Lost in the towers.

Well, I was right. The weather was hot and muggy and partly cloudy all day, and then, late afternoon, a deluge. This drove the film-festival launch party indoors, to the ground floor of the Renaissance Center. That place belongs in an architectural case study book somewhere, in several chapters, including “And Then Came the ’70s: What Were We Thinking?” and, of course, “How Not to Do It.”

Built in the mid-’70s, the RenCen has its own complicated history, perhaps best summed up in its name, an ironic joke worthy of Orwell’s Ministry of Love. It was intended to reassure the white people leaving the city in their rearview mirrors (although I’m not sure, precisely, how that would work) that the city was done with the unpleasantness of the riots and was on its way back, yeah baby. Obviously it didn’t work, but the city got its signature building out of it — a five-tower “rosette” with a central silo reaching 73 stories and the surrounding ones, 39 stories, all wrapped in the black glass that was not only ’70s standard but also a trademark of its architect, John Portman. (Its familiarity was always an itch I couldn’t scratch, until a little research showed Portman was the man who designed the Peachtree Center in Atlanta. Atlanta’s downtown was an early-adult formative experience for me.)

Inside is the nightmare. I walked in from the parking garage and stood there a minute, trying to get oriented. A security guard sitting at a station nearby didn’t even look up from his desk when he drawled, “Lemme guess. You’re lost.” Everybody gets lost in the RenCen. All those towers! All those levels! Curse you, John Portman and your stupid ideas about atria. Everything is round, every walkway seems to lead to another roundabout, and all the walls are some sort of beige concrete. I tried to listen for the music of the party, but the acoustics are awful. I knew where I was going, but I still needed directions. These were the directions: Go straight, follow the walkway around to your right. Look for the escalator. Take it down one level, make another right and you’re there. And I still nearly missed the escalator.

It’s not a terrible place, though. There’s the GM Wintergarden, a vast interior public space with a window wall overlooking the river. Alan likes to take the People Mover over on his lunch hour and eat a Potbelly’s sub while watching the freighters go by. Tellingly, this was a 1999 add-on to the building, after GM bought it. Trust Michiganders to know how much you need the sun in January.

And, I’m pleased to report, you can get good cell service inside, which is good because you need it: “OK, you’re passing Starbucks? I’m right across from Starbucks. Stop. No, stop. Stop walking. Turn to your right. Look up. Not that far. Lower. OK, I’m waving. See me wave? Great. No, I don’t know how to get here from there. Maybe we’d better hold the meeting over the phone.”

The storm was great, and the clearing after the storm was greater, the sun breaking through to light the casino on the Canadian side, bright against the fleeing bank of black clouds. There’s nothing that says, “yes, the storm will pass” like CAESAR’S in red neon, is there?

One final note: I interviewed a man a couple years ago, a sailor. On the wall of his office is a great photo of a boat sailing down the Detroit River, past the half-completed RenCen. It was him, and his boat. He had no idea who’d taken the picture. He’d just found it at a garage sale. What are the odds.

Some bloggage:

Geoffrey Feiger’s co-defendant’s lawyer suggests thanks for his client’s recent acquittal goes right up to the top:

In his initial meeting with 39 mock jurors chosen to represent a typical southeast Michigan jury pool, the judge hired to conduct the simulated trials asked how many trusted their government to tell the truth. Just four of 39 raised their hands.

“In my father’s day,” Fishman told me, “there would have been 38 hands up, with maybe one holdout who’d just gotten out of prison.”

Roy, on a roll, riffs on a Peggy Noonan column about the need to let the gray stallion run, by letting him insult people. Worth a try — he already sort of reminds me of Don Rickles.

Happy Friday. Happy weekend. Happy everything. It’s a lovely day.

Posted at 10:14 am in Uncategorized |

38 responses to “Lost in the towers.”

