Something big is happening in Detroit. People are talking to each other. Pretty soon, they might even be speaking the same language. That is the dream of Detroit Design 139, an advisory committee of architects, academics, city planners and concerned citizens who came together this past September to develop a design vernacular for Detroit — all 139 square miles of it — with the belief that architecture is for everyone, everywhere, and at its best, can help address long-standing civic issues within the city.
“It all started with a conversation about how to change the popular narrative that there are two Detroits: the downtown, where standards are high and economic revitalization is in full view, and then the other 131 square miles,” Maurice Cox, City of Detroit Planning Director and Design 139 committee member, says. “The general consensus is that there’s nothing happening in that Detroit and the standards of excellence aren’t the same.”
After months of deliberating on 10 principles of design that set high standards for all future projects within Detroit, regardless of their cost or location, the committee set out to organize an exhibition. One that would champion and celebrate new and developing projects that met the criteria set forth and utilize the power of design to help solve the city’s problems creatively.
“The exhibition was the first step towards bringing people together and establishing a common language around what we should expect for our city,” Melissa Dittmer, Vice President of Architecture and Design at real estate firm Bedrock, says. “There was a disconnect in the language before, regarding what makes for good design. If we aren’t speaking the same language, we can’t work towards the same goals.”
The committee put out an open call to local, national and international architects and invited parties to submit their architecture, landscape and planning projects. Of the 80 submitted, an international jury of design and architecture experts helped select 38 projects that best represented the future of design in Detroit.
For the first, bi-annual exhibition, a pop-up storefront was installed at 1001 Woodward Avenue and the projects were showcased over three weeks. The exhibition was activated with 14 public events and over 4,000 visitors from near and far came to talk about Detroit architecture and design. And just like that, Design 139 had the public discourse they were hoping for.
“If you lived on the east side [of Detroit], you got to see what was happening on the west side. If you lived in the central part of town, you got to see what was happening in the northern part of town. It was an opportunity for residents who don’t often get out of their geographies to see that there’s an increasing explosion of excellence and much of it is happening in the neighborhoods,” Cox says. “The projects are all very different, but the quality and aspirations of excellence are the same. And that’s how you begin to break down this notion that there are two Detroits.”
During the exhibition, accompanying forums and lectures were designed to reach and engage different audiences. One night, the University of Michigan sponsored a historic preservation panel. Another night, local Detroit Public Schools high school students were invited to participate in a three-hour exchange to learn how they envision development of riverfront areas. Even the committee was impressed when over a thousand people showed up for a design crawl that invited the public into some of Detroit’s most popular design studios and creative spaces. Locals got the chance to see, first-hand, how design and architecture can cultivate community, achieve sustainability, solve housing issues and meet commercial needs within Detroit’s neighborhoods.
“I’ve spent my entire career advocating for the public interest and trying to democratize the design process — which means giving people choices and a voice when it comes to what happens in their community,” Cox says. “But first, you have to demystify design and demonstrate why it matters. That’s why you hold exhibitions and lectures and that’s why when we make important design decisions, we do so in public.”
Half of all the projects showcased in the exhibition were outside of the central business district in the neighborhoods — and many of these are the ones generating the most enthusiasm.
“The investment cycle in Detroit is a game changer,” Jonathan Massey, dean of University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and another committee member, says. “It’s creating a lot of opportunity and we have a responsibility to make sure the entire city prospers for it. Especially those who have carefully sustained their neighborhoods for decades.”
The sheer diversity within the projects exhibited, from materials used to the ways in which they are challenging the status quo, is inspiring — especially when lined up, one after another, next to each other.
Chroma, a new hub for creativity in Milwaukee Junction, builds upon the co-working model and pays homage to the neighborhood’s long legacy of making. Medium density housing developments like City Modern in Brush Park reinterpret the duplex and carriage home as a catalyst for rapid urban renewal. Roosevelt Park Renewal is a brilliant example of how community-led design can transform the landscape. When you put those projects next to the historic renovation of the Foundation Hotel, the provocative Quonset hut community, True North, and Dabls’ MBAD African Bead Museum expansion, it’s impossible not to agree with the committee. Great design can happen anywhere and it can change everything.
“This is unlike anything you’ll find in any other city. There is an unprecedented level of care, creativity and innovative programming happening here,” Dittmer, founding committee member, says. “There is also an inclusive spirit in this new wave of architecture and because of that, there is a blurring of inside and outside within each of these projects. All are being designed to invite the public in and that’s not something you saw happen often in the past.”
While the exhibition is over, all 38 projects showcased can be seen on Design 139’s website. The next exhibition will take place in 2019 and the hope is that most of the projects exhibited will be completed at that point and the exhibition can include tours of those spaces. The committee also plans to host more events throughout Detroit’s neighborhoods as they anticipate a proliferation of projects will be concentrated there in the coming years.
“It’s not my mission just to engage people, but to engage them so deeply that you have a kind of knowledge exchange,” Cox says.
“Our planning department doesn’t look like most planning departments. It’s much more interdisciplinary and that is coming directly from my political experience and my time in academia. I’ve observed that to solve some of these long-standing challenges, you have to bring together a cross section of disciplines and thinking, and in that intersection, generally there’s the solution.”
There’s been a lot of talk about the future of Detroit, but what’s clear from the Design 139 exhibition is, people aren’t just talking, they are listening. And maybe that’s the thing that’s going to make all the difference.