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Buildings rescued, ridiculed as much progress is made

December 11, 2003



It's been a busy year in metro Detroit architecture.

If we didn't have a single defining moment in local architecture -- nothing like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or Santiago Calatrava's Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum -- at least we did see several important projects open, get started or be announced.

Today, let's take a look at the buildings, trends and controversies that defined metro Detroit's architectural year in 2003.

Historic preservation

In the most important victory of 2003, the City of Detroit finally is taking preservation of historic architecture seriously. That's a momentous change after decades in which Detroit officialdom proved indifferent or even hostile to the idea of saving and reusing the city's historic buildings.

The biggest wins -- although both are still tentative at best -- are moves by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration to remake the Book-Cadillac Hotel as a modern hotel and Michigan Central Depot as the city's police headquarters. In addition, there are lots of smaller buildings being remade as lofts and other uses after years of standing empty.

Why the change? Partly it stems from the creation of new investment funds that bridge the gap between what bankers will lend and what some of these deals actually cost. Then, too, a recent court decision made it a little easier to clear title to many of these older buildings.

But I'd like to think that a change of heart also played a role. After years of destroying our built heritage for the dubious advantage of more surface parking lots, Detroit finally seems to understand that preservation is key. It's an important, even essential, piece of the city's revival.

Detroit riverfront

Final plans for the eastern riverfront makeover will be unveiled next week. But from the preliminary ideas we've seen so far it appears that at long last Detroit will rescue its waterfront from misuse and abandonment and convert it to parks, recreation and new development.

If done correctly, this work would do more than create a few pretty bicycle paths along the water. It also would help change the way Detroiters think and feel about their city.

Greenfield Village

The best work of architectural design to come on line this year wasn't a building but the newly remade landscape design for Greenfield Village. Led by Northville-based Grissim Metz Andriese Associates, working with design consultant JGA Inc. of Southfield, the team took a scattered collection of quaint buildings and, by adding new roads and paths, a new pond and bridge, a new entry and updated signs, among other features, transformed this local landmark into a coherent, exciting historical park.

Small projects

As always, some of the most interesting projects this year were the smallest.

Bloomfield Hills-based Gunnar Birkerts crafted an ingenious solution to the need for a new parish hall at St. Ambrose Catholic Church, which straddles the Detroit-Grosse Pointe Park line. Trying not to obscure the classic 1920s facade of the church, Birkerts designed a delightful underground room lit in part by skylights from a plaza at ground level.

Then, too, Birmingham architects Doug McIntosh and Mike Poris showed how much can be done with inventive lighting techniques in Panacea, a nightclub that inhabits the innards of a 1920s bank building in downtown Detroit's financial district. Panacea (which actually opened at the end of 2002) is stripped to the walls and minimally designed, but the room pulses with energy thanks to the effective use of light and shadow.

Among the many examples of high-end residential architecture, I'll single out Birmingham architect John Gardner's design for a private home at 1914 Stanley in the suburb. While the black exterior on the rebuilt bungalow stands out only minimally from its neighbors on its traditional residential street, the interior glows with a serene openness that combines Asian tranquillity with an industrial chic.


It was a good year for libraries. The reopening this month of the downtown Skillman branch of the Detroit Public Library reacquainted many with this architectural gem. And the thoughtful restoration, overseen by J. Michael Kirk of Detroit-based SmithGroup, revealed the original luster of the 1932 structure beneath 70 years of paint jobs and duct work.

Meanwhile, a new main library in Southfield opened at midyear to good reviews. Dallas-based Phillips Swager Associates created a mix of environments to suit readers of all interests, from a playful children's room to a serene Arts-and-Crafts-based reading lounge. The exterior doesn't do nearly so well, failing to connect with the rest of the nearby Southfield Civic Center, but nonetheless this remains a success.

Controversy, too

It was also a good year for architectural disputes.

At the top of the list was Rossetti Associates'design for the new Compuware headquarters downtown. Everyone celebrated the arrival of the software giant and the opening of the Hard Rock Cafe and Borders bookstore in the building. But the Compuware building's suburban-office-park exterior and the somewhat overwrought giant glass entrance left many people shaking their heads.

Meanwhile, Southfield architect Ken Neumann's design for the new Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills might have brought the most vituperative responses. With a stark literalism and a willingness to shock, Neumann wreathed the exterior of his center with barbed-wire-like cables, built what resembles a guard tower at the entrance and in many other ways evoked the horror of the Nazi death camps. And all this along a busy suburban thoroughfare.

Many critics found the imagery a painful yet necessary evocation of the past. Others were merely offended. Still others found the symbolism too obvious, rather like a theme park version of the Holocaust.

Whatever judgment prevails, this much remains true: Neumann's interior progression of spaces, in which the design leads visitors from sunlight to midnight terror and back to sunlight, is masterfully done.

Finally, the new Max Fisher Music Center in Detroit opened to widespread acclaim. But it's worth noting that the center offers a good if somewhat routine modernist solution to the Detroit Symphony's space needs.

Interestingly, when architects were interviewed for the job, the overseers of the Max passed up a chance to hire the idiosyncratically creative husband-wife team of Todd Williams and Billie Tsien of New York. Their recent natatorium (swimming facility) at Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills is one of the most beautiful and emotionally satisfying new buildings in southeastern Michigan.

Instead, the Max team hired Toronto-based Diamond and Schmitt Architects on the strength of their ability to produce big projects on time and on budget. It was an understandable choice but perhaps not an inspired one.

It's the future

If there's any theme to this list, it's that many of our most promising projects -- the riverfront, the train depot and Book-Cadillac renovations -- won't be done for years. That they will be finished at all we must take on faith for now.

That's a shaky proposition in Detroit, where the ratio of buildings announced to buildings built must run at least 10 to 1.

Yet there is room for optimism. A muscular city is starting to build again. Not since Detroit's long decline began a half-century ago has there been this much reason to cling to hope for the city's architectural future.

John Gallagher is architecture critic for the Free Press and coauthor of AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture. Contact him at 313-222-5173 or [email protected]

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man oh man they have been busy I'm gald that they have saved and restored so many wonderful buildings this year I can't wait to see what 2004 has instore for the city of Detroit and the buildings in the city. Thanks Allan

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