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Detroit needs a design icon on the skyline

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ARCHITECTURAL SIGNATURES: Detroit needs a design icon

Nothing new on the skyline sets home of 1977's RenCen apart

March 5, 2004



In the hit movie "Finding Nemo," animators wanted to let the audience know a scene was taking place in Sydney, Australia. They flashed an image of that city's famous opera house.

The trick works because the Sydney Opera House, opened in 1973 and designed byDanish architect Jorn Utzon, is so famous a work of architecture that audiences immediately make the connection. In the same way, the Eiffel Tower serves as a civic icon for Paris, just as the Empire State Building does for New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge does for San Francisco.

Now a new breed of architecture-as-civic-icon is going up around the Midwest. The trend, regrettably, has yet to arrive in Detroit. But in cities as diverse as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis and Cleveland, major new commissions are enlivening skylines and enriching debates on civic design.

The most notable example is the Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Opened in 2001, this stunning bird-like image designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has become a tourist attraction.

Then there is the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in May in Cincinnati, designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. She's believed to be the only woman to design a major American museum. An interlocking jig-saw puzzle of a building, her design offers an endlessly varying interior in which art and people can be viewed from multiple perspectives.

And, of course, Frank Gehry, the Los Angeles-based architect whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, kicked off the whole trend, has been producing look-alike examples seemingly everywhere, including an art museum in Minneapolis, a band shell in Chicago and a university building in Cleveland.

Looking for impact

Although all these new buildings reach -- somewhat self-consciously -- for a major civic impact, they do achieve it. Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum delivers an amazing visual wallop. That impact is enhanced by the nearly perfect location on the shore of Lake Michigan. His new building creates the kind of place where visitors stand open-mouthed as they stare about them.

Hadid's building in Cincinnati is less showy; it appeals, perhaps, more to architecture aficionados than to general passersby. But there's no doubt it delivers a jolt of energy to Cincinnati's downtown scene.

Detroit was supposed to get its own signature building when Renaissance Center was built in 1977. But the RenCen failed to measure up. One reason: Architect John Portman was known for using those same cylindrical glass towers in his other designs at the time, so Detroit's version looked like a copy, not an innovation.

Then, too, there were the RenCen's well-publicized faults. The enormous building blocked a large section of riverfront.

Berms along Jefferson Avenue that contained heating and cooling equipment walled off the building from the rest of downtown. Its interior labyrinth confused visitors. And the overall air of a fortress became an object lesson in how not to do urban renewal.

As a result, Renaissance Center doesn't enjoy much recognition beyond its local, or perhaps regional, image. It certainly hasn't done for Detroit what the opera house did for Sydney.

Detroit sadly has not really attempted a new icon building in the years since Renaissance Center. Some new buildings might claim that status, like McNamara Terminal at Metro Airport or the new Comerica Park baseball stadium. But, in fact, neither of those nor any other new buildings here have generated much buzz in architectural circles.

In fact, some of our newest buildings run counter to the trend of structurally innovative, artistically risky new designs. Comerica Park opened in 2000 as one of the last new stadiums to adapt a sort of retro look and feel of traditional stadium architecture. No sooner had it opened than stadium architecture swerved toward sleekly modernist imagery, like the new Soldier Field in Chicago or the Arizona Cardinals' futuristic stadium under construction near Phoenix.

Inhospitable culture

Just why Detroit hasn't found its new civic icon remains a subject of much debate in local architectural circles. Many people blame a general cultural malaise. A city that routinely destroys its architectural heritage for parking lots is not a city that would welcome a Calatrava or an Hadid.

As a corollary to that, some critics cite the heavy presence of Detroit-based automakers. An industry that for two or three decades produced mostly boring, ugly automotive designs fostered an atmosphere in which mundane triumphed over excellence.

And, of course, this region's well-documented feuds between city and suburbs, black and white, do little to encourage creative risk taking, architectural or otherwise, by civic leaders.

So even the occasional star architect who came here produced work that proved adequate but not inspirational. Michael Graves' 1989 design for an upgrade to the Detroit Institute of Arts was nowhere near his most exciting work. Then, too, Philip Johnson and John Burgee had virtually created postmodernism in the 1980s; their One Detroit Center tower built in 1992 seems a minor addition to their catalog.

There are, I'm happy to say, some reasons for hope. Automotive design took a turn for the better a few years ago with all sorts of exciting cars and trucks coming out. If Cadillac can turn around its image of a stodgy rich guy's car, maybe a lot of people around here are beginning to think about design in new ways. Maybe some of that new awareness will rub off on architectural decision makers.

Then, too, Detroit is bringing together a host of people with influence to mount a successful Super Bowl: city and suburban officials, business executives, cultural leaders. If we're lucky, some of those people will start talking about good architecture, too.

I hope so. In the meantime, I guess it helps to be patient. After all, Utzon won a design competition for the Sydney Opera House in 1957, but it wasn't until 16 years later that construction of the place was finished. Viewed against that sort of time line, Detroit's architectural struggles don't seem so bad.

John Gallagher is the Free Press architecture critic 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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LOL. I think we've got to get something a bit more progressive than an automobile. Detroit needs to diversify...the future of the region is not in the automotive industry (unless things turn around, which is not likely). We have an open riverfront full of opportunities. I'd like to see a modern landmark building designed by a famous architect. Some sort of museum, or maybe something like an aquarium...definately not parking lots or parking garages though. We've got enough parking structures on the riverfront already.

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I don't think an architectural icon is what Detroit needs at this moment - it has got to stick with the basics, and the skyline with the RenCen is already big enough to anchor a fairly big city. The empty spaces of Detroit's historic buildings need to be filled first.

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