  1. Connie said on June 27, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Looked at the wiki link, ended up reading about Portman, where I learned he designed the worst fine hotel in which I have ever stayed, the Peachtree Westin in Atlanta. 73 floors of hotel rooms and only 4 elevators plus the exterior glass one. We took to taking the glass elevator on its express trip to 73rd and down to 66 from there. Going down in the morning was impossible without going up to the top floor first. Elevator lines in the lobby during my entire stay. Not recommended.

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  2. coozledad said on June 27, 2008 at 10:35 am

    I’m going to steal a joke from Kingsley Amis here: a good candidate for one of the shortest books ever would be “Self Effacement in Contemporary Public Architecture”.
    Portman’s work appears to be influenced a great deal by disposable razors. Maybe he moonlights designing those, too.

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  3. Danny said on June 27, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Yeah, I’ve stayed at the RenCen for a few business/professional organization meetings. Quite a monstrosity, but I was not aware of its history or its intended appeal to 70’s WASP’s.

    The rotating restaurant is cool, for about a minute. I’m not great with heights, so I kinda white-knuckled the glass elevator ride, maintaining my grip by looking at Windsor and thinking of all the great Canadian bands I’ve liked in my life. Rush is the best, IMO.

    Well it’s Friday and I’ve had a week full of 12-hour Monday’s, so I’m home today. I’ll probably try to loosen my cubicle-hunched shoulders and office-cramped legs with a bike ride or a swim or both.

    Maybe pop in later.

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  4. Connie said on June 27, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Pool’s open at my house Danny, and up to 78 degrees. When can I expect you?

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  5. michaela said on June 27, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Another RenCen visitor here… stayed there for a conference of biz journalism types a couple years back (talk about a group that likes to toss back a few). I pride myself on my sense of direction, but that place made me discombobulated even before the drinking began. It’s one of the few times I’ve had a nice hotel room on someone else’s dime, though, so for that I’ll remember it fondly.

    Danny: I am ever so jealous of your schedule for today. My concession to summer was that I finally got the petunias off my driveway and into the windowboxes before settling in to work for the man this morning… Definitely doesn’t help that my husband – just finished his first year as a high-school teacher – is happily pruning in the yard. Yeah, he deserves the time off… but so do I, dammit!

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  6. nancy said on June 27, 2008 at 10:58 am

    I think the restaurant no longer revolves (and now that I’m thinking about it, the one atop the Peachtree Center also rotated. Best name for a revolving restaurant, via “The Simpsons” — Sit and Rotate.). One of the sterling images of “Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit,” a great book, was of suburbanites booking tables for D-Night, so they could look out over the city where many of them were raised, watching it burn.

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  7. Jolene said on June 27, 2008 at 10:58 am

    That Peggy Noonan column is really something. She has given evidence of sanity in some of her recent columns, but it looks like that was a temporary condition.

    I am so ready for the election to be over. Let’s just put Obama in the White House and let him start fixing things. An undemocratic stance, I know, but greatly preferable, in my view, to several more months of accusations of flip-flopping and other misdeeds. I’m willing to concede that, yes, President O won’t be perfect, but he’ll be better than the guy we have now and better than his opponent, so we might as well just move ahead, before GWB invades Iran and gives BHO something else to fix.

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  8. Danny said on June 27, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Thanks, Connie. 🙂 Will peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches be served afterwards? The perfect post-swim meal. Just ask Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz.

    Michaela, yeah, sometimes at coffee we wistfully discuss those who get summers off. If you work at Intel, you get a 2- or 3-month sabbatical every 8 or 10 years. Man, what I would give for a summer off like we used to have when we were school-aged. I swear I would not waste it.

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  9. Danny said on June 27, 2008 at 11:26 am

    One more thing before I’m off for a while. I’ve been meaning to share this picture of the Microsoft founders, now and then. Slashdot linked to the story last weekend. There were some funny comments.

    One person said, “Thanks for the photo. When they invent time travel I will need it to go back and prevent Windows from happening.”

    Another asked which guy got the sex change. For the record, one guy died and the extra woman in the current-day photo was their office manager who missed the original photo shoot because of a flight delay from a snow storm.

