Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Make the Future Redeem the Past

Written by: Christopher Johnson

What have you been waiting for?

Perhaps America's most iconic example of “ruin porn,” Detroit's long-abandoned train station, Michigan Central, will be renovated by the Ford Motor Company to serve as a hub for its mobility lab for autonomous vehicle technology. Designed by the same firms (Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem) responsible for New York's magnificent Grand Central Station, Michigan Central Station opened in 1914 but closed in 1988 with the departure of the last Amtrak train. Largely abandoned since, numerous redevelopment schemes were proposed for the building before Ford's announcement in 2018.

Together, then, with the ruined Detroit Public Schools Book Warehouse designed by the celebrated Albert Kahn – where hundreds of thousands of never-used children’s books moldered for years – the 18-story Michigan Central Station, which long served as Detroit's principal link in a railway network connecting it to points east and north, will become a new kind of node linking the past, present, and future. Lying within the multi-ethnic, post-industrial community of Corktown, the site is planned to hold up to 5,000 workers by 2022. Expectations are high. A June 2018 article in the Detroit Free Press quotes Ford CEO Jim Hackett: “What Rouge [the iconic Dearborn factory] was to Ford in the industrial age, Corktown will be for Ford in the Information age… Think of this as a knowledge cathedral where new ideas are birthed.” Detroit, Ford boasts, will be the “mobility capital of the world.” To accomplish this utopian plan – an uncanny echo of Marino Auriti’s never-realized plans for the “Encyclopedic Palace of the World,” which later served as the centerpiece of the 2013 Venice Biennale – Ford intends to spend some $740 million to transform the station, warehouse, and surrounding area into commercial, residential, and public spaces.

Of course, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. My anticipation, then, involves the ways this project will redesign the past as well as envision the future. A site first designed for trains, then made superfluous by Detroit's automobiles, and now resurrected by the desire to reimagine the automobile and, hopefully, to support a community and a greener economy – it could tell a powerfully recursive story.

As for the Beaux-Arts building itself, it originally featured two distinct sections: the train station and the 18-story office tower (which was never fully occupied). While the tower emulated other modernist designs, the architecture of the stations was enthusiastically anachronistic and eclectic. With marble walls and vaulted ceilings, the main waiting room was modeled after an ancient Roman bathhouse; the hall housing the ticket office featured massive Doric columns; and the three prodigious windows above the main entrances emulated gothic designs. Fortunately, Ford plans to keep all these features, even as it reimagines the main waiting room as a public space fit for twenty-first century functions.

Writing as a literary and cultural historian, I would hope, then, that one of these functions will be to enable people to mediate and reassemble the past according to their own present and future needs and desires. Having moved beyond the dubious if all-too-tempting aesthetics associated with “ruin porn,” a new Michigan Central could confirm again that cultural memory need not be a form of nostalgia.  It could be a site, if you will, where the future remembers as well as innovates. Indeed, railway stations, abandoned or not, seemed destined to evoke feelings of spatial and temporal dislocation – for they literally and figuratively remake our relations to space and time. As Walter Benjamin's reading of Paul Klee's 1920 monoprint “Angelus Novus” has taught generations of thinkers: to look forward is by definition also to look backward, with the aim of redeeming rather than memorializing the past.

The future has begun to redeem the past at the Michigan Central Station. (Ryan Garza -- Detroit Free Press.)




A similar insight is seemingly what moved an anonymous “thief” this summer to return the wrought iron clockface with Roman numerals that once hung above the main entrance. In a call to the Henry Ford museum, the “thief” let them know that the clockface had been left beside an abandoned building for them to pick up, simply adding that, after twenty years, the clock wanted to “go home.”

Put another way, it is something less than a coincidence that two years after Michigan Central Station opened, Albert Einstein published his Relativity: The Special and General Theory, which includes Gedankenexperiment – thought experiments – involving trains, clocks, and moving and stationary observers. Einstein, that is, felt the need to populate space and time with things and people in order to make the laws of physics palpable. Similarly, the spaces for innovation envisioned by Ford will need to wisely integrate past and present knowledge and experience, and the people and artifacts embodying these, if it is to succeed in the future.



About Christopher Johnson

Christopher's interests range widely, but focus on the literatures and cultures of early modern Spain, Germany, England, and the Americas. Central are the theories and practices of comparative literature, including translation studies and comparative arts.  An associate professor of Spanish in ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures, he previously taught at Harvard, UCLA and Northwestern, was a research associate at the Warburg Institute, London, and a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Among his books are his translation of Selected Poetry of Francisco de Quevedo. The working title of his forthcoming book for Princeton University Press is Baroque Expression: On Seventeenth-Century Literature, Art, and Thought.