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Detroit: Modern Masterpieces in the Rustbelt

February 26, 2013

When I noticed that the American Society of Architectural Historian’s (SAH) conference was in Detroit last  year it seemed like a perfect opportunity to visit this much maligned city.  Media images of the Motor City portray it as a place of desolation and recent photography books have romanticized Detroit’s urban ruins, such as the huge Michigan Central Railroad Station and the abandoned Fisher Body Plant 21.

Michigan Central Railroad Station, Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem, 1912-13

Michigan Central Station, Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem, 1912-13

The conference, held in the Cobo Hall (Giffels and Rossetti, 1960), covered a vast range of papers, from architecture in Mobutu’s Congo to Gio Ponti’s New Italian House, from Roman Public Baths to the legacy of Albert Kahn and Fordism.  There was a one day seminar on Detroit itself, which helped to dispel the idea that this is solely a city in ruins.  Not only is there a lot of urban regeneration going on, particularly in the Midtown area just north of downtown, but there is also a burgeoning urban agriculture movement.  It seems that on every street corner, where a building once stood, there is now a community garden with raised beds full of crops and flowers.

Cobo Hall, Giffels and Rossetti, 1960

One of the advantages of attending the conference was going on organised tours around the city.  Despite seeing so many images of Detroit, it was still shocking to travel around the city and see the reality of so many abandoned factories, schools and houses.  Not far from downtown I stumbled upon the derelict apartment blocks of the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, designed by Harley, Ellington & Day (between 1935 and 1955).  These were once home, in their younger days, to such illustrious Motown figures as Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, but now the buildings are no more than empty shells rotting in a sea of swaying grass.

Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, designed by Harley, Ellington & Day, between 1935 and 1955

Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, designed by Harley, Ellington & Day, between 1935 and 1955

And yet not far away from here is Lafayette Park, a 1950s residential development of town houses and high-rises by Mies van der Rohe, with urban design by Ludwig Hilberseimer  and landscaping by Alfred Caldwell.  Often considered the first urban renewal project in North America, the two-story town houses were in excellent condition.  This is hardly the Detroit we see portrayed on the news – there is actually a surprising amount of good quality architecture to be found in the city.

Lafayette Park, Mies van der Rohe, 1950s

Lafayette Park, Mies van der Rohe, 1950s

Not too far from Cobo Hall is John Portman’s Renaissance Center (1977).  This ‘city within a city,’ composed of four 39 story towers and one 73 story tower, was championed by Henry Ford II and largely funded by Ford to try to kick start building activity.  Ironically, it is now the world headquarters of General Motors.

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Renaissance Center, John Portman, 1977

The SAH  held a reception in the Guardian Building (1929), one of three skyscrapers in the city by Wirt C. Rowland.  Known as the ‘Cathedral of Finance,’ this Art Deco masterpiece has a fantastic polychromatic lobby composed of mosaic, Pewabic and Rookwood tiles.  To add to the sense of luxury there is a huge archway made of Monel metal, complete with large Tiffany clock.

Guardian Building, Wirt C. Rowland,

Guardian Building, Wirt C. Rowland, 1929

No visit to Detroit would be complete without looking at the factories that produced the cars.  A stop was made at the Highland Park Plant, by Albert Kahn (1908-1910),

Ford's Highland Park Plant, Albert Kahn,

Ford’s Highland Park Plant, Albert Kahn, 1908-10

where the moving production line was first used to produce Ford’s Model T (with 9,000 cars produced in a single day in 1925).  Its sparse lines were once so influential to European architects, but it is now used only for storage by Ford and sits unloved and forgotten in one of the most deprived and derelict parts of the city.

* A version of this article appeared in C20, the magazine of the Twentieth Century Society

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