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Designing a Better Detroit

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Detroit is beautiful.

And you know who backs me up? The architects who live and work here. They are the ones who will create or renovate the homes, apartments, buildings and skyscrapers that will restructure this city – literally and figuratively.

Architects know cities. They know how to build them. They know much more than any politician (or armchair politicians) ever could. Quite frequently, they're well versed in urban planning, and you typically don't study one without the other. Frankly, they are visionaries. And we need them to care about what happens to Detroit.

Thankfully, many of them do.

“We see the opportunities where other people see decades of problems,” said Glen S. LeRoy, dean of the Lawrence Tech College of Architecture and Design, which is based in Southfield but does many projects in the city. “Detroit is ideally positioned if we just seize the moment to be one of the great cities of the 21st Century.”

Our conversation took place during one of the Detroit-based American Institute of Architects “fireside chats.” This series was implemented by AIA Detroit President Raymond Cekauskas of Harley Ellis Devereaux to provide members with the opportunity to “engage community and other influential leaders on their thoughts on revitalizing the city.”

LeRoy and other AIA members agree: the city has an abundance of attributes (if only we and the rest of the nation could see them):

• The state has immense access to water for both business and pleasure.
• It is a relatively temperate climate.
• Detroit has the infrastructure to double its size quickly and easily.
• Many of the area's most spectacular buildings were never torn down; rather, some have been preserved in hopes of renovating them when the time right.

“I think architects need to take a leadership role” in making those attributes work for us,” said Alan H. Cobb, senior vice president/director of Design, Architecture & Sustainability for the Albert Kahn family of companies.

Because Detroit is less developed than Chicago, New York or other large metropolitan city, it presents architects with great opportunities. There are endless areas of potential. The whole city practically is a project in the making. And there is a community that wants to be more connected than ever before.

“We have treasures here that are envied elsewhere,” said Cobb, who also is the current AIA-MI president.

LeRoy wants the region to grab onto something significant – perhaps declare ourselves as the country's most sustainable city – and then the architecture could grow up around that. Then, ideas like urban agriculture could thrive. A land-holding strategy could gain traction. We would have something substantial to hold onto going forward.

“With Detroit, you can't take a short view. It's going to take decades of development,” LeRoy said.

There are small heroes across the region willing to make it happen, noted Joongsub Kim, an associate professor for Lawrence Tech and coordinator of The Detroit Studio project in the city. Neighborhood groups are taking over land. They are mobilizing their limited resources in the right direction. And they want the so-called experts, intelligentsia or whoever will listen to help them envision the Detroit of their dreams.

These smaller projects – rather than former Detroit Mayor Colman Young's big visions like the Renaissance Center – is what will make Detroit's growth more real, said Mark Nickita, president of Archive DS, Detroit-based architects and urbanists. Small businesses are the heart of it all, especially in the much promoted Midtown area.

One benefit is that Detroit draws some talented young architects, AIA members agreed. In fact, many seek out Detroit-based firms mainly because they want to be downtown or near the city center, Mark said. They are the anti-suburbs generation – the ones who want to be a part of Detroit's future. This is part of the hoped for “creative class” that some believe will bring Detroit back.

“(Detroit) is an attractive place because you can make a difference. You can see the opportunities to have an impact,” added Tracy Petrella, an up-and-coming architect at Fanning Howey, an architecture and engineering firm in Novi. “There's such a concentration of creative energy in Detroit.”

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  • 1

    Great Karen!


    If what I have been saying in other treads prompted this, then great and let us pray that the thread does not get bogged down by someone who has absolutely no understanding what so ever.

    The slam against Mayor Young is neither called for nor correct. Pierre Heftler is the person who deserves credit for Rencen. He was the Ford Family Attorney. He showed the model to me when I was building the Center for Creative Studies, as Michigan's first CM, and was quite excited about it. When he showed it to me I told him that we had to bend down and crease our pants and pretend that we were looking at it from street level. I then exclaimed "It can't possibly be!" And he said what?

    I said look at those things along Jefferson Avenue... this design is terrible! It has shut itself off from the City and it appears that there is nowhere enough parking.

    So he coughed and didn't know what to say except that they were told that the design did include adequate parking. So I pursued and said, why didn't Henry do it? And he wanted to know what that meant. I said that since it is the largest project in the World why didn't they hire Skidmore and do the tallest building i the world?

    I also pointed out that it did not relate to the river.
    There was absolutely nothing going on that would make it fun.

    I had worked on the Atlanta Airport and knew Portman's work and knew about Portman from my architect friends there. He was not respected as a designer in Atlanta... just parlaying off of some young creative talent.

