Detroit was never a beautiful city, but it had a muscular grandeur—broad boulevards radiating from its riverfront core, stolid stone-faced office towers crowding its downtown streets. The mammoth auto factories—including the innovative 1903 Packard plant by Albert Kahn, with its huge spans of column-free spaces—anchored more distant neighborhoods, surrounded by neat grids of wood-frame bungalows. Elsewhere there was street after street of more houses—many large and handsome, nestled under leafy canopies of trees. With so many streets of houses—cut through by wide avenues lined with mom-and-pop stores and small machine shops—the city seemed to go on forever toward the horizon: a vast, flat metropolis, 139 square miles of forever.
In the 1950s, Detroit was the fifth-most-populous city in America, with almost 2 million people, riding a decades-long surge of prosperity. Its wealth supported elegant downtown stores and white-starched restaurants, a first-rate symphony, and an exceptional art museum. Underpinning all the manufacturing and money was an industrious, up-by-the-bootstraps culture, buoyed up by waves of immigrants—Poles, Greeks, Germans, Irish, Mexicans, poor whites from Appalachia, African-Americans from the deep South—who kept remaking the neighborhoods with their own ingredients to create a vibrant urban stew. “The black middle class was born in Detroit in the ’50s,” said Maurice Cox, the city’s visionary new planning director. “It was the locus of the American dream.”
The death of that dream is sometimes marked as the summer of 1967, exactly 50 years ago, when civil unrest erupted in Detroit, during which 43 people were killed. But white flight and the closing or exodus of the auto factories to the suburbs had begun long before, leaving behind deep wounds of racism, displacement, and poverty. By the time the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history was filed, in 2013, Detroit’s population was 700,000 and still bleeding; many of its neighborhoods were as desolate as a moonscape, dotted with burned-out buildings and—for a city that once boasted exceptionally high homeownership rates—80,000 abandoned, decaying houses.
But Detroit has always had its believers—local nonprofits and foundations that spurred redevelopment; many loyal residents who held out hope; the artists, musicians, and millennials who came in the last decade, lured by cheap rents and a hipster vibe; and, of course, big investors like the developer Dan Gilbert, chief of Quicken Loans, who moved his company downtown from the suburbs in 2009 and saw gold in the 75 or so undervalued properties he has since snapped up.
Today, less than three years after Detroit emerged from bankruptcy, the mood is upbeat. “There’s great optimism, within certain areas,” said architect Lorcan O’Herlihy, of Los Angeles, who is working on four projects in Detroit and recently opened an office there. “People are really looking to the future.” There are cranes and construction crews all over downtown, and in pockets elsewhere, and much more development is on the way. “In the last three to five years, there has been a lot of progress,” said Sue Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit, a nonprofit that promotes economic development in a neighborhood where key medical, cultural, and educational institutions are based. Midtown now is so desirable that students and many urban pioneers can no longer afford to live there.
Yet there is a disconnect between the rush to build the future in certain parts of the city and the reality faced by many Detroiters who live in crumbling neighborhoods, among the vacant houses and weed-filled lots, beyond the reach of gentrification. As Thomas J. Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, wrote in a new preface to his award-winning history, “It will take more than a few thousand hipsters or white urban professionals . . . to revitalize a sprawling, mostly African- American, working-class city of 700,000.”
Nonetheless, revitalization rushes onward, creating abundant opportunities for architects and designers. Last month, Dan Gilbert’s development company unveiled a scheme for what will be the tallest building in the city (take that, Renaissance Center, the shiny, turreted John Portman complex from 1977). Designed by SHoP architects of New York, the building, with its over-the-top swoopy curves and slicedout volumes, looks far more radical than anything else in Detroit. The skyscraper, on the downtown site of the old Hudson’s Department Store, will be largely a 52-story luxuryapartment tower, but its nine-story, mixed-use podium will contain an expansive indoor-outdoor civic space. “It’s got to connect at the street level, to draw people in,” said Rainy Hamilton, Jr., a native Detroiter and founding principal of Hamilton Anderson Associates, the city’s largest African- American–owned architecture firm, which is teamed with SHoP on the project.
