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Charles Blessing Interview

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Summary
"Design Archives" raw material on the city planner Charles Blessing, consisting of 240-minute interview on four videocassettes.

Tape 1 (60:00): Introduction; childhood in the Rocky Mountains; desire to be an architect from childhood; education at University of Colorado (architectural engineering); influence of the 20-volume New York Metropolitan Regional Area Plan on his decision to become a city planner; first job opportunities in Detroit; earliest city planning ideas; graduate education at MIT; influence of painting and etching on his planning ideas; influence of Eero Saarienen and George Booth on city planning; anecdote about refusal of city planning job in Washington, DC; first job in New Hampshire; influence of Bullie Mumford on city planning; influence of MIT art history professor Henry Seeber on him; job as librarian at MIT's architecture library; travel to the world's great cities as part of his education; issues of spending large sums of money on urban development versus other social programs.

Tape 2 (57:00): Criticism of the mistakes made by modern architects and the International Style; city planning designs in Chicago and Detroit, especially on riverfront properties; issue of autocratic versus democratic government in terms of city planning; how Central Park in New York and parks in Boston were created; possibilities for development in Detroit; damage LeCorbusier and the International Style caused to cities; democratization of architecture; need for public support on important architectural projects; city planning boom in Detroit and Houston in the 1970's; debate over overbuilding in cities and the falsehood of most of the warnings; examples of Athens and San Francisco as times when public opinion halted disastrous city planning designs.

Tape 3 (57:45): Need for artists and architects to be visionaries and fight against technocrats who dismiss esthetics; changes in Detroit's cityscape over the years; dramatic changes in cityscapes with advent of cars and highways in the 1950's; Mies van de Rohe's Lafayette Park in Detroit and Blessing's role in it; urban blight in Detroit in the 1950's, and the City Planning Commission's plans for improvement; movement of shopping centers to suburbs; Lafayette Park's effort to keep people and shops in the city; differences between city planning and urban design, and Detroit's efforts in both fields; his 3-D plans for the entire city, the first of their kind anywhere; refusal to bow to pressures of other city officials when designing; humane elements of Lafayette Park; effects of Detroit's riots of the 1960's on the city; city planners need to restore hope in the cities.

Tape 4 (57:30): School system in inner-city Detroit and Lafayette Park; struggle to build the Detroit Medical Center; response to criticism that urban renewal displaces the poor, especially blacks; mistakes made in the urban renewal of Boston's North End in the 1930's; some of the failures to deliver housing for the urban poor in city planning, but overall success of the plans; his faith in the future of cities and the public's desire to see cities survive; idea of the U.S. having a national plan for city development as other countries do, and the need for regional planning commissions; the need for a sense of urgency both nationally and internationally in developing opportunities for urban betterment-- must be more popular education on the subject.

This is one of four interviews conducted in 1981 as part of the New Television Workshop's (NTW) Design Archiving Project. The "Design Archives" was an NEA-sponsored project originally conceived in 1980 as an attempt to record lengthy interviews with four "national treasures" involved in various fields of design. The others were O'Neil Ford (architecture), Melanie Kahane (interior design), and Paul Rand (graphic design). Plans to broadcast portions of the interviews never came to pass. Nor did plans to transfer the interviews to videodisc in order to provide a resource for researchers and students in the field of graphic design. Other NTW projects undertaken to interview famous artists were the "Dance Archiving Project," in which tap dancer Honi Coles was interviewed in 1981, and the "Twentieth Century Artists" series, in which artists Judy Chicago and Lee Krasner were interviewed in 1979.

The interviewer is Wolf Von Eckardt, an influential architecture critic and, at the time, Design Critic for "Time" magazine. The original choice for the interviewer was Israel Stolman, Executive Director, at the time, of the American Planning Association. When Eckardt expressed interest in the project due largely to his personal relationship with Blessing, he became the choice for the interviewer. The interview covers both biographical elements of Blessing's life and his ideas on architecture and city planning, especially regarding his projects in Detroit.

Charles Blessing was born in Colorado in 1912. After his undergraduate study in architecture at the University of Colorado, he performed his graduate education at M.I.T., followed by service in the Army Engineers Office. After serving on city planning commissions in Chicago and Boston in the late 1940's he moved to Detroit, where he spent the rest of his professional career working on widespread urban renewal projects. After his retirement from the Detroit City Planning Commission in 1974 he became professor in the Urban Design Studio of the School of Architecture at the University of Detroit. He was known for his books, articles and drawings of the world's great cities, and was awarded a gold medal in 1976 from the American Institute of Archivists for his "unique and artistic documentation of many of the world's greatest cities." He was influential for his use of humane elements in city planning. He died in December, 1992 at the age of 79.
Topics
City planners, City planning, Interviews, Unedited footage
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