The Architectural Imagination presents twelve new speculative architecture projects designed for specific sites in Detroit but with far-reaching applications for cities around the world. As the home of the automobile industry, the free-span concrete factory, Motown, and techno, Detroit was once a center of American imagination, not only for the products it made but also for its modern architecture and modern lifestyle, which captivated audiences worldwide. Today, like many post-industrial cities, it is coping with the effects of a declining population and an urban landscape pockmarked with blight. Nonetheless, having emerged from bankruptcy, there is new excitement in Detroit to imagine the city’s possible futures, both in the downtown core and in its many neighborhoods. Believing in the potential of architecture to catalyze change, the curators selected visionary American architecture practices to address these futures. With the help of an eleven-member Detroit advisory board, they also selected four sites for the projects: a lot in Mexicantown, a riverfront post office, parcels along the Dequindre Cut, and the Packard Plant. The architects worked with Detroit residents to understand neighborhood aspirations before devising the programs and forms exhibited here. The projects not only demonstrate the value and diversity of the architectural imagination but also have the potential to spark the collective imagination, and thus launch new conversations about the importance of architecture in Detroit and cities everywhere.
The New Zocalo
Pita & Bloom
The New Zocalo is an urban platform. Hovering 16 feet above street level and aligned with the adjacent rail yard, the platform’s colorful textured paving, series of gardens, and broad oblique walkways reconfigure the complex geometry of Detroit’s historic Woodward Plan. This new place of public exchange supports six clusters of buildings, including a theater with a restaurant, a recreation center, a winter garden with a cafe, a marketplace accommodating indoor and outdoor retail, a band shell, and a cultural center. By raising the plaza, Pita & Bloom provide on-site parking below and separate public space from the heavy traffic at street level. This makes for a campus-like destination for Mexicantown and for all Detroiters. The figural structures, both enclosed buildings and open frameworks, are hybrid forms generated from the combination of the profiles and plans of typical Detroit buildings. Color palettes found on and around the site are methodically blended, faded, and oversaturated to produce an unexpected new color medley for the paving and building facades, coalescing the buildings and platform into an immersive public place. By reimagining familiar Detroit settings and synchronizing color and form, the New Zocalo becomes a new cultural and commercial hub, both for the city and for the neighborhood.
Mexicantown: A Liminal Blur
Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects
This project is no less or more a building than Mexicantown is or is not a place. It is an attempt to embody the poetics of Mexicantown through the discipline of architecture. For the architects, these poetics flourish within a humanely motivated social contract that recognizes the value of civility across the distinctions of diversity and in the face of limited resources. Mexicantown is defined by its thresholds: physical, cultural, and spiritual. Rather than make a building, the architects propose a program that supports all of Mexicantown’s constituencies. The program is a collection of centers and opportunities open to appropriation and change. The essential elements include spaces for existing and future community organizations, open plazas of various sizes and configurations, a tower to give residents a privileged view to the far horizon, and a grotto below grade – an escape from reality. Other elements are to be determined by the community. The collage is a collection of bric-a-brac from Mexicantown; the plates are registrations of traces, infrastructure, program, and a fictive future. The model is a translation device, giving visible form to the nonobvious. It is analytical – the conjoining of research and interpretation in precise physical form echoing Mexicantown’s layered richness.
The Promised Air proposal for Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit engages the consequences of North American infrastructure for urban housing, industrial plants, international institutions, and air quality. Less than two miles from the Mexicantown site, the Gordie Howe International Bridge linking Canada and the United States, to be completed in 2020, will terminate in a customs plaza expected to displace some 900 Detroiters. A(n) Office conceives of its program as layers of remediation – remediating the displacement of nearby residents, remediating the proliferation of trucks in residential neighborhoods, and remediating the air pollution caused by industry and diesel engines. The project seeks to explore architecture’s capacity to reshape the relationships between industry and urban life. From the urban scale of the new residential blocks, open to the surrounding neighborhood, to the phased construction of poured-in-place and pneumatically formed concrete, A(n) Office proposes to use air both as a means of freight transport and building services and as a medium for construction with inflatable shells and double membranes. The project also introduces new infrastructure in the form of pneumatic channels that carry waste directly to designated freight train cars, reimagining rail as a 21st-century sewer and waste system.