    He coughed again and interestingly enough Matt Cullen finally did set about with Skidmore to clean up the mess. What they did sure improved things but just imagine what they could have done had they gotten the project from he get go. Hatts off to Matt and if GM decides to walk away from the building it will be a disaster for Detroit.

    When Ren Cen originally opened there was a great atrium and a beautiful gold woven piece by Gerhardt Knodel form Cranbrook who later became President of the Art School and did an utterly magnificent job of it.
    Gary saved the School.

    Wally Ford thanked me for Introducing him to Gary.

    And later Pierre said to me that it should have been placed on the other side of Jefferson. Interesting.

    Later Draper Hill and I discussed the parking structures that were being put up and how they blocked the view of the River. Draper did an editorial cartoon on that and I have it along with some others relating to what was happeninig downtown.

    After building the CCS I moved into the Scarab Club and my wife and I gathered behind Preservation Wayne. Marilyn Florek remarked at the 30th reunion that we had been wonderful supporters and nurturers.

    It was there that a number of us built People for Downtwn Hudsons (we met at the club) and tried to thwart the demolition of that building. We did have to go up against Coleman and while the National Trust folded under pressure, Coleman no longer pressed to have it demolished. It is totally wrong to slam or disparage him.

    Finally RF got his way when Dennis became Mayor and what seemed to me to be one of the most despicable acts ever committed by an Architectural Firm, they assisted in the demolition of Hudsons.

    That building was perfect for a wonderful Automotive History Museum, archival center and Hall of Fame. Downtown needed a natioinal draw and that certainly would have been.

    Now we get to stare at those hideous stub columns that I have joked about as perfect pedestals for George Segal like busts of all the stupid white men trying to destroy downtown in the name of "wonderful" demolition.

    So where do we go from here in this mad dash to demolish everything?

    It is utterly shameful the way Rick Ruffner was treated.
    He was on the verge of making wonderful things happen with Tiger Stadium and was deviously brushed aside.

    Keep this kind of thing up and there won't be anything left and then someone will step up and say, "Oh my, where did it go?" Now that Ficano has abandoned the Count Building is it next?

    Several very nice new buildings were done by Ken Neuman and add tremendously. Sad that he passed on.

    Thank someone for demolisng the horrible red light bar that Gino Rosetti and Al did on Washington Boulevard. That was a great street, and the restoration of the original lighting really does bring back some class.

    The Book Building really is an early skyscraper and it is as eclectic as all get out... somewhat humorous with the Chateau in the Sky, but certainly full of interest.

    Said it before... a City is very much like a party, you want to have one or not?

    Birmigham has become the new downtown of Metro Detroit. Was it really right to ruin that cute little town in order to do this... the new White Downtown?

    When we went to meet with the people from Hudson's we got into a discussion about parking and not enough of it and we were countered by Joe Bianco, their PR guy, that Hudsons did put up parking... well really not enough but in the subsequent years a lot of parking has gone in and two of them are remarkable in their good designs. Joe later lost 20m for the Art Institute... somehow I am alway suspicious of super well dressed guys. Almost grabbed his jacket to see if the label bore the words, "Hudson's".

    So we still face abandonment as a huge issue. Karamanos did the right thing in locating downtown but are there enough people like him who understand City?

    I wonder. And it does seem to me that the University of Michigan should step up to the plate, and schedule the demolition of the hideous Dearborn Campus and buy up some buildings downtown when they are now bargains and put the students right in Downtown. Boston and Philadelphia are vital because of the Colleges imbedded within them. Perhaps the Architectural schools of UofD, Lawrence and Michigan should all be downtown, together or not.

    One of the main purposes in supporting Preservation Wayne was to display that Detroit actually was safe and that there was some wonderful Architectural History and to cause people to choose to move back in.

    I did go to Coleman and suggest that we have that great International housing competition to design
    "New Paradigm Habitats" after looking at what Mies did for Lafayette Park. He supported the notion but JS killed it at the AIA. MSHDA also is long overdue in putting up more nice developments. (You could tell by the destrucion of the Cranbrook Designed logo that the entity was falling apart).

    Perhaps this could be revived. Congratulations Alan, I think that you might be the man to pull such a thing off. It's time for some real leadersip from the AIA. The obsequeous agreements to tear everything down must stop.

    Detroit has to become a great place to live on a broad basis, not just in wonderful enclaves and the slate has been virtually wiped clean.

    Do you want to have the party or not?

    And Again, Barton Mallow had no business running that last bond issue for the DPS.

    Same for Walbridge. They do not have the skill sets to do this one properly.


