Eero Saarinen was scarcely 18 when his architect father, Eliel, tasked him with some detail work for a new educational campus under way in a suburb of Detroit. Saarinen the Elder, at the behest of client-founders George and Ellen Booth, was to head the Cranbrook Academy of Art when it opened 1932, and had moved his family to the site—320 wooded acres near Bloomfield Hills—to command the artisan team whose decorative handiwork makes the Cranbrook complex a treasure of 20th-century American design. Young Eero’s contributions were minor, but indicative: one, an ornate wrought-iron dragon on the gate of a private enclosure, seems to portend something of his own expressive masterworks, still some 30 years ahead of him.

“The character of the architecture here is timelessly beautiful,” says Reed Kroloff, the seventh to follow Saarinen Sr. as Cranbrook Academy director. Besides the occasional ornamental dragon, the Arts and Crafts–derived studios and schools of Cranbrook boast an array of eclectic columns and carvings that “does something that … [Eliel] Saarinen is very much a practitioner of: It says that history is not something to be avoided, but for God’s sake it’s not to be copied,” Kroloff says.

That credo, slightly modified, has been the watchword for the architects of the newest addition to the campus, an extension and renovation of Eliel Saarinen’s 1942 Cranbrook Art Museum. Modified, because now it’s the Saarinens who are the history, not the practitioners; and their legacy couldn’t be avoided; it had to be met head-on.

The museum is the last building that Saarinen designed on campus, and one of the most impressive. The structure is half of an austere, symmetrical composition mirrored by the academy library and centered on a monumental staircase and portico. Paul Urbanek, AIA,whose Detroit–based SmithGroup office oversaw the expansion, admits the challenge of working amidst so much history: “My first thought when getting asked to work on the project … [in 2008] was the awesome responsibility of putting a building next to Saarinen’s masterpiece.”

Daunting as it may have seemed, the new project was a necessary one, since history itself had caught up with Saarinen. Says Rick Nahm, president of the Cranbrook Educational Community (of which the academy and museum are core constituents), “I knew 10-and-a-half years ago that there was an issue with the exhibit space, with climate control, and with appropriate and proper storage.”

“It was like keeping art in your grandma’s basement,” Urbanek says: Sixty-five Michigan winters had taken their toll, and the building’s poor insulation and substandard ventilation meant that the 6,000-piece collection—a veritable cross section of modern art and design, from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Frank Stella—was at risk.

So was the institution’s standing with the American Association of Museums, which threatened to withhold accreditation unless steps were taken. With a 1999 master plan by Rafael Moneo, Hon. FAIA, in hand, the envelope for the 20,000-square-foot extension was already blocked out, and SmithGroup could focus on the complex interior scheme. Connecting old building and new via an underground corridor for staff and art, the architects relocated the mechanical plant for the museum and library into the new Collections Wing, freeing up space on the original lower floor for galleries and archives. Inside the addition, within a 45-foot-wide footprint, comparable to that of its conjoined twin, the architects wedged a massive program, including a loading dock, seminar space, and open storage that puts the complete collection on view for the perusal of Cranbrook’s interdisciplinary scholars.

Not to say that SmithGroup’s job was all technical. In a subtle contextual turn, the extension’s plain, windowless western façade sports clear-glazed brick paneling that not only complements Eliel’s work, but speaks to Eero’s as well: even as they were at work on Cranbrook, Urbanek explains, SmithGroup was designing a renovation for the General Motors Tech Center by Saarinen fils in nearby Warren, Mich. “The glazed brick at Tech was actually designed by ceramic artists from Cranbrook.” SmithGroup’s design brought it all full circle.

Project Credits

Project Cranbrook Art Museum Renovation and Collections Addition, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Client & Owner Cranbrook Educational Community and Cranbrook Academy of Art & Art Museum
Architect SmithGroup—Paul Urbanek, AIA (project designer); Kevin Shultis, AIA (project manager); Ryan Smith, AIA (project architect); Darin Daguanno, AIA, Terry Guitar, AIA, Frank Muehlenbein, Frank Weber, AIA, Mark Goyette, Ben Motyl, Tom O’Connor, FAIA, Jared Lawrence, AIA, Andrew Dunlap, AIA, Meredith Steckling, AIA, Jerry Carter (design team)
Interior Designer SmithGroup
Mechanical Engineer SmithGroup—Brian Noonan, Curt Songer
Structural Engineer SmithGroup—Andrea Reynolds, Michael Skalsky
Electrical Engineer SmithGroup—Lokman Abbas
Civil Engineer Spalding deDecker Consulting Engineers
Construction Manager Frank Rewold & Sons
Landscape Architect SmithGroup
Lighting Designer SmithGroup—Jeff Gerwing, Matt Alleman
Size 37,000 square feet (Collections Wing); 60,000 square feet (museum renovation)
Cost $22 million

Materials and Sources

Glass and Windows Edwards Glass Co.
Bumler Mechanical
Bega; Lighting Services Inc.; Philips Color Kinetics
Van Dam Iron Works; Ross Structural Steel
Grand Blanc Cement Products