The formerly industrial waterfront west of Downtown is still occupied by a US post office and mail-sorting facility. Its street wall along West Fort Street effectively blocks easy access from historic Corktown, where residents live in restored homes, to West Riverfront Park, an underdeveloped open space that overlooks the Detroit River.
Preston Scott Cohen Inc.
Revolving Detroit is in essence a void, the absence of a building. But unlike the thousands of unintended absences elsewhere in the city, this void is a purposeful consequence, filled with spiraling ramps that transform from orthogonal to hexagonal to elliptical and back. The project takes its form from the historic Woodward Plan circles. A promenade cuts through the post office building and leads to a landing below the new structure’s undulating roof. It bypasses a courtyard via two ramps, then reaches a landing that coincides with the roof’s surface. An integrated 10-story building defines the beginning and end of the loop. The entire roof surface appears as a coherent geometrical figure that is being manipulated and torqued by its context, representing a new relationship between what are usually autonomous urban and architectural figures. Revolving Detroit welcomes the automobile, invites visitors to the city’s waterfront, and reverses the process that infamously transformed the historic Michigan Theatre into a parking garage. As the city rejuvenates, Revolving Detroit’s parking decks can be redeveloped as theaters, educational facilities, and athletic spaces. In direct contrast to the cylinders of the Renaissance Center, the proposed geometry connects disassociated public spaces. In this way, the hyperboloids of revolution participate in turning Detroit around.
The Next Port of Call
The Next Port of Call introduces a number of architectural interventions in the existing George W. Young Post Office and an array of new structures in the open space between the building and the river. It defines gradients of densification, from residential to industrial, through a loose composition of solids and voids that not only changes one’s perceptions of built space but also acknowledges the value of the spaces, or vacancies, in between. The post office’s administrative tower is largely maintained while the distribution facility, a seemingly impenetrable wall along West Fort Street, is animated by boring through walls and floors to create passageways, view ports, and display windows that open the building to the street and the riverfront to the neighborhood. The park between the post office and the river, conceived as a port of call, becomes a field of new pavilion-like structures hosting a variety of overlapping programs, including an amphitheater, a dock, and a port of entry for water transit between the United States and Canada. A new inlet cut into the site offers seasonal water activities. Together the new buildings and landscapes connect urban networks to intimate neighborhood rooms, enhancing civic life by amplifying the potential for multiple urban experiences.
Rather than address the two-block post office site alone, Present Future looks at the entire 250-block area bounded by multi-lane highways and the Detroit River and proposes to develop a New Corktown in 10-year phases over the next 50 years. This period is synchronized with the typical five-year cycle of population shifts, 25-year life cycle of trees, and 50-year life cycle of buildings. The architects imagine the renewal of the district’s urban fabric as a high-density environment that uses Corktown’s existing urban infrastructure to achieve low-cost housing and respond to the challenges of climate change. There are two areas of concern: open-space tree plantations (typically one block wide and five blocks long) and high-density cross-laminated timber construction. Rising as high as 40 stories, prefabricated timber housing modules are assembled next to carbon plantations. Thus the carbon cycle is reproduced within the city, creating a material culture that extracts carbon from the atmosphere through the tree plantations while reducing energy consumption through optimized urban density. The antithesis of a master plan, New Corktown seeks to reestablish the ancient cycle of occupation, obsolescence, and renewal in conjunction with agricultural cycles of tree plantations conceived as urban forests and carbon sinks.
The L-shaped site is bounded on the southern edge by Division Street and spans the newest leg of the Dequindre Cut, a former railway trench gradually being transformed into a pedestrian and bicycle greenway. To the west is Eastern Market, with its large food- stall sheds; to the north, signature water towers and the redbrick Detroit Edison Public School Academy (seen from Division Street bridge).