  • 2

    I to think detroit is beautiful , but it gets me so upset that the city leaders refuse to do anything about our rich in history buildings why dont they make owners keep there homes and buissnesses up to code , for example the train station a beautiful building that the city would rather tear down than to protect it or revamp it..And then there is the packard plant such a shame people see fun in breaking windows and starting fires there , it is so rich in history why doesnt someone try to board it up and get guards to watch over it..and people who vandalize it should get jail time , people need to respect our past and historic places such as packard plant, i love that place and go there often i walk inside and out taking in the history, it makes me sad to see the damage done by people ,the damage well most of it has been done only in the last 3 or 4 years, since detroit police or fire department dont seem to care what happens there.and the dead beat owners who do nothing to save or tear it down ..i hope the city of detroit gets smart and starts saving what this city has left..look at the russell industrial center in detroit they revamped it and now has people renting space there to sell thier goods , like art , and handmade items i think thats a great start to saving and using the space and buildings we already have instead of letting them rot away..ok enough from me .....rita

  • 3

    When I first stumbled on the Internet in 1991 and began building the prototype for the world's first social network in 1992 I said that the Internet was a social space where people would eventually "live" and that the lead in designing it should be taken by artists and social architects so it truly could blossom into a beautiful, sustainable and comfortable living place rather than one built on advertising and enormous profits, which was clearly the direction the development of the Internet was going in. In fact, 99% of available funding centered on supporting business and technology models rather than artistic models which would give people a real purpose and stake for caring about their community.

    Living spaces are interactive. Interactivity doesn't mean walking through a door and giving the business whose door it is some more business. In an ideal world, interactivity means the person walking through the door impacts what's inside the building so that they both impact each other, extend the reach outward and all concerned grow richer as a result.

    Detroit has the opportunity to be THE city of this century just as it was THE city of the last century. I grew up here in the 50s and 60s and there was no greater place to live. That's still the Detroit I remember.

    If city planners are smart and understand that good artists, architects, designers and the like build dreams based around the set of problems they're presented with Detroit has the possibility of not only a major comeback but being a virtual blueprint for other cities who are beginning the decline that so much greed and arrogance has made a virtual certainty.


  • 4

    Rita, Here is something interesting about the Packard Plant. If you look at Youtube's P-51 Awesome Sound you will see a thread where some historic revisionists tried to say that the Rolls Royce Powered the P-51. That is simply not so. It was the Packard Merlin. Nils Joel Skrubb, a Finn who moved to Detroit and worked at Packard spent 6 months going over the engineering drawings of the merlin without lifting a pencil. He memorized the engine and made notes about converting it to American Standards and developed ideas about improving the design. Once he had it thought through, he put pencil to paper and designed the Packard Merlin.

    That engine is credited enormously with helping win the war. When Goehring heard and saw a Mustang fly over he commented that the War was over. And Indeed it was for Germany.

    So when you are wandering around the plant, imagine that sound, listen to it.. I'll send chills down your sping.

    And little did Coleman, when he was sporting around in that Plane, know what Nils did. They were both greats.

    And it was there that Bill Allison developed the Packard Torsion ride that Sir Alex Moulton admired as a kid.

    Bill in his later years in retirement and he perfected the wind engine and hit the theoretical maximum efficiency of 59%. He used to was nearly hysterical when he would see the NASA 3 bladed low efficiency fans. And a lot of dufus people are putting those and other absurd designs up.

    You'll be able to read about Bill in next month's upcoming issue of altenergy.mag. Incidentally, Bill's designs called for stainless steel construction. Can you think of the name of any city that knows how to make something out of steel?

    And let's go back to Nils. He had a son named George and George went to study Architecture at U of M and roomed with Willard Oberdick. George was reading Space Time and Architecture and threw it up against the wall and willard got up and went over and started pummeling him.

    George moved on to Harvard where they had a fledgling Planning Program. (Planning was started by Architects as a Master's Degree Program.) George returned to become the Planner at Marquette and developed some plans for the City. Then the major employer, a military base was abandoned. So George established the Oakland county Planning Commission and became the the planner all the while he wrote the enabling legislation for Urban Planning, designed and wrote the exam, and became Michigan's first Registered Urban Planner and held the #1 Certificate.

    George built the Oakland County planning commission beautifully and they developed some of the most beautiful plans ever. And then like Steve Jobs a fellow that he hired and taught decided that he should push George out of the way. For a while George was L. Brooksie's chief advisor. But I am sure that L. Brooks never grasped the magnificence of George, and probably has attempted to take most of the credit for what George accomplished.

