By Marja. I was so busy and occupied with my renovation projects that I hardly recognized the impact of the lockdown rules in my everyday life until recently. Thanks to my intense, goal-oriented undertaking, I focused on the activities I had deliberately chosen, instead of allowing distractions to derail me.  Nor did I miss such activities that were currently inaccessible, such as travelling or participation in mass gatherings.

Today, I happened to come across an article dealing with attention management, which sounded a new, strange concept to me. While reading the article, I realized that I had unconsciously applied and followed its principles. The author defined attention management as follows (quotation):

Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus, so that you can unleash your genius. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. It is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen or has the potential to be stolen.  – –  Better attention management leads to improved productivity, but it’s about much more than checking things off a to-do list. The ultimate result is the ability to create a life of choice, around things that are important to you. It’s more than just exercising focus.  It’s about taking back control over your time and your priorities.”  (Thomas 2018.)

In my case, I was engaged in a challenging endeavor which meant a lot to me since it involved high emotional value. Moreover, I went through a stony learning process that often brought me to my discomfort zone where I felt uncertain and doubtful, if not almost fearful. I used to say to myself from time to time: “This is not me. This is not my style. How on earth did I end up here?” At the same time, the stressful experience proved most fulfilling and transformational because it is all the more satisfying to reach this outcome as the course has been uphill all the way.

To put it succinctly, I will tell you next how I unintentionally and unwillingly became a kind of “construction manager”. I can assure you it was never my dream job! Hence, the lockdown measures were the least of my concerns in the past few months.

Challenges in Old Home Renovation

The childhood home of my mother is a smallish wooden country house built in 1914. In other words, the house is now 106 years old. Unfortunately, Finland has failed to preserve her historic structures while over hundred-year-old buildings account for less than five percent of Finland’s building stock, which is shamefully little. The postwar generation did not value our architectural heritage but carelessly demolished valuable old buildings while being enchanted by rising living standards, modernism and industrialization. They also calculated in their narrowly rational minds that it is often cheaper to build a new house than renovate the old one, which actually holds true, though it is not sustainable.

I, by contrast, insisted on safeguarding the unique historic buildings that my grandfather had built with his own bare hands. I took the initial steps in the long series of renovations three years ago when we converted my mother’s childhood home from a secondary residence to a permanent residence because we decided to rent it out.  Reaching the adequate housing standards required some minor improvements along with regular maintenance works.

The first task was to find a builder to take care of those repairs. As I considered myself experienced in contracting and hiring people thanks to my professional activities, I believed I’ll organize a competitive bidding based on Google searches and tips from knowledgeable persons. Then I’ll just pick up the best offer(s) – the crème de la crème. Furthermore, I assumed that after identifying the right specialist, I can delegate everything to him and he will deliver a turnkey solution from planning to finishing touch. Boy, was I wrong!

First of all, when I approached firms with my request to submit a quotation, radio silence was the most common answer. The response rate remained very low since the contacted businesses did not even bother to reply. Later on, I heard about similar difficulties from some of my friends. When I tried to ask for recommendations from such professionals who should surely know builders, carpenters or painters in the given region as they have worked in the branch, the frequent answer was: “Well, I can recommend NOBODY.” At the end of the day, I exploited my networks to track down craftsmen from other distant parts of Finland and even from neighboring countries. These desperate inquiries did not bring any results either because the heavy shortage of builders appears universal.

Under these circumstances, it was impossible to demand proper tenders and contracts in writing.  Most contractors refused to define an accurate schedule and a binding price for the project. I could only guess whether the reason for vague documents was incompetence or deliberate dishonesty.  Some craftsmen could hardly use internet or email.

Although the choice was limited and the search immensely time-consuming, I always managed to lure someone to my small construction site. In most cases, the jobs were finally accomplished, although the performance of my contractors proved more or less disappointing in some respects. It was either the skill level or the attitude that caused diverse problems.

