who, animated by ambition, erected these edifices. It's as if the debris-strewn ruins, like the Egyptian Pyramids, the Parthenon and other monuments to human industry and imagination, are alive with tales to tell.

"It is an insanely emotional story of success, creativity, culture, racism, corruption, murder, arson and poverty," Jarmain says. "Each of these buildings tells a piece of that story." But even if this project weren't an inherently moving testament to a vanishing city that flew too close to the sun, Jarmain's photographs, with their commanding artistry and power, would stand on their own.

Through Oct. 20 at Meridian Gallery, SF. Go to www.meridiangallery.org