America’s cities used to breathe, to stretch and grow and to ascend the heavens. Imagine, if you will, the chug of the locomotive, the horn of the great steamer – the hot haze of the sewers, the swinging cranes – the honk of the Model T, the puff of the smokers and smokestacks. It lived, it loved, it laughed, and it didn’t care.
And then it died. We can repurpose the carcass, but we can never reanimate its corpse.
A moment of silence, please.
The new American city, you see, is stationary, prefabricated with assembly line efficiency. It enters the world stillborn, decaying from the start. Today’s trendy font on a mall sign is tomorrow’s reminder of our perpetual tackiness. The people, the buildings – all have become interchangeable parts in a sea of bland conformity. What little we save from the past we turn into theme park-like configurations – the rest, so much dust.
The “edge city”, as Joel Garreau defined it, is the ultimate manifestation of such strange dreams for the future. For in the edge city, glass office towers gleam and malls glow without distraction, the once hectic realities of urban life skillfully planned away. Here, downtown is far away and forgotten. Cars travel at an average of 60 MPH; parking spaces abound like spring tulips in Holland; audiences are held captive from sunup to lights out.
You could almost say it’s… it’s… it’s paradise. Think Tysons Corner, Virginia or Redmond, Washington.
What was perhaps the world’s first edge city was – believe it or not – built in Detroit along East Grand Boulevard, about 3 miles north of downtown. The brain child of General Motors founder Kevin Durant, the Fisher brothers Fred and Charles, and the legendary Henry Ford, Detroit’s “New Center” was strategically located on what was then the outskirts of the city. There, land was still relatively cheap, and from about 1919 to 1930 large plots were turned over by some of the city’s most illustrious automotive magnates to industrial architect Albert Kahn – famous for the revolutionary factories he’d designed for Ford Motor Company – so he could work his inimitable magic.
Kahn, eager to put his stamp on yet another facet of life in the Motor City, wasted little time. He razed 48 buildings – an entire city block – to make room for the General Motors Building (now Cadillac Place), an imposing neoclassical structure that essentially welded four high-rises to a modern Roman temple dedicated to the laboratories of GM. Meanwhile, across the street, he built the Fisher Building, a limestone art deco beast exploding with marble and granite touches. The first floor served as an indoor shopping mall – complete with a theatre – and a large radio antenna affixed atop “the Golden Tower of the Fisher Building” sent the personalities on beloved local AM radio station WJR out over the airwaves.
Scraps and leftover designs from the Fisher Building were reused in the construction of the New Center Building (now the Albert Kahn Building) just about quarter of a block up on 2nd Avenue, as apparently the Fisher Building’s roughly 500,000 square feet were insufficient. And is if that alone wasn’t enough, Kahn also designed the Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing and Hygiene, The Argonaut (now the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education), and numerous apartments in New Center. The man was by all accounts possessed, speaking little and working constantly. About the only major project in New Center he didn’t have a hand in at the time was the expansion of Henry Ford Hospital. For some reason that job was handed over to one of Ford’s in-house architects, Albert Wood, and the result resembled a resort more than it did hospital – it’s hard to have imagined a better place to recuperate.
Thanks to such epic efforts, the once quiet neighborhood along Grand Boulevard became a major commercial and healthcare hub, a new badge for the Motor City. Ample parking only added to its convenience and modernity – Kahn designed an 11-story parking garage with an innovative double helix ramp for the Fisher building, and large surface lots abutted main roads. It was truly a New Center for a new age, where one could enjoy fabulous wealth in relative peace.
Of course, by today’s standards, New Center was pretty urban, and the architectural work is outstanding. But it was the beginning of something new, something peculiar, and America would never be the same again. The automotive revolution was at hand. Exuberant, we tore up the landscape, demanding bigger and better at every turn. Little did we know where the road ended, in an empty parking lot in the new American city.