It’s Wednesday in Detroit. It’s cold outside, and Carl Nielbock points off into the distance with his finger. He asks, “What do you see?” My eyes travel across fields where urban sprawl once covered tall grass, past the Eastern Market, and land on a giant, lone, faraway three-blade wind turbine.
“I see a wind turbine,” I say.
“What’s not happening?” he asks.
“The blades don’t seem to be moving,” I respond.
“Now, look at my windmills.” I turn to look at Carl’s windmill – farm-built with his imagination, metals, found objects, heat, tools, and his own two hands.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said,
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
As I look, Carl’s windmill blades are cutting through still cold air, spinning effortlessly, whirling. Carl’s smiling. Then, he eases my confusion over the obvious contrast. “Most of the world’s wind turbines are made by just a few conglomerates and there’s no more innovation. Why one pole and three blades? It’s like they designed it once and never went back.” He shrugs.
At first, you might call Carl a blacksmith, a profession so ancient it definesarchaeological ages – The Iron Age, and before that, The Bronze Age. Technically he’s a blacksmith, but seeing his work and understanding his vision, he’s more entrepreneur, environmentalist, and magician of metals.
Blacksmiths are metallurgists, meaning they heat and yield strong metals to their will, working mostly with bronze, copper, steel and iron. In history, blacksmiths once played important dual roles in their villages. They were obvious choices for magistrate, doctor and horse dealer, as these positions demanded intellect, numeracy skills and business sense. Carl is all of this, but in a 21st century way.
His five-story studio is littered with tools of his trade: anvils, drawings, wood carvings, and molds of every shape you can imagine, and some you can’t. He recrafts and reshapes metals as a designer uniquely aware of how the old can fit into the new. Carl’s work has unfolded over the last 30 years in Detroit with roots reaching back to his native homeland of Germany. His work contains a myriad of overlapping ambitions, but he’s most focused on his latest passion project: The windmill rethink.
It’s officially called the Green Energy Village Project. His blue eyes widen as he explains, “We’re developing alternative energy and exploring new avenues to reduce energy costs using low altitude wind turbines.” He is convinced that Detroit could be a leader in wind turbine manufacturing. It might be easy to write Carl off as a dreamer, if it weren’t for his impressive ability to realize his projects. His work touches every corner of C.A.N. Art Handworks – all five floors are filled with architectural renderings, schematics, and his handmade replicas of the statues of the Four Virtues that once adorned Detroit’s City Hall clock tower. And so much more, but back to the windmills.
The proof is in the spinning.
Carl’s windmills are in their fifth year of continuous operation. They are metallic eye-popping spinners that seem more Dr. Seuss than Henry Ford, and if Carl’s trade exists in the past, his eyes are focused on Detroit’s future.
He explains how his tricked-out windmills will not only deliver cheap energy, but also act as a hydro-pump for urban gardens. “Why do just one thing when you should do it all?” He laughs. Carl’s not-too-distant goal is to take this windmill farm and expand it over four city blocks, from Wilkins down to Pierce. The Green Energy Village Project and scope should provide an urban template for clean-art energy, plus fresh organic food for residents and businesses willing to buy in and go along. Carl invites any and all to stop by and partake in his vision.
I’m no longer cold, but my head is spinning from the wonder of what dots had to be connected to get from metallurgy to a vision for energy and sustainability.
I take a moment. Unreasonable?
Maybe, but in the best and most surprising ways. Where you and I might only see an unmoving industrial wind turbine off in the distance, Carl doesn’t. “Detroit was once the wealthiest city in America,” he says. “We had the most innovation, the tallest skyscrapers, and the most beautiful, ornate buildings of the time.“ He should know because highly skilled craftsmen built them.
Forge on metal man, lost artist, mad scientist, and visionary to Detroit’s great unknown. Our future at times seems unreasonable, so why not have great solutions emerge from the same?