A Love Story: a public art & lighting installation on Detroit’s complicated relationship with the auto industry

Detroit is a city of romance. It is a city of automobiles and a city that loves automobiles. But like any good love story, it’s complicated.

A Love Story is a public art lighting installation that inspires Detroiters to celebrate and confront the City’s complicated relationship with the auto industry. The proposed installation transforms a viaduct into a signature visitor destination that compels both drivers and pedestrians to examine their relationship with the city and its history.

(photo from the collections of The Henry Ford, copy and reuse restrictions apply)

Through the use of lighting and visual art, A Love Story seeks to create a habitable condition of the past that amplifies a moment in the present. It creates this habitable condition by reproducing the historical lighting found in three Detroit automotive factories. In addition to recreating the character and intensity of light, A Love Story’s lighting system includes custom replicas of the pendant light fixtures used in each of the three factories during a historically significant year. The pendants provide accent lighting, while LED lights are employed as the primary source of light that generates the historical effect. The use of the historical pendants in conjunction with the LED lights serves to connect our past to the present, symbolizing the ongoing nature of A Love Story and Detroit’s history of innovation, which continues today.

Where the lighting system of A Love Story creates a habitable moment of the past, the visual art component of the installation amplifies that moment and brings it into the present. Portions of text merge with informational displays to transform the viaduct into a composite modern art exhibition and history museum. A Love Story incorporates the beautiful arches of the Cass Ave. viaduct by arranging the text so that pedestrians are required to continuously move through the exhibit–and drivers are compelled to get out of their vehicles–in order to complete the story.

Beyond the lighting and visual art, A Love Story includes a companion website with additional information on the installation and the history of the auto industry in Detroit. The website also features original research and oral histories centered around the experiences of residents in the surrounding areas of the Cass Ave. viaduct during the historical periods covered by the installation.

The setting for A Love Story consists of three historical auto plants. The lighting and text correspond to each plant, the time period in which it was active, and the stage in the “relationship” which it represents.

Flirtation: The Ford Piquette Plant – 1908

The Piquette Plant opened in 1904 and closed in 1910 as production was moved to the Highland Park Plant. While it was only open a short amount of time, the Piquette Plant truly shaped the following century. The concept for the Model T was developed at Piquette in 1907. In 1908, the Model T, which is widely credited for “democratizing transportation,” went into production and became the first automobile affordable to the average consumer. The early use of electric lights played a key role in this process by allowing for day and night factory operation. The mood in this setting is inviting and the lighting is warm and intimate, not only because the electrical output of lighting at the time was low, but because this period in A Love Story represents an age of innocent fun and flirtation. It was a period of tremendous technological innovation at a time when the technology was not fully realized and the externalities of the industrial age were not yet appreciated.

Honeymoon Phase: The Ford Highland Park Plant – 1913

The Highland Park Plant opened in 1910 and closed in 1928 as production was moved to the Rouge Plant. Highland Park was home to the first mass produced automobile, thanks largely to its invention of the moving assembly line in 1913. The moving assembly line ignited the manufacturing economy that dominated the 20th century. The setting for this chapter of A Love Story has an edgy quality representing the rapid expansion of the Ford Motor Company, the attitude of reckless youth, and the impending conflict on the horizon.

Marriage Counseling: The Ford River Rouge Plant – 1941

After outgrowing Highland Park, Ford moved production to the massive River Rouge Plant in 1928. A modern marvel at the time of its construction, Rouge is still in operation today and continues to be an innovator in the industry. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Rouge was home to a number of violent events that reflected broad racial and economic tension throughout society. Among the Big Three, Ford was the most resistant to unionization. While white workers fought for improved working conditions and better pay, many African-American workers opposed unionization due in part to a UAW platform that initially formalized segregation and discriminatory practices. The Rouge setting in A Love Story is stark, industrial, and at times unsettling.