A pleasant and diligent but helpless carpenter needed so much constant guidance that I always had to stand next to him and show him what to do next. Another guy created a chaos as he started demanding log works which he did not master at all. A few guys suggested so unfunctional solutions that an amateur grasped immediately how they could damage the building, which is why those adverse ideas were unacceptable. Typically, the contractors lacked the ability to comprehend the big picture and take into account all the dimensions of a task to avoid unwanted side effects.

Yet, the biggest problem was the widespread unreliability and unpredictability of many contractors.  I could never know for sure whether they will arrive at work as agreed or whether they will come late or disappear altogether. Delays in schedules seemed to be the rule rather than the exception, which made planning and coordination troublesome. Once again, I could only guess whether the guy had overbooked his calendar or whether he was a lazy drunkard. Two contractors tried to cheat me in billing when they thought they had already secured their position. A cleaning service company stole my property.

Micro entrepreneurs of the building sector are no team players which meant in practice that they refused to cooperate with other craftsmen even when their own resources were insufficient for the timely delivery of a given contract. I was told several times with a grim face look: “I work alone.”  Respectively, they could not stand divergent standpoints and dissenting voices that questioned their views. The number of inexact, unfounded opinions equaled to the number of persons whose advice were asked. It was very hard or even impossible to find scientifically tested, objective and factual information while silent knowledge still plays a major role in this low-tech field. This handi-cap made the assessment of various claims extremely difficult. As it became obvious that I could not trust the contractors’ competence, I was forced to investigate alternative options by myself.

All these incidents above are pointing out why I became deeply involved in managing my reno-vation and restoration projects in Finland. I just could not sit back and await the final outcome in my armchair. On the contrary, I had to be in charge of actively running the projects although I lacked qualifications and previous experience, which occasionally made the challenge nerve-racking. It also felt sometimes as if I had an unpaid whole day job as a “construction manager”.

Barn Revival

This spring, I launched the latest phase in my renovation and restoration ventures.  It differed from the previous efforts and was even more exceptional and grandiose than the earlier projects. I rescued a large barn that had immersed in wet mud over the decades with the result that its foundations had decayed. Therefore, its walls were standing askew, its corners were awry and doors were dangling. In addition to the necessary carpentry of wood, both the walls and the rooftop needed painting. The very first task was nevertheless to dig up, lift and straighten the foundations of the barn as well as to drain the immediate surrounding of the building.

In the case of the neglected barn, built in the 1920s, I had to find a genuine tradition builder who is not only skillful and trustworthy but also motivated to work with such a special object. Finally, my extensive searches paid dividends and I was lucky enough to detect an outstanding top specialist who is one of a kind. He incorporates a perfect combination of superb competence and strong work ethic. I cannot praise enough his heroic achievement.

Architect Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art

My sadly desolate barn had been abandoned to go rack and ruin because the majority of people still do not value an age-old agricultural building that belonged to an unknown farmer in an ordinary country village. Much more surprising is how a famous architect and his top-ranking art school which was once regarded as a revolutionary frontrunner in its field can be likewise forgotten.  Present-day architects, designers, artists, art historians and students of these disciplines as well as other devoted enthusiasts naturally remember them but the general public may have never heard of them. I have met native Michiganders who have never visited the place and who do not recognize the names related to it. I refer to Eliel Saarinen and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

The Cranbrook Academy of Art is one of America’s leading graduate schools for architecture, art, and design which renewed the pedagogical methods of teaching these subjects. Founded as an experimental artists’ colony, the model has proven so successful over the decades that it remains largely untouched. It is allowing motivated students to tailor their course of study to suit their needs in spaces that foster personal growth. Its first President defined the approach as follows: “Cranbrook Academy of Art is not an art school in the ordinary meaning. It is a working place for creative art.”

