It Takes One: Marc Coir

I grew up in Detroit in the 1950s, when automobile factories churned out gas-guzzlers three shifts a day, city coffers were flush with cash, and bustling crowds thronged the downtown streets. The region offered a range of cultural and recreational attractions, including several major museums, parks (among them Frederick Law Olmsted’s Belle Isle Park, beautifully set off by the sparkling blue waters of the Detroit River), universities, and amusement parks. Day excursions to Canada were a regular part of my upbringing. I felt proud then to be a Detroiter, and I still do now, though, like many of us in the region, my feelings for my hometown are tempered by the painful realization that Detroit continues to struggle economically.

After a downturn forced me from a regular job in 1982, I formed a consulting firm. One of my clients was Cranbrook, which hired me in 1983 to oversee the development of its archival operations. I initially had no intention to remain for any appreciable length of time, but the power of the place quickly captured my imagination, and I could plainly see that the cultural legacy of Cranbrook was greater than I had at first realized. These reasons, coupled with the fact that I was also called to curate thousands of works of art and interpret Cranbrook to visitors, the media, and scholarly audiences, made my decision to stay an easy one. I therefore accepted what I considered to be one of the best jobs imaginable—a position largely of my own shaping to oversee the stewardship of troves of significant archival materials, works of art, rare books, furnishings, etc. relating to the cultural legacy and aesthetic heritage of America’s most thoroughly designed campus. Twenty-five years have since come and gone, and I still feel as impassioned about my job as I did when I first began. Moreover, I am also thrilled to speak to the glories of Cranbrook—a Detroit institution!

How would you define a cultural landscape?

A cultural landscape is a designed landscape, involving the purposeful reshaping of natural areas through human intervention over time. Quite often, plant material within cultural landscapes are blended with hardscape features—like walls, roads, pathways, fountains, bridges, and other architectural and structural constructions—to render the plan more utilitarian or aesthetically pleasing. The entire scheme is a record of human intent with regard to a parcel of land.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

I arrived on campus at the moment the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts opened “Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision 1925-50,” an exhibition highlighting the influence of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in its first decades of service. The show focused on the remarkable legacies of many stellar Academy artists, including Eliel, Loja, Eero, and Pipsan Saarinen; Carl Milles; Charles and Ray Eames; Florence Knoll; Harry Bertoia; Marianne Strengell; Jack Lenor Larson; and Edmund Bacon, among others. But it also reawakened critics to the masterful architectural character of Cranbrook, which, as many attested, was unique for the degree to which art, architecture, design, and craftsmanship was aesthetically integrated throughout its entire 330-acre campus.

All of this may have been true enough, but what astonished me is that no one paid heed to the cultural landscapes of Cranbrook. As new as I was, I could plainly see that these were created simultaneously with the built environment and that they entailed major alterations to the land, such as the sculpting of hillsides, the creation of lakes, the shifting of large amounts of earth to create terraces and parking lots, and the wholesale relocation of stream and river beds—not to mention years of intensive planting. Anyone could plainly see that they were among Cranbrook’s most striking visual assets. It bothered me that scholars overlooked them and that little was being done to preserve and maintain their appearance. Through lectures, writings, and board presentations, I began to alert Cranbrook officials to the significance of the cultural landscapes of Cranbrook. My salient message was that Cranbrook’s founder, George Gough Booth, whose personal vision gave shape to all that was created on campus, valued the landscapes of Cranbrook as highly as he did the architecture.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

My appreciation of Cranbrook’s landscapes deepened as I learned more about their development through readings in the archives, discussions with elderly Cranbrook retirees who had assisted in the initial plantings, and my work with a handful of landscape historians who were intrigued by Cranbrook’s natural environment. The most notable of them was Dr. Diana Balmori, the eminent landscape architect, who had come to know Cranbrook well while living in the area in the 1950s and long pondered why its landscapes were not better known. Assisted by me and others and working from materials in the Cranbrook Archives, she published an article in the March 1994 issue of theJournal of the Society of Architectural Historians, aptly entitled “Cranbrook: The Invisible Landscape.” Diana’s groundbreaking study was the first to document and analyze the many landscaping projects carried out during George Booth’s lifetime – work that engaged a number of designers, including H. J. Corfield, O. C. Simonds, Olmsted Brothers, C. Deforest Platt, Eliel Saarinen, Loja Saarinen, and, of course, George Booth, who was involved in all aspects of Cranbrook’s physical development. In doing so, Diana was the first to call attention to the enormous amount of thought and funding given over to the development of Cranbrook’s cultural landscapes, which she acknowledged to be among the most significant in America.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

Diana’s article – and the weight of her reputation, I might add – helped me enormously as I argued in favor of conducting further research to determine how our landscapes had changed over the years and to outline steps that Cranbrook should be doing to better manage these critical campus resources. The Getty Foundation responded to our appeal for support of this effort with a generous Campus Heritage Program grant that allowed us to retain Sasaki Associates, Inc., the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s own Charles Birnbaum. Their detailed findings and recommendations, published in 2005 as theCranbrook Cultural Landscape Report, serves today as an institutional blueprint for future landscape rehabilitation and restoration efforts on campus. I am very happy to report that the recommendations of the CLR are being closely followed, the clearest indication yet of how far Cranbrook has come in recognizing the value of its landscapes and its responsibilities toward them.

The increasing scholarly focus on Cranbrook’s landscapes has resulted in heightened public awareness of their worth, a fact that was validated in 2006 when the Cultural Landscape Foundation hosted a symposium at Cranbrook that concentrated on the theme of “Patronage & Landscape.” I must say it felt great knowing that Cranbrook’s landscapes were finally receiving the respect that they deserve.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

I can think of no better message to convey than the credo that led George Gough Booth to give away his entire life’s fortune in building Cranbrook: “The only way to have is to give, the only way to keep is to share, and the only thing worth finding is opportunity.”