Dequindre Civic Academy
Marshall Brown Projects
Dequindre Civic Academy (DCA) is more than a school. Marshall Brown Projects imagines it as the physical manifestation of America’s motto, E pluribus unum – out of many, one. The proposed 2.7 million-square-foot facility is a coordinate unit: a single architectural entity able to synthesize many diverse programs and spaces. The idea of the coordinate unit was developed by John Portman, architect of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, who describes it as “a total environment in which practically all of a person’s needs are met...a village where everything is within reach of the pedestrian.” The green-tinted concrete buildings provide a total environment with enough space and all of the facilities for its many inhabitants to thrive, including a community college, workshops, faculty apartments, a worship center, an observatory, dining halls, a clinic, and a library. The megastructure’s main spine contains DCA’s primary school. It bridges the Dequindre Cut and is supported by unique “cloven” columns that create a sense of ceremonial passage for pedestrians. DCA is also a gateway, connecting Eastern Market to the neighborhoods east of the Cut, where the decline in property values has placed renewed attention on the use value of architecture as civic infrastructure and aesthetic experience.
A Situation Made From Loose and Overlapping Social and Architectural Aggregates
The MOS proposal works with and within the overlapping and disaggregated connections between urban and social form. Situated above and around the Dequindre Cut, it uses a low-rise high-density development – produced through the loose arrangement of empty types, frameworks, and open spaces – to connect existing conditions with a new urban fabric. At grade, a neighborhood of common spaces links the community with the Cut and the existing street system. The structure and circulation are based on the economical model of highway and parking structures. A series of spiral ramps punctuate the structure, connecting all levels with pedestrian and vehicular traffic. A perennial garden and plaza extend across the roof, creating a network of spaces for recreation and social gathering. Thin buildings maximize the surface area of their facades, and in turn maximize daylighting. The emptied typologies serve as an open framework for something else, imagined by someone else, to happen. They are owned collectively, they do not front streets, and they work outside conventional notions of property and lots. The thresholds between interior and exterior – roofs, ramps, porches, and overhangs – provide informal areas for neighbors to commune. Every exterior space is a public space; every interior space is a public space.
A New Federal Project
Zago Architecture responds to the Obama administration’s recent decision to increase the number of refugees admitted annually to the United States by proposing a program to settle 68,000 refugees in Detroit over a nine-year period. Deploying novel architectural forms as a means of direct political engagement, the architects project architectural agendas onto broad urban problems like immigration to make a positive contribution to a city that is itself at great risk. A New Federal Project moves beyond modern planning’s imagined collectives to address the awkward yet liberating coexistence of new constituencies. It proposes a constellation of differences – not just different architectural objects or urban fields to contain those objects but also occasions for these features to leap across categorical boundaries of scale, hierarchy, and material to perform unexpected urban roles. In this emancipation of categories, fields and objects splinter and masquerade as one another, with leitmotifs of the grid, the lattice, and the filigree holding them together. The five new buildings arranged around and near the Dequindre Cut house new refugee services and public functions. Over time, the structures are repurposed to host programs for all Detroiters.
The eight-block-long Packard Plant
is bisected by East Grand Boulevard, which one of the original Kahn System buildings fronts. The buildings north of the boulevard (visible in the aerial photo) may have sprouted roof vegetation, but the structural system, like the mushroom columns in the parking garage, is sound.
Detroit Rock City: An Urban Geology
SAA/ Stan Allen Architect
Refusing the seduction of the postindustrial ruin, Detroit Rock City uses the Packard Plant’s architecture as a platform to support a complex programmatic ecology anchored around a new institution: the Vertical Botanical Garden. It serves as a scientific center as well as a public educational space. The project operates at four interrelated levels: urban, infrastructural, architectural, and programmatic. The synthesis of parts, like the city itself, forms a larger whole – a whole not necessarily consistent but dynamic and responsive. SAA/Stan Allen Architect proposes a model for future development wherein the city is gradually repopulated through a series of dense urban nodes – islands of urbanism within a larger matrix of open space. The scale of the Packard Plant becomes its primary advantage. With over 100 acres of floor area, the complex has the critical mass to create its own urban life. Infilled surfaces produce a deep section served by systems of movement, information, and access, allowing a vibrant new programmatic ecology to flourish on the site. An array of smaller-scale architectural objects scattered throughout the available surfaces of the project enables local difference while sustaining overall coherence.