    Listen to the sound of that Engine Rita. I'll give you the willys.


  • 5


    That is a wonderful story.

    Wow, wouldn't that have been neat what you envisioned. Maybe it can still happen.

    But I would hasten to add that it's really architect-planners that have the grasp and the vision. No mortician ever has great vision. Gerry Crane self-aggrandized and set the stage for a vacuum of creativity. Look at all the sculpture Down Town! It's almost a sculpture mess. The broken ring of solidarity that the unions contributed is almost perfectly symbolic for the never ending Republican attacks upon Union members. Remember that it was Walter Reuther who demanded excellence for Lafayette Park and Greenwald was found and he demanded to use his architect, Mies van der Rohe. And the project remains the finest of all urban renewal.

    But there is too much sculpture concentrated in one place and the Noguchi Fountain and Plaza is in Jeopardy of being demolished as well. It desperately needs to be cleaned up, the iron staines on the granite should be removed and the Stainless steel refininshed. I was sent to be with him in his New York Studio for 3 days to try and convince him into creating something of a bowl facing the river so that a concert barge could be brought up that would be the summer venue of the DSO. He refused and he wanted to design the barge which I had already won a Governor's award for In the Design Michigan Exhibition at Cranbrook.

    It seems a shame that the Calder was moved to the Art Institute. It was fine where it was, a great delight. And Detroit Deliquescence is very poorly displayed in the new College for Creative Studies Argonaut Building or Al Taubman center. But many are happy that it was removed from in front of the Federal Building.

    Why is it that all the sculpture must be clustered in one or two locations in Detroit? They need to be artfully placed.

    And if you drive I-75 where it bends away from I-375 to head Down River you see a huge and poorly shaped mound with the Ford Field as a backdrop. On top of that is an exceedingly ugly pedestal with a plaque on it which is so small that the only way you can read it is to illegally park in the service lane and climb over the barrier and scramble up the hill. I did that once but I'll be damned if I can remember what it said.

    The mound should be carefully sculpted and a beautiful sculpture should be mounted on top. Maybe a Claes Oldenburg Ford Wrench or something like that. The Ford wrench was forged and adjustable so you could make it look like an F. It would have to be Claes' largest though to carry it off.

    I once talked with Carl Owens about doing a portrait on the side of the Joe. When you drive on down the Lodge and make the swing under the bridge you could be faced with Joe Louis in his famous stance. It would have been a surprise and a delight. Carl thought that it should be delicately handled… he had it right. Huge and gentle. I did take Cynthia to visit with some portrait artists so that they could capture the toe-headed Sonny before he turned into a rock star. She rejected Carl thinking that a Black Man could not paint a white person. I think that the rejection hurt Carl more than we will ever know because when I was up in a Black owned luncheonette in Saginaw I looked up and saw a wonderful poster that what a wheel of children's heads and they were every color and race imaginable and it was so lovingly done and yes up near the top was a toe headed white child. It was enough to make me cry.

    Someone should clean up the tubular bridge that Paul Linn designed and put some colored windows in it like red and blue… it's a fun piece. Few know that Paul entered the Place Pompidou Competition for the great museum in Paris and took second place. Paul is a wonderful architect and working for Gunnar Birkerts he designed the orange Church on Lafayette Street across from King High School. I'll upset Paul by saying that Orange is a fugitive color and always fades into looking rather unkempt. The Congregation should have it painted White so that it will not chalk up and it will look stunning, perhaps with a taxis hedge and a cluster of Mountain Ash.

    So if we can get some college students downtown, who knows, maybe parts of the rampant equestrian of Colonel Jean-François Hamtramck might get polished.
    And there was a feature in the Free Press recently about tall buildings. The label read Engineering.

    Maybe Detroit can't ever get it.

  • 6

    [...] Detroit: Open for Business (Hour Detroit) – Interview with Mayor Bing, via @urbanbydesign Designing a better Detroit (Time) High Class (Hour Detroit) Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City (PBS) – Preview of [...]

  • 7

    [...] historic preservation contingent is flexing its muscles - or that its creative class recognizes the transformative potential of small projects  - or that there are plenty of residents determined (and organized) to preserve [...]

  • 8

    I agree that there are many creative opportunities to build on Detroit's architectural legacy, and the wealth of intact buildings from the first 70 years of the 20th century. Detroit's authenticity is an immense draw for the people that will drive its 21st century renewal.
    It's important to do everything possible to save these early and mid-century treasures for future development so that this authenticity-which has been lost (or never had) in many other cities-remains.

  • 9

    [...] MORE: Designing a New Detroit [...]

  • 10


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