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.
“Sir, you can’t take any photographs.”
“Not even outside?”
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?
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.
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.
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.