How Carl Nielbock uses art to tell his story, our story and history
Published: September 12, 2012
At that point in his career, Nielbock was considering earning a BFA or MFA to improve his artistic metalworking résumé. Various setbacks made the move impractical, and his artistic ambitions stalled.
That is, until he saw Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project. Nielbock says he was "floored" by the art environment created by a vernacular artist. "Here was a person without an advanced degree making art as he pleased," Nielbock recalls. "I told myself, 'If he can do it, I can ... without an MFA.'"
And Nielbock's work is inventive and surprising, often combining the eye of an Old World aesthete with the hand of a seasoned engineer. He's just as likely to craft ornamental metal architectural elements as he is to, say, design a windmill a home craftsman can build to capture electricity. Looking at his metalwork, which includes gates and gazebos, it's almost as if modernism never happened, as ornamentalism is still in full flower in his work.
It all goes back to his heritage. In Europe, Nielbock argues, architectural work isn't divided into designers and workers as it is here. American architects and engineers come up with economical designs that constructions workers assemble much like IKEA furniture, freezing out craftsmen and fine artists. But across the pond, craftsmen are valued, given compensation and social standing that places them as equals with the planners and designers. Communication between these two classes results in structures that are more beautiful and fit in better, given European cities' overwhelming historical context.
Nielbock's connection to — and hunger for — the past plays into his latest project: Restoring the statues that adorned Detroit's City Hall. Few remember the building today, but it was constructed during the 19th century and occupied the western end of Cadillac Square for almost a century. Its demolition in 1961 caught many Detroiters unawares, as the wrecking crew started work by night. The grand old building, which had been a popular site for fetes ranging from civic celebrations to weddings, had anchored the old downtown for years, and yet it was pulled down for the creation of an underground parking structure. The new city hall would be a modernist domino rising downtown.
Young people today may find such demolitions puzzling, but no serious preservation groups existed at the time to object to these decisions. Generally speaking, the modern American architectural preservation movement traces its birth to the 1963 destruction of New York City's Pennsylvania Station, once called a "great Doric temple to transportation," which was turned into the modernist Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden, shunting the train platforms into an underground warren.
When demolition was proposed for New York's other train station, Grand Central Terminal, in 1968, such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis rushed to its defense, sparking a re-evaluation of urban developers' love affair with the wrecking ball.
Even if a vibrant preservation movement had existed in Detroit at the time, it is doubtful City Hall could have been saved. In postwar America, modernism was king, and Americans looked at the ornate buildings of the early 20th century and saw styles that were out-of-date, obsolete. In the case of Detroit's City Hall, only a few items were saved before the old limestone structure — built to last hundreds of years — was razed. And stewardship of these rescued treasures has been spotty. Best treated were the statues of historical figures, which are now displayed on the campus of Wayne State University. The clockworks were put into storage. The massive statues of civic virtues — Art, Commerce, Industry and Justice, sculpted by Julius Theodore Melchers — were taken down as well. Each sandstone statue, fully assembled, stands about 14 feet tall and weighs about 10 tons. As recently as 10 years ago, the sculptures lay in pieces behind Fort Wayne, overgrown with shrubbery and exposed to the elements.
Given his fascination with Detroit's history, Nielbock was transfixed by the story of Old City Hall's hasty demolition, and began to formulate a plan to show Detroiters what they've lost. Depending on the level of funding and the approval of authorities, his goal was either to refurbish the statues, or to create replicas of the original statues and to somehow display them in conjunction with the original statuary, either on-site or in a nearby exhibit.
He gained permission from authorities to work out of Fort Wayne's 1846 blacksmithing shop, helping pull together as many materials from the original City Hall as possible, including clock mechanisms, the original bell and the statuary of civic virtues. (The fort also has a deeply personal significance to him, as it's where his father, Clarence, was inducted into the U.S. military.) For four years, he has been fixing up a building to use as a workshop and amassing a file of materials pertaining to Old City Hall, ranging from digitized, highly detailed glass photographic plates found at the Detroit Public Library's Burton Historical Collection to prints of newspaper photos of the building obtained from a private seller.
Nielbock says, "I systematically looked at thousands of photos of Campus Martius, not only to look at the structure and artistry on the clock tower, but to get a feel for the visual context in which it sits."
Using 2-D-to-3-D modeling software at Tech Shop in Dearborn, Nielbock is making progress using old photographs of the statues and tower to establish computer designs in great detail. The technology exists to take the digital 3-D models and create molds fashioned with lasers to re-create the original designs, a surprising use of 21st century technology to bring 19th century handcraft back to life.
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