Modern Designers

Emil Lorch

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Educational, Residential

Emil Lorch was born in Detroit, Michigan, where he attended the Detroit School of Art. From 1890-92 he studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in 1893 spent a year working with the architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns in Boston. After traveling in Europe, he returned to Detroit in 1895 to become an instructor at his alma mater, the Detroit School of Art. Lorch was extremely active in the city's art scene and was named a member of the Detroit Art Commission in 1898, an event that led James Scripps, owner of the Detroit News, to suggest that Lorch attend the International Congress of Public Art in Brussels as a representative of Detroit's Board of Commissioners of Parks and Boulevards. Lorch had just been offered the position of manager of the Detroit School of Art and felt his time in Brussels would allow him to discuss art training with some of Europe's leading authorities. While Lorch was still in Europe the trustees decided to close the school rather than invest in upgrading its facilities. Fortunately, during his travels Lorch met N. H. Carpenter, secretary of the Art Institute of Chicago, who invited him to Chicago. In the fall of 1899 Lorch began teaching classes at the institute. This was the beginning of his crusade to adapt an art education concept developed by Denham W. Ross of Harvard University, called Pure Design, to architecture education. Lorch's version of Pure Design taught students to be inventive with shape, space and color rather than rely on traditional styles and architectural solutions.

While in Chicago Lorch found himself in the midst of an architectural revolution. A group of Chicago architects inspired by Louis Sullivan, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Lorch's future brother-in-law George Elmslie, sought to define a modern American architectural style. Known as the Prairie school, these architects searched for a new approach to architecture education that would allow students more freedom than the Beaux Arts philosophy then in vogue. Emil Lorch began advocating for the Pure Design approach. A founding member of the Architecture League of America, Lorch used the league and the Chicago Architecture Club, to promote Pure Design through a series of lectures. Historian H. Allen Brooks credits Lorch with inspiring Frank Lloyd Wright in his design of Unity Temple, saying "the League discussions served as a catalyst for Wright" and "Wright did not apply the Froebel lesson to building until after he learned of Pure Design."

Lorch left the Art Institute of Chicago in 1901 during a time when Daniel Burnham, a supporter of the Beaux Arts, sought a stronger commitment from the art institute for this type of curriculum. Lorch entered graduate school at Harvard and took a teaching job at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia following graduation. In 1906, when he learned the University of Michigan was going to establish an architectural school, Lorch lobbied hard for the position as director. His friend James Scripps wrote a letter to the university trustees, which helped Lorch obtain an interview. Lorch was hired to direct the new department and incorporated the principles of Pure Design in its curriculum. According to architecture educator Arthur Weatherhead, "through the untiring endeavor of Lorch the department of the University of Michigan became a School with a marked individuality and one which always maintained very high educational standards."

Lorch had a strong impact on Modernism through his unique approach to architecture education. In 1923 Lorch offered a visiting professorship to Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, the second place prize winner of the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. Saarinen accepted Lorch's offer and remained at the university until 1925 when George Booth invited him to develop a new art school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: the Cranbrook Academy of Art. One of Lorch's former students, Michigan native Joseph Hudnut, became dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1939 and was responsible for bringing Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to Harvard. Hudnut was also one of the first to incorporate landscape design in architecture courses and in developing an urban planning curriculum.

Lorch was named dean of the newly formed College of Architecture at the University of Michigan in 1931 and remained at the school until his retirement in 1940. He championed the documentation of Michigan's historic architectural resources until his death in 1963.

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