Notes from Detroit

By: Anne-Catrin Schultz, PhD | Assistant Professor

Detroit in the last few years might not be the obvious location for an architecture and design related conference. It has been in the press frequently with what sounded like bad news – loss of population, bankruptcy. Signaling optimism and acknowledging the relevance of urban, economic and social change, the ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) annual meeting took place in Detroit in March 2017 under the motto “Move to Detroit.”

Townhouse Building, Lafayette Park, Detroit, Michigan. [Photo by author]

Townhouse Building, Lafayette Park, Detroit, Michigan. [Photo by author]

A series of sessions over the course of three days shed light on the current state of faculty research, pedagogy and student work in architecture education. Presentations and discussions included themes such as urban landscapes, smart cities and the role of public space as well as analog and digital design research in design studio education. Pressing themes of current discourse of architecture practice appear also in architectural education: Housing (in the face of climate change and other environmental challenges), health and equity, collaborative practice, contemporary representation (the role of the drawing) and Artificial Intelligence. Several sessions also discussed small and not so small interventions in Detroit and the partnerships that allow these projects to be realized. Change is manifesting itself in unusual collaborations that strive to revitalize and re-use, re-structure and repair social and urban textures.

During the conference, a new journal was introduced, complementing the existing publication of JAE Journal of Architectural Education (www.jaeonline.org): TAD–Technology Architecture and Design (http://www.tadjournal.org/Editors.html). According to the website, this publication is dedicated to the “field of building technology with a focus on its translation, integration, and impact on architecture and design. Remarkable will be the simultaneous print and online existence of the journal, sharing background data and research processes in addition to finalized articles.” The editors discussed the hybrid nature of the publication, which will share classic research texts in print and supplement with actual research data accompanying the outcome online.

Apartment Tower, Lafayette Park, Detroit, Michigan. [Photo by author]

Apartment Tower, Lafayette Park, Detroit, Michigan. [Photo by author]

Offered as part of the conference were also several city tours, one of which was a walking tour through Lafayette Park, a major urban renewal project on Detroit’s east side, built in the 1950s and 1960s. In walking distance to downtown Detroit, this area was developed in a period that according to historian William Curtis was defined by “unparalleled prosperity and relative optimism.”1

The new superblock development replaced a neighborhood called “black bottom” which was classified as slum and subsequently removed. Chicago developer Herbert Greenwald made a proposal for redevelopment hiring the architect Mies van der Rohe and urban planner Ludwig Hilbersheimer in collaboration with landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. The German architect Mies van der Rohe was heading the architecture program at what is now IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) and is well known for his IIT campus plan, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York city. Ludwig Hilbersheimer headed the department of urban and regional planning at IIT. His work is characterized by the search for the form of the modern (decentralized) city and a strong interest in the social conditions behind planning. Alfred Caldwell, a poet, civil engineer and landscape architect was also involved in teaching at IIT. He wrote the influential book “The new city; principles of planning,” published in 1944. Caldwell was an early advocate of environmental consciousness, a prolific writer of poetry and landscape related essays.

The team designed a neighborhood featuring a park-like setting with two high rise buildings and 186 ground level townhouses organized in low long blocks. The familiar Mies van der Rohe aesthetic, based on standardized steel elements and glass facades seems only appropriate in a place where standardized car manufacturing defined the economy and people’s work environments. Structural clarity and a modular system is complemented by glass skins offering transparency especially perceived from the inside of the dwellings. Living rooms give the sensation of being inside and outside simultaneously, a feeling that must be enhanced when the trees bear their leaves (which was not the case in March). Lafayette Park must have seemed out of place when initially implemented during a time when the white middle class was fleeing to the suburbs and the ideal family dwelling as a freestanding house.

A designated landmark since 2015, Lafayette Park is part of a collage of urban approaches that unfolded in Detroit and other American Cities in the 20th century and are still evolving. As a shrinking city, post-industrial Detroit is undergoing once more a (slow) renewal that sees expansion of social and cultural programming almost on a molecular scale while contemplating reorganization and re-envisioning on a macro scale, all of which makes Detroit worth a trip.

1 Curtis, William J.R. Modern Architecture since 1900. London: Phaidon, 2013. Print.