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  10. Connie said on June 27, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Sure Danny, but jelly inventory is limited to strawberry and apple. And there’s no white bread. As a kid my home jelly inventory was limited to concord grape, and I still cannot conceive of any pb and j using any other type.

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  11. Jolene said on June 27, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Nice photos, Danny. Was the article you saw about Bill Gates’s departure from day-to-day work at Microsoft? I saw something on MSNBC this AM saying that today is the day he shifts emphasis to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They’re showing an interview w/ Gates conducted by Tom Brokaw later today.

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  12. coozledad said on June 27, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Jolene: My wife and I will be heading into town with the Obama campaign tomorrow to register voters at Wal-Mart. We’ve already offered to drive the sick, the elderly, or the walking dead to the polls. I’m not even a big Obama freak. If they can get my lazy ass out there (especially at the damned Wal-Mart), they’ve really achieved something.

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  13. Danny said on June 27, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Yes, Jolene. It was an article about his leaving.

    You know, they should just get George Castanza to run the Foundation. I thought he did a wonderful job with Susan’s Foundation!

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  14. crinoidgirl said on June 27, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    If you think the RenCen looks foreboding now, you should have seen it in the olden days when it was surrounded with a huge berm.

    The joke was that was meant to keep the rioting black folks from attacking the place.

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  15. Halloween Jack said on June 27, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Another factoid bites the dust: I thought that Robocop was shot in part at the RenCen. Turns out it was Dallas. Hm.

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  16. john c said on June 27, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    A few years back I was covering the Motor City Bowl and had to pick up credentials at the RenCen the day before. Walking from the parking garage, as Nancy did, it took me at least a half an hour to find a very prominent conference room off the Marriott hotel lobby – a room that would have taken less than a minute to find in any other building. Nancy’s right. The Wintergaden is great. And the views from the top are fine. Bu the circular maze at the bottom – horrible.

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  17. moe99 said on June 27, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    An improbable love story:

    w/ photo:


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  18. coozledad said on June 27, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Moe99: My sheep will stand around nuzzling the cats for several minutes, with their eyes half closed. The cats reciprocate, until the sheep weary of the attention and butt them away.
    We have a year old ewe (Lizzie Oats) who was rejected by her mother, and we bottlefed her until Lizzie finally figured out she was a sheep. For a long time she slept on the front porch with the dogs. It was a chore to keep her from trying to eat with the dogs as well. We were beginning to be afraid she’d develop scrapie from the meat by-products.
    She still visits us some evenings when we’re on the front porch having our bah-bahs of wine or beer. She seems to enjoy making you wear them.

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  19. nancy said on June 27, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    When I despair that peak oil will drive us all back to the 19th century, with steam-powered iPods and no symphony orchestra to speak of, I will hold you as a role model, C’dad. You make life on a small farm sound so charming. I’m sure my daughter will love whittlin’ her own toys out of down tree limbs.

    BTW, I liked Jon Katz better when he was a cranky media columnist, not some back-to-the-lander. What happened to him?

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  20. joodyb said on June 27, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    i think you answered your own question, nancy.

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  21. Dexter said on June 27, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Too bad thje RenCen wasn’t around in the 20s and 30s so the tax agents could have had a perch to watch the Purple Gang running booze in , on skiffs from Windsor.
    Here’s the story

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  22. coozledad said on June 27, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    Nancy: There’s always board games to play and whittle pieces for. There’s an old book that covers a bunch of them published by Dover: “Board and Table Games From Many Civilizations” by R.C. Bell. When the devil takes my internet away I’ll be consulting this book often. Or simply drinking. I hope there’ll be a few symphony orchestras around. Chamber orchestras at the very least.

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  23. Danny said on June 27, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    Speaking of whittling, I’m not sure, but I may be one of the few here who had to cut their own switch for a whipping. Never my favorite wood-working craft.

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  24. beb said on June 27, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    I think there’s another Portman skyscrape in LA that looks just like the RenCen. Portman, I gather, was proud of the confusion of the RenCen’s atrium, because it offered so many nooks of discovery, forgetting that stores trying to be a living there need people to be able to find them. Removing the berms makes the RenCen seem more of a part of Detroit but the only way to fix the interior of the RenCen would be to gut the entire Atrium and start from scratch.