Another huge downtown project, this one nearing completion, is an arena close to the city’s two other stadia, Ford Field and Comerica Park (Detroiters are passionate sports fans). Designed by HOK for the Ilitch family—the founders of Little Caesar’s pizza, who are major local developers—the arena where the Red Wings will play hockey and the Pistons shoot hoops will open next fall, and eventually will be surrounded by a 50-block complex of offices, entertainment venues, retail, apartments, and a hotel.
Meanwhile, ground has been broken for the biggest new multi-unit housing development in Detroit since Mies van der Rohe designed the still-sublime Lafayette Park, in the late 1950s and early ’60s. City Modern, another Dan Gilbert development, is in a neighborhood called Brush Park, not far from downtown and Eastern Market, the city’s great food and farmer’s emporium, which has been in continuous operation since 1891. With 410 units of apartments, duplexes, and townhouses, the mid-rise City Modern exemplifies Detroit’s current planning strategy: to densify key hubs, while leaving large swaths of land open for restoration as bioswales, parks, or urban agriculture. (This concept was an essential recommendation in 2012 of a long-term strategic framework plan by Detroit Future City, as the most realistic way to revitalize a deteriorating city of such large geographical sprawl.) The idea, too, is to exploit the talents of some top small firms, who will each design a piece of City Modern housing; they are O’Herlihy; Merge, the Boston office headed by Elizabeth Whittaker; Studio Dwell of Chicago; as well as Hamilton Anderson and another local firm, Christian Hurttienne. The plan for the mixed-use, mixed-income complex calls for contemporary designs of varying heights and materials, and also nods to the neighborhood’s history by incorporating three restored Victorian brick mansions that survived on the site.
Among the most appealing designs in Detroit these days are some much smaller transformations, ones that fearlessly, and inexpensively, deploy the simplest materials and forms in inventive ways, whether it’s converting a laundromat into one of the city’s best new restaurants, the Selden Standard, or riffing on the form of the Quonset hut to make a playful live-work enclave called True North, aimed at creative tenants. That project began with a young developer, Philip Kafka, who bought five vacant acres on a typical nondescript street in central Detroit, with a few modest houses in various states of disrepair nearby. He brought in a Los Angeles architect, Edwin Chan, a veteran of Frank Gehry’s office who, though skeptical at first of Kafka’s Quonset-hut notion, realized it could work. For the collection of eight densely sited dwelling/studio structures in the project’s first phase, Chan made two key moves: he tweaked the arched form so no two houses are alike—some are stretched higher or longer or cut in half like a sausage—and he arrayed them irregularly, recognizing that the spaces in between, for small gardens and terraces, would enliven the sense of place. “You want a casualness, an informality,” he said, as well as “an industrial feel. Detroit is a tough city. We wanted it to have the spirit of early Detroit.” With materials like painted corrugated metal, and polycarbonate to clad the structure’s ends and let in daylight, True North cost only $100 a square foot to build. The first tenants, who include a curator, two chefs, and an art dealer, will move in later this spring.
While a project like that may catalyze improvements in its immediate neighborhood, the city’s seriously devastated districts need a more comprehensive approach to revival—one that ideally would tackle unemployment, failing schools, and lack of reliable mass transit. Almost 30 percent of Motor City households don’t own cars, and, so far, the only new transport to be introduced is the Q-Line, a cheery red-andwhite train that just links the 3.3 miles between the already gentrifying downtown and Midtown. And while the streetlights are now turned on in most of Detroit—a priority of the popular mayor Mike Duggan, who was elected in 2013—there are still tens of thousands of decayed houses standing that are slated for demolition, among other urgent problems.
