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Midwest Modern Twitter account documents hidden gems of regional architecture

michigan state medical society.jpg
Courtesy of Josh Lipnik
The former Michigan State Medical Society Building, designed by Minoru Yamasaki in 1959, is photographed in East Lansing.

If you’re driving with Josh Lipnik, don’t be surprised if he pulls suddenly to the side of the road.

A fast food sign, an abandoned school or a glass office tower may have caught his eye.

He runs the Midwest Modern Twitter account, which has racked up nearly 80,000 followers of his photos documenting regional architecture with a focus on the mid-20th century.

Lipnik also has a Patreon account, where paid subscribers can vote on the towns he visits next.

The Michigan native studied architecture in college and says his grandfather, an engineer in Toronto, helped nurture his interest.

"He spent a lot of time when I was a kid showing me around buildings he was working on and taking me on little tours of the city," Lipnik said. "I also grew up in a part of the suburbs of Detroit where, you know, in general, it's pretty boring suburban architecture. But there is some really interesting modernist houses and just unique stuff that I would find."

WKAR’s Sarah Lehr talked with Lipnik about the inspiration behind Midwest Modern. Below are highlights from the interview.

Interview Highlights

On one of his favorite buildings in Greater Lansing

One that I actually just photographed recently is the former ... Michigan Medical Society building. ... He was an important architect as the designer, most famously the World Trade Centers. ... Basically, it's a long rectangular shaped building, and the façade is just a repeated row of barrel vaults. So sort of just a round semi- circle across the top of it. I just think the repetition is really interesting. It's so different from everything else around it in that area.

On what catches Lipnik's eye

I try to find things that maybe people wouldn't think of as necessarily being an important part of the built environment. So you know, old commercial buildings, vintage neon signs, sort of former chain restaurants, or sort of interesting roadside architecture. Some of the more kitschy stuff that people overlook. ... I think if it's framed in the right way, then people maybe will give it a second look or think about it in a new way.

Interview Transcript

Kevin Lavery: If you’re driving with Josh Lipnik, don’t be surprised if he pulls suddenly to the side of the road. A fast food sign, an abandoned school or a glass office tower may have caught his eye. He runs the Midwest Modern Twitter account, which has racked up nearly 80,000 followers of his photos documenting regional architecture with a focus on the mid-20th century.

WKAR’s Sarah Lehr sat down with Lipnik to learn more about the inspiration behind Midwest Modern. She started by asking the metro Detroit resident about his favorite places to photograph in Michigan.

Josh Lipnik: Well, Midland is a really interesting one. That's the home of Alden Dow, who was an architect. He was the son of the Dow Chemical Company fortune. And he designed a lot of really interesting buildings there from houses for Dow Chemical employees to the public library to the art center to industrial buildings for Dow.

In Lansing, there are a few sort of hidden gems that I like to see when I'm there. So one that I actually just photographed recently is the former now, it just recently closed, Michigan Medical Society building that was designed by Minoru Yamasaki. I can't remember the exact intersection it’s at, but it's actually in East Lansing sort of, I think, north of the campus there.

Sarah Lehr: Some listeners may be familiar with that Medical Society office building on West Saginaw Street. But could you describe what it's like for those who haven't seen it? What do you find compelling about the building?

Lipnik: Yeah, so first of all, just the history of it. I mean, it's the only building designed by Minoru Yamasaki in the Lansing area. And he was just, I mean, he was an important architect as the designer, most famously of the World Trade Centers. But he was just one of the more important American architects of that era. And he was mostly based in Detroit, that's where a lot of his best work is. But the Michigan State Medical Society is, I think, an interesting example of his work. So basically, it's a long rectangular shaped building, and the façade is just a repeated row of barrel vaults. So sort of just a round semi- circle across the top of it. I just think the repetition is really interesting. It's so different from everything else around it in that area.

Lehr: What's most interesting to you about the objects that you photograph? What do you tend to notice that other people might overlook?

Lipnik: So what I try to find, I think, and, you know, I don't know how successful this is, but I try to find things that maybe people wouldn't think of as necessarily being an important part of the built environment. So you know, old commercial buildings, vintage neon signs, sort of former chain restaurants, or sort of interesting roadside architecture. Some of the more kitschy stuff that people overlook. You know, some of them, people just drive by and think of as sort of mundane buildings and in a way they are, but I think if it's framed in the right way, then people maybe will give it a second look or think about it in a new way.

Lehr: Are there certain types of photos that you don't like to take, maybe subjects that bore you or certain perspectives that just aren't really yours?

Lipnik: A lot of places, there will be things like, you know, they'll have really beautiful churches, or, you know, maybe a really ornate courthouse from the 1800s. And every once in a while, if there's something really unique that sticks out to me about those, I'll photograph them but a lot of times, I think, you know, it's sort of the same. People sort of know what a Gothic church looks like. And, you know, there's a million examples and these may not be necessarily unique in any way.

So, yeah, those are the type of things that I'll sort of skip. Another thing is I don't shoot a lot of, I guess you could say cityscapes like just, you know, just photos of a downtown just without any focus on a particular building. I really try to focus in on the specifics and not just have like, you know, this is just the downtown.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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