    There is no doubt in my mind that W’s lawless behavior during his term has done more to undermine faith in our government than all other Presidient’s combined.

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  25. Danny said on June 27, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Oh, boo friggin’ hoo.

    Man, I really hope Obama wins. Otherwise most of you are in danger of electrocution from tears that will soak your keyboards.

    Big babies. Geesh!

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  26. Catherine said on June 27, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    beb, I think you mean the Bonaventure? Interesting in a sculptural sense from the outside… and impossible to navigate and nasty on the inside. BEA was held at the LA Convention Center a few years ago and several people I know refused to come back this year specifically because of that hotel. At least monstrosities like that made way for us to appreciate Louis Kahn.

    There was an amusing sitcom set in the Bonaventure’s restaurant many years ago… with Rene Auberjonois and ??? Didn’t quite redeem the architecture, though.

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  27. Pam said on June 27, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    The RenCen wasn’t very old when I had to do a trade show there for my company (early ’80s). The place made a great first impression on me when a COCKROACH ran through my breakfast plate! (You know how I am about bugs.) The waiter came over after I screeched (just a small screech) and when I told him what had happened, he just shrugged his shoulders, said Oh, and walked away. Like it happens all the time, what with all the water around. Grabbed a coffee and left.

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  28. basset said on June 27, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I remember walking out of the RenCen one summer weeknight in, I don’t know, ’93 or ’94, taking about three steps, and seeing a huge rat run across the walkway. it was one of those special moments.

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  29. Deborah said on June 27, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Where do I begin?

    I work for an architecture firm as a graphic designer and my husband is an architect with his own practice here in Chicago. John Portman has been a puzzle to us for years, very spotty work. A few really good things a lot of bad.

    I think Portman did the O’Hare Hyatt back in the late 70s. I was there a few months ago and what a dog it is. Brutal concrete and human scaleless misery. Shame on him. But I remember when it was in all the architecture magazines as the best thing since sliced bread.

    Catherine REgarding Louis Kahn, our favorite architect of all time. Have you ever seen the Kimball in Fort Worth? or the Salk Institute in San Diego? Fabulous. The movie by his son, “My Architect”, is definily worth seeing.

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  30. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 27, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    Don’t want to sound like i’m venting at the end of a rough week in a bad month on a late night (all true), but while i’ve not been a Peg Noonan fan right along (check the blog archive here, among others), but are we talking about this:


    ‘Cuz i can’t see where she isn’t saying some pretty reasonable things and likely scenarios without calling the election for anyone, least of all McCain.

    To which i necessarily add, as many of us recall without looking it up:


    The lady has a point is what i’m saying. If saying Obama isn’t a sure-fire lock on the final ballot 4 months out is mean-spirited demagoguery, sorry to have sinned in that unexpected direction. Barack would win tomorrow, but i’m listening to what he says the next sixteen weeks.

    And i’ve already heard a *bunch* of DSA liberals say if Obama doesn’t support overturning the Heller decision, they don’t know why they bothered showing up for the primary vote and won’t cast a ballot in the general. It’s as if he’s gonna say next that we won’t have all troops out of Iraq by Christmas ’09.


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  31. Catherine said on June 28, 2008 at 12:32 am

    Deborah, I have made the pilgrimmage to the Salk Institute and the Yale museum that Louis Kahn did, and they were well worth the effort. Have not made it to Ft. Worth… try to avoid TX… ironically heading to San Antonio for work tomorrow. Meanwhile, I will definitely put that movie in my Netflix cue. Do you know of any other buildings worth the trip? I’ve always wanted to see that church in Rochester. Any other architects you like almost as much?

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  32. Terry WAlter said on June 28, 2008 at 4:29 am

    I think both candidates should post a top 10 list of things they want to apologize for. “If ANYBODY was offended that I breathed in air and emitted carbon dioxide, I’m sorry”. And any other inane tripe the professional victims & hatchet men want to hear. The Noonan method would sure be a lot more entertaining than the watered down Pablum we are being forced to suffer through.