Planning director Maurice Cox is a champion of high-caliber architecture and design, but he also sees his mission as connecting directly with people living in disenfranchised and distressed neighborhoods. “My first obligation is to make the city work for those who have stuck it out for decades,” he said. When he arrived in Detroit two years ago—trained as an architect, he most recently had been associate dean for community engagement at the architecture school at Tulane in New Orleans—he found a planning office with all the doors shut and files spilling out of stuffed cabinets; there hadn’t been a staff meeting in three years. To begin to repair the trust with longtime citizens, he appointed design directors to work in three districts outside downtown and expanded the staff to nearly 30 people, including architects, landscape architects, and historic-preservation experts. The staff is diverse in terms of gender and race; many new hires are African-American, like Cox himself.
Current planning initiatives range from the hugely ambitious—a plan to redevelop 400 acres of a formerly industrial area along the Detroit riverfront that was unveiled last month—to the smallest interventions, such as painting stripes on roadways to reduce traffic lanes and create bike paths (Cox is an avid biker around the city). The Chicago office of SOM, along with French landscape architect Michel de Vigne, won the competition to plan the riverfront project.
Meanwhile, Cox and his team have been targeting future hubs farther out in the city that could be transformed into “20-minute neighborhoods”—centers where, eventually, there would be restaurants at different price points, a quality school, a grocery store, and a park, all within a 20-minute walk from housing. Last winter, the city awarded $1.6 million to four teams, selected after an RFP, to come up with frameworks for revitalizing four neighborhoods, each with its own challenges. O’Herlihy, for example, is part of the team led by Design Workshop of Denver, for an area in northwest Detroit, where poor infrastructure and flooding are serious problems. Andre Brumfield of Gensler is heading another team, with landscape architect Walter Hood of Berkeley, California, planning interventions in the Rosa Parks/Clairmont neighborhood, along what was once a thriving African-American-business street, where the 1967 unrest first broke out. Steven Lewis, an architect who is an urban design director in the city’s planning office, and is working with Brumfield and Hood on their project, spends most evenings at community meetings, explaining plans, getting feedback from residents, and helping connect them to resources for their own properties. “We want people to have a sense of progress,” says Lewis, “that it’s not being done for them but rather done with them.”
Despite the daunting scale of the problems, it’s worth remembering that Detroit has tremendous assets. It is the busiest North American border crossing, perched on the edge of a major waterway. It is the core of a five-county metropolitan region of 5 million people, with the 13th-highest GDP in the U.S. And it has a rich architectural legacy—of buildings by Kahn, Minoru Yamasaki, and many others from the 20th century, and earlier, that are worth preserving. A small blessing of decades-long economic stagnation is that fewer historic buildings were bulldozed in the name of progress—but that has led to what Cox calls “one of the most vexing challenges” —what to do with thousands of solid, vacant structures. Detroit is already the capital of adaptive reuse, but there are many more old schools, banks, churches, houses, and industrial buildings awaiting the touch of a sensitive designer.
It might seem surprising, but Detroit is the only designated UNESCO design city in America. Its long history of industrial and commercial design, as well as its past maker culture, has been reborn in 21st-century terms. At the current Sainte-Etienne Design Biennale in France (it runs until April 9th), Detroit is the guest of honor, celebrated for its contemporary design culture. And the U.S. pavilion exhibition The Architectural Imagination, from last year’s Venice Biennale, is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (Architectural Record is the media sponsor) where, museum staff reports, it has attracted a new, younger audience. While that exhibition of speculative projects, for four Detroit sites, drew a mixed response in Venice, the idea that architecture and architectural thinking are incompatible with addressing the urgent problems of Detroit’s neighborhoods is misguided. Architectural thinking is a vital part of the mix, and the city should strongly encourage contemporary architectural excellence.
A new culture of architecture is growing in Detroit, as local practices receive more commissions, and architects from outside move to the city. “We used to struggle to get young architects to come to Detroit,” said Michael Poris, whose firm, McIntosh Poris, has worked in the city since 1994. Rainy Hamilton saw his office mushroom from 40 to 70 people last year and is now flooded with résumés. “I’ve always seen the potential for Detroit,” he said. “I knew that, sooner or later, the rest of the world is going to acknowledge that.”