Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review


Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review


Article excerpt

Vivas to those who have failed . . . -Walt Whitman

1: An Introductory Digression

I want to start today with a rhetorical device beloved by writers: a digression. This may be an odd strategy for the opening of a talk, since I have not yet stated my central theme; therefore, I haven't earned the right to a digression. Still, my presentation begins, not with writing, but with the architecture of the University of Michigan's Rackham Building, in whose auditorium you are sitting now. As it happens, as a long-time former resident of Ann Arbor, I am greatly honored to have been invited here to address you at this anniversary celebration. For about thirty years, from 1974 until the spring of 2003, I myself faithfully attended almost every Hopwood Award ceremony in this very room and heard almost every speaker introduced in the 1970s by John W. Aldridge, and then later by my friend Nicholas Delbanco, and also, on two occasions, by me, and then as I sank into one of those curiously plush upholstered seats, I would glance upward at the Art Deco gold-leaf patterns on the ceiling. Staring up there at the night-blue paint or at the fluted columns on either side of the stage, my mind sometimes wandered to the subject of this building's style, and the implications of that style. Please don't think I was bored. I was never bored. Never. My mind just wandered, that's all.

This building's construction was funded during some of the worst years of America's Great Depression. Its architect, a Detroiter named William Kapp, had been a student of Albert Kahn, the great German-born designer of Angell Hall and the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, among many other structures on this campus and elsewhere in the state of Michigan. One distinctive feature of this particular style is its decorative detailing, like that night-sky ceiling above your heads, or the recessed lighting in this room, considered quite an innovation at the time. William Kapp was aided in his efforts by an architectural sculptor with the rather wonderful name of Corrado Parducci. After my speech, when you all head upstairs for the reception and the chips and salsa, you will notice that the chandeliers in front of the elevators-the slowest elevators in the state of Michigan, by the way-have the patterns of the zodiac on them. The chandeliers look like gilded artifacts you might find in Radio City Music Hall. Standing out there, waiting for the elevators, you might think: What are these remnants of astrology doing on the chandeliers in an academic building at the University of Michigan?

As it happens, zodiac patterns are a common feature of Art Deco, a design movement that comes to us as an oddball combination of other artistic endeavors including Cubism, Futurism, pre-Columbian art, and Constructivism. But Art Deco's most notable feature is its quaint dynamism and its campy decorative ideas. Art Deco was characterized by geometric shapes, gilded nudity, and streamlined forms. It featured a look of vulgarized elegance that was associated with optimism. When you look at those chandeliers in the foyer, as you wait to get upstairs, you see a visual pledge signaling belief in the future, a sign of faith symbolized by the twelve sky signs and paid for by the taxpayers of Michigan. Despite the Great Depression, those people believed in the future. Those Wolverines were all good Futurists. Corrado Parducci saw to that.

Year after year I watched the winners of the Hopwood Awards walk, stroll, run, or leap up the rickety stairs on either side of this stage. I have seen winners in four-inch spike heels, tennis shoes, sandals, and wingtips, and winners who came up to this stage barefoot. Sometimes, hours before the ceremony, students would ask me for fashion tips; most of the time, however, they knew better than to do that. Often the winners would bring along a claque whose members would shout and applaud and whistle and stomp on behalf of their friends. You would see flash cameras going off. …

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