More importantly, Cranbrook was known for decades as the incubator of mid-century modernism which was compared to the German Bauhaus School: “Cranbrook is like no other institution in the United States. — In its finer moments it has nurtured some of the greatest design talents the United States has had in modern times, and the effect of Cranbrook and its graduates and faculty on the physical environment of this country has been profound. –For Cranbrook, surely more than any other institution, has a right to think of itself as synonymous with contemporary American design.” (Source of the quotation: https://www.nytimes.com/1984/04/08/magazine/the-cranbrook-vision.html)

The Cranbrook Educational Community was founded in the early 20th century by wealthy newspaper mogul George Booth and his wife Ellen. The Booths hired Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to help with the master plan and design of the campus.

Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) was already well established as an architect in Finland when, in 1922, he entered a competition to design the Chicago Tribune Building. Although he had never seen a skyscraper live, he won second place and used the prize money to immigrate to Chicago in 1923, eventually joined by his wife Loja, daughter Pipsan and son Eero. Shortly after their arrival, he was invited to teach architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he caught the attention of the Booths, whose son Henry was one of Saarinen’s architecture students. After a year teaching at the University of Michigan, Saarinen and his family moved to the Cranbrook in 1925 at the invitation of George Booth.

Saarinen formulated the Academy’s curriculum and served as its first president from 1932 to 1946, headed its Department of Architecture and Urban Design from 1932 to 1950, and designed numerous non-Cranbrook commissions. During the Saarinens’ time at Cranbrook, Loja had an equally important career as a textile designer. She founded and directed the Department of Weaving and Textile Design at the Academy, as well as Studio Loja Saarinen, a separate business that wove her textile designs, including commissions for the buildings that Eliel designed on the campus.

Even after it was officially sanctioned in 1932, Saarinen continued to design new buildings for the campus with Academy student apprentices. Today, the campus is a National Historic Landmark, and is considered the most complete example of Saarinen’s genius.  Saarinen House is Eliel Saarinen’s Art Deco masterwork and the jewel of Cranbrook’s architectural treasures. Designed in the late 1920s and located at the heart of Cranbrook Academy of Art, Saarinen House served as his home and studio until his death. The extraordinary interior, now impeccably restored, features the Saarinens’ original furnishings, including Eliel’s delicately veneered furniture and Loja’s sumptuous textiles, as well as early furniture designs by their son, Eero Saarinen.

Eliel and Loja’s son, Eero (1910–1961), became one of the most important and successful American architects and industrial designers of the mid-20th century. As one of the leaders of the international neo-futuristic style, he made even a more significant career than his reputable father. Eero Saarinen is known for designing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, the Washington Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., the TWA Flight Center in New York City, and the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. When he died, he was in Ann Arbor, overseeing the completion of his last masterpiece, namely a new music building for the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Links to the sources:
https://cranbrookart.edu/about/history/ and https://center.cranbrook.edu/eliel-saarinen

Saarinen House

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cranbrook_Educational_Community
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliel_Saarinen and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eero_Saarinen

Conclusions

Both of my stories above are dealing with architectural heritage although they are otherwise unconnected and view the issue from very different perspectives. In the first case, I adopted the active role of a conservator; in the latter case, I was just an observer.  What are the main lessons that I learned from my renovation experience? What should I make out of my visit to Cranbrook in July 2019?  Let’s insert the following two points to my dos & don’ts list:

  1. I would not dare to buy an old house that is likely to require renovations, no matter how attracted I am to historic structures. Last summer, a charming Art Deco style house came to the market in my neighborhood but I resisted the strong temptation to submit an offer after a serious consideration.
  2. I wish to take part in a guided architectural tour in Michigan in the future. Michigan became the epicentric of American modernism in the heyday of the automobile industry. Iconic modernists designed architectural treasures here. I want to explore their must-see-buildings systematically. It is not only Eliel and Eero Saarinen that should be mentioned in this context but also such spectacular names as Frank Lloyd Wright, Albert Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (Bauhaus), Marcel Breuer (Bauhaus), Minoru Yamasaki, Gunnar Birkerts (Latvian), and many others.

Thomas, Maura (2018/03/15). “To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To”. Harvard Business Review. ISSN 0017-8012. Republished with permission: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/to-control-your-life-control-what-you-pay-attention-to?utm_source=pocket-newtab

The author retains ownership of all photos shown in this article.