If you went to Maker Faire Detroit or looked at pictures of almost anyone who attended, then you have glimpsed Carlos Neilbock’s work. His first piece was prominently installed and towering — a large windmill made from discarded items including a collection of repurposed satellite dishes, a truck axle with a bright glinting rim, salvaged bicycle gearings, a supportive metal assembly to give height and framing for the blades of the fan, and two car batteries to store the clips and eddies of wind’s energy in a chemical medium — they all had function and utility, but also beauty.
The second structure he brought was made of seven parts and spelled “Detroit” in all capital lettering. The intricacies of each letter and its design were easy to walk past given the enormity of the seven letters combined. But, for those who took more time, the ornamentation jumped out as unforgettable.
I was looking at Carlos’ ornamental metalwork and his large windmill when he approached me and began to tell me about himself. He spoke almost without pause; no time to waste. He told me about his art and about his aspirations for a new cityscape for Detroit, a new conceptualization of Detroit as a city of artisans with reference to the origin of the term — not the casual vacuity of today’s usage, but to its European past. Carlos’ vision for a new Detroit rests in the ideals of a distant time, one which he hopes he can remake here by reformulating the city which intemperately clings to its automotive history into a place where teams of craftsmen thrive.
Before meeting Carlos I spent time looking at projects less concerned with issues of place and identity and more focused on the latest and greatest emergent technology. But with more thought I realize that even in 3D printing and propane plumes lurk the issues Carlos spoke about, but I just had to look more deeply. Not new technology, but a remaking of the old technology under the stewardship of transitional guides to impart the old knowledge onto the next generation.
Tuesday morning after the Faire I drive into Detroit to visit Carlos’ downtown workspace, passing abandoned buildings you may have seen on the news. These are not the buildings people live in, but they remain and confront passersby. There’s no doubt the city has issues. So, too, the citizens who live within the limits of the city are burdened with challenges both because of and concurrent with the city problems.
Behind the largest gate I’ve ever seen are a well-kept lawn and a three-story building surrounded by windmills. Pulling into the drive, I call Carlos to let me into his compound. As I wait a man calms the three large guard dogs anticipating and preparing for any further encroachment on the property. The man disappears and later I learn he’s Carlos’ father — the reason Carlos first came to the U.S. from Germany: to find him.
Carlos strolls out with swagger and excitement, giving me a smiling wave. We exchange pleasantries. My camera is already out and the shutter clatters as I store image after image. The shutter would become the background accompaniment to his voice for this day and the next visit. As quickly as Carlos emerged to unlatch the gate, he’s gone. My head in my lens, I hadn’t see where he went. Then I hear his voice calling in an encouraging yet serious tone, “Come on!” I head toward the voice and enter his workspace.
The lights are off but sunlight streams in through the panes of glass on each end of the building. The shop is immaculate considering it’s a working metal shop. Tanks and welding torches, metal stock, and projects in process cling to the walls; the floor is worn but lacks debris.
He stops me and invites attention to his first work of contemporary metalwork. A swooping beam of wood clad in metal floats despite its weight, suspended by only three points of contact to small plates on the floor. Carlos explains the technology of cladding a beam for strength and the history of this once state-of-the-art technology. With him, everything has a history that needs telling.
“Come on!” He starts up the stairs and again I’m hurriedly bundling up my bag and readying my camera for his building’s second floor.
He calls this floor his library, full of artifacts collected from city buildings that were demolished in the 1960s, such as Detroit’s Old City Hall. Carlos researched the history of the City Hall demolition and uncovered the location of the dumping sites that contractors used. With his own money and permission granted to him to unearth these relics, he has spent years digging up the blocks and ornamental metal that once adorned City Hall.
He shows me his scaled prototypes for the four virtues that watched over the city incarnate as gargantuan sandstone statues — justice, industry, art, and medicine all personified and watchful.
In his library he has the original anvil, caduceus, and central clock gearing for the four-sided clock tower that topped old City Hall. Carlos wants to bring it back as a monument form. For him the importance of a City Hall is not to be underestimated. He sees it as a part of a cityscape that promotes ideals of ownership and responsibility. His point is abrupt: if you have a part in a city, you will respect and take care of that city.
Then we head up another level to the top floor and he talks at length about finding his father, a GI who met Carlos’ mother in the aftermath of WWII. Carlos speaks of Germany and his background learning his trade as a boy, the frustration he had in a closed society of post-war Germany, and his eventual decision to uproot and look for his father in the U.S. And then he beams, speaking about the freedom and opportunity that he found in the U.S. He told me he will never leave, but that does not deter his passion to improve.
Carlos shows me his art collection and introduces me to his daughter Belinda, who has her father’s intensity. They both speak in a flurry about how important art and community are. They explain how they want to impart Carlos’ knowledge to the youth and get them off the streets by getting them into a nonprofit ornamental metalworking school that Carlos is working on expanding. Their excitement and optimism is brimming, but I can tell they know the realities.
After reading about all of the buildings Carlos has done work on I arranged to see him again. The second visit proved even more expansive a tour than the first. He and his son Ray Ray took me to Old Fort Wayne to show me the buildings Carlos has access to and where he plans to house his metalworking school. The buildings are nearly as large as his aspirations. We spend a few hours milling around the Fort. It’s as though we’re at a national park without another living person visiting – I learn later that access is only for a select few.
Then we drive to the center of Detroit, and Carlos and Ray Ray show me the buildings. Carlos has restored many iconic Detroit buildings, including the Fox Theater, the Detroit Club – commonly known as the venue where federal judges dine — as well as the canopy skirting the Detroit Athletic Club.
The tour ends in the afternoon. I leave Detroit sure of Carlos’ talent and his passion, and certain that the narrative is incomplete for Detroit.