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  33. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 28, 2008 at 7:50 am

    Catherine — in San Antonio, try to see the Spanish Missions, aka San Antonio Missions National Park, operated by the National Park Service: the Alamo was the most northern of them, but is now all about Texas patriotism. Mission Concepcion, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Espada, and Mission San Jose are all founded and originally built c. 1690-1720, and the buildings and grounds are impressive and evocative architecture. If you’re limited in time, hit Concepcion and San Juan — they’re embedded in modern neighborhoods, dotted along the river to the south (extending way south of San Antonio proper), and there are great neighborhood restaurants near the closest three (esp. San Juan).

    There are functioning parishes still using the insides, on an agreement with NPS to manage the grounds, exteriors, and interpretation, and you are welcome to wander inside other than Sunday morning and 8-9 am weekdays. Well worth some side tripping to fit in, even if you never saw the movie “The Mission,” and if you did, you just can’t miss seeing real deal, preserved as if out of an Amazonian mist.

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  34. Danny said on June 28, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Wow, the Salk Institute. Is that really considered a thing of beauty by a large community of architectural geeks? I would have never guessed.

    I graduated from UC San Diego, which is right across the street and shares a lot of the same architectural “ambiance” with said Institute, assuming dreary slabs of concrete are what get you going. For the life of me, I could not have found these structures more ugly and depressing. It was like someone looked at the beauty of the Pacific there in La Jolla and said, “What can we do to make this place look like a sterile slum.”

    The buildings kind of evoke the projects in Chicago to me. And I used to park at or near the Institute all the time because there was never enough parking on campus. I remember walking back from the cliffs at the hang-glider port, overlooking the ocean, and then seeing all of these concrete monstrosities and thinking it was all low-budget, utilitarian dystopia.

    Now you guys are telling me they really paid a lot and were going for this look. Hmmm.

    DISCLAIMER: I am not and architect and do not play one on TV.

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  35. moe99 said on June 29, 2008 at 12:56 am

    Here’s something fun for Sat night (it still is here in the Pacific daylight time zone). Make sure you stay for the finale. Unbelievable! China circus on the Russian bar:


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  36. Jolene said on June 29, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Was fun on Sunday afternoon too, moe. In 1985, I saw a troupe of Chinese acrobats, part of China’s earliest efforts to show off the talents of its performers. They were hysterical–excellent acrobats, but no showmanship. Poor-quality costumes and no sense of how to relate to the audience. Maybe we just had the third-string team, but, if not, they have obviously learned a lot.

    You might be interested in James Fallows’s observations about some of the not-ready-for-prime-time things China is doing in the lead-up to the Olympics. I can only imagine what it’s like to put together an event of that scope in any country, but the idea of a semi-dictatorial, economically marginal country preparing to welcome people from throughout the world and the international press is mind-boggling. Would be fascinating to have an inside view of the decision-making there. Anyone who had such a view would also have the makings of a great book.

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  37. Jolene said on June 29, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Speaking of interesting things happening in China, here (via Andrew Sullivan’s blog) is an article about what happens when millions of not-very-well-schooled speakers start speaking English.
    An excerpt:

    “Thanks to globalization, the Allied victories in World War II, and American leadership in science and technology, English has become so successful across the world that it’s escaping the boundaries of what we think it should be. In part, this is because there are fewer of us: By 2020, native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the estimated 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language. Already, most conversations in English are between nonnative speakers who use it as a lingua franca.”

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  38. Ricardo said on June 29, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    I used to go over to the Bonaventure in downtown LA about once a week when I worked in the area. It already has that second class look and smell and many of the shops are closed up. Maybe the smell was due to the indoor water feature. It has little balconies on the levels below the food court with exercise stations from the health club which look very odd.

    The RenCen was the last job my carpenter dad worked on before retirement. Built after I moved away, I just might visit when we arrive in August for the 40th year class reunion.

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