Detroit Reassembly Plant
Detroit doesn’t have a material problem; its material has an image problem. Recognizing architecture’s capacity to work on and produce both materials and images, T+E+A+M aims to reverse the perception of an excess of ruins by addressing the vacant Packard Plant as a resource replete with concrete, brick, and other building materials. Guided by their structural soundness and the cost of demolition, the architects selectively demolish the existing buildings to retrieve these materials. The concrete rubble and other materials are then mixed with plastics and other postconsumer materials recovered from Detroit’s waste streams (a process tested extensively throughout the development of the design). The resulting aggregates become new building materials that can be cast in various forms while the remaining column grids are used as structure and falsework. The project’s formal types include megamasonry mountains with hypostyle interiors, monolithic cast-in-place blocks that sit within existing structural grids, and freestanding conical sheds. These structures comprising the Detroit Reassembly Plant host a range of programs: material processing, production and fabrication of new aggregates, public exhibitions, and research for developing advanced building technologies with these new materials. By remixing and reassembling Detroit’s unwanted materials, architecture and its image become the city’s primary exports.
Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge, and Innovation
Greg Lynn FORM
The Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge, and Innovation introduces a new building type that combines transport hub, industrial park, and university, transforming the Packard Plant in response to accelerated developments in robotic manufacturing, autonomous transportation, and online retail. The complex is an animated circulation system for robots, people, and products that can be rapidly reconfigured. Founded on the integration of industrial production, communication, and transportation, it uses Cedric Price’s Detroit Think Grid, Potteries Thinkbelt, and ATOM projects of the late 1960s as templates. The existing buildings are given a “haircut” above the second floor, leaving the first two floors to host an online retail fulfillment center, a food port, an autonomous livery-car depot, an aerial-drone port, and storage for goods and materials. A sinuous 24-foot-wide, 1.7-mile-long logistics drone superhighway connects the Packard Plant’s original vertical elevator cores to create an efficient thoroughfare. The upper level holds four corporate research centers and a public auditorium and convention building, whose twisting volumes express the passage of people and goods through space. The complex is spanned by an occupied beam, along which university-owned collaboration spaces can move and dock against the research buildings, facilitating direct collaboration between private industry and higher education. Through an architecture of circulation and transformation, the proposal rethinks knowledge, industry, and innovation.
Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan and Anyone Corporation
MPdL Studio: Mónica Ponce de León, Clay Montgomery, Austin Kaa, Lauren Bebry
MPdL Studio: Mónica Ponce de León, Lauren Bebry, Austin Kaa, Clay Montgomery, Christine Metzler, with Axel Kilian, Kaicong Wu of Princeton University School of Architecture
Coordination in Venice
Chiara Barbieri, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)
Missy Ablin, McLain Clutter, Eric Dueweke, Robert Fishman, Amy Kulper, Amber La Croix, Yojairo Lomeli, Marina Lukyanchuk, Deniz McGee, Linda Mills, Liz Momblanco, Sandy Patton, Bryan Ranallo, Christian Unverzagt, Kasey Vliet, Claudia Wigger. Student Exhibition Fellows: Kristen Gandy, Ramon Hernandez, Christopher Locke, Rubin Quarcoopome, Salam Rida, Diana Tsai.
Brendan Bashin-Sullivan, Brian Butterfield, Cynthia Davidson, Apexa Patel, Chelsea Spencer
Support provided by
US Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Af- fairs; Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope; Princeton University School of Architecture; Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; Dassault Systèmes; Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown; American Institute of Architects; Architectural Record/BNP Media; John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan; University of Michigan Office of the Provost; Deshler; GS3 Global; GTM USA; Southern California Institute of Architecture; Harvard University Graduate School of Design; University of Michigan Museum of Art; Shinola; Gruppo Campari; Westin Europa & Regina, Venice; Microsoft HoloLens/Trimble
Detroit Advisory Board
Elysia Borowy-Reeder, Maurice Cox, Milton S.F. Curry, Julie Egan, Malik Goodwin, Toni L. Griffin, Dan Kinkead, Oliver Ragsdale, Thomas J. Sherry, Mark Wallace, Lawrence Williamson
Detroit Community Meeting Leaders and Advisers
Dan Carmody, Ouida Jones, Dan Kinkead, Maria Salinas, Thomas J. Sherry, Kari Smith, Samuel Smith, Bishop Corletta Vaughn, Mark Wallace, Kathy Wendler, Theresa Zajac
US Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
Jill Staggs, Barbara Jones