Disconnect – Southfield Town Center, Michigan

Geometric; perfect. I watch the gold windows reflect off the sloping hill in a checkerboard pattern and I’m speechless. 395 feet of office space, a modern spectacle from I-696. The kings of the universe rent out the building, famous companies like Fifth Third Bank, Microsoft, and Time Warner.

ImageI walk awkwardly through the sea of parking lots to take a picture, the low hum of the John C. Lodge Freeway and the dull chatter of a few tired workers my only companion.

“Sir, you can’t take any photographs.”

“Not even outside?”

“No.”

They’d already told me I couldn’t take any pictures inside 1000 Town Center after my flash went off in the garden atrium, a sort of Space Age greenhouse with artificial waterfalls, carefully manicured plants, and a jarring monochromatic color scheme. Now, apparently, I couldn’t take any pictures outside, either.

I was aggravated, but I didn’t bother to ask why. The security guards weren’t exactly friendly and gregarious, and in this day and age of Homeland Security, I didn’t feel like being confrontational. So I left, but with questions.

Why build a complex of expensive skyscrapers just to tout how quick it is to get everywhere else on the freeway? Why create environments so intolerant of human beings, so out of scale and proportion? And why, for God’s sake, do you compromise the design an apartment complex so that it’ll look like a piano from outer space?

Why, man… why?

southfield1

I guess you’d have to ask Solomon Cordwell Buenz & Associates, Neuhaus & Taylor, or Sikes Jennings Kelly & Brewer, the many designers of Southfield Town Center, built over the course of the late ’70s and ’80s. The visible X-bracing, curved corners, and gold glass of the five interconnected skyscrapers all presumably have a deeper meaning and purpose, some abstract combination of function and form that a textbook might label modern architecture. I sure as hell don’t get it.

southfield2Somehow, I doubt the broader public does either.

There’s a reason complexes like the Southfield Town Center utterly fail as town centers, why clock towers (for instance) have become the ubiquitous hallmark of cold, calculated suburban design. As a society, we’ve outgrown the natural world and tried and true dimensions of village life in many ways. Or, at least, temporarily, and it’s an uncomfortable fact, a constant source of subconscious unease that we try  mitigate with quaint notions we no longer even understand.

southfield3It never works.

Modern architecture reflects that tension. Victims of our own design, we build out and anew with fury using the latest principles of design, but are never satisfied for long with our creations. We endlessly chase our own tail, Plato’s ideals, reaching for what we can’t touch. Yet somehow, a perfect, natural order always eludes our mathematically precise plans. We consume and consume in our quixotic quest, disconnected from the environmental costs, unsure of ourselves, what’s natural.

Across the street in a parking lot, in the muggy July haze, the Southfield Town Center almost looks like a desert mirage. And as quickly, I could see it vanishing.

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3 thoughts on “Disconnect – Southfield Town Center, Michigan

  1. The real question is – where will they build next? This complex will inevitably becomes outdated and mostly vacant. If the historic buildings and neighborhoods in our major cities, such as Flint and Detroit, aren’t worth saving, then this too will surely be discarded in due time and become nothing more than a cheap, dilapidated eyesore off the freeway. Maybe you can get a few pics then.

  2. It is a shame. I’ve noticed that in many other Midwest cities, the sorts of skyscrapers you see in Southfield were put in the traditional downtown, sort of remaking the old city center into a more “modern” area.

    So I guess what’s happened here was both a blessing and a curse. A curse because, in a sense, Southfield picked businesses off of Detroit like a vulture. But also a blessing because it spared many historic Detroit skyscrapers from the wrecking ball – for a time, anyway.

  3. Eh, I lean more heavily toward the “curse” side of things. Historic buildings that are beyond repair and/or condemned do nothing for me. Historic buildings are great if they’re a part of the present, but if not, I’d rather see the them demolished, even if they do have beautiful architecture. A lot of people feel differently, though.

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