Emerging now on an empty Detroit lot is a taste of a unique housing project designed by a Los Angeles architect with world-class credentials and financed by a New York City developer and entrepreneur.
A village of Quonset huts — half-moon shaped structures whose walls and roof are made of corrugated steel — will be designed by architect Edwin Chan, who partnered with legendary architect Frank Gehry for more than two decades and now runs his own firm, EC3.
Two initial huts are being finished on Grand River Avenue between 14th and 16th streets on the border of the Woodbridge and Core City neighborhoods, not an area that usually attracts top-notch architects.
The area has the embattled quality of many Detroit streets: some well-kept homes and buildings, some empty lots where homes used to be and some vacant storefronts and homes that look ransacked.
The two huts up now were designed by a Detroit firm as the “appetizer” to a larger development of huts, to be designed by Chan and called True North.
Chan has been commissioned by a New York developer who is financing the project but doesn’t want to be named at this point, according to John Patrick, founder of ABOVE THE FOLD, a Detroit firm that works with architects, designers and others on development and business projects. Patrick is representing Chan.
“The reason we can get someone like Chan involved is because many designers and architects are exploring what is the future of shelter and housing,” Patrick said.
The New York developer wants Chan to design something resembling a small, colorful village using Quonset huts as its main structures. The huts will be living quarters that have yet to be marketed or priced, but the whole goal was to create something affordable. The huts will vary in size from 600 to 1,110 square feet.
They have such things as utilities, bathrooms, kitchens and security measures.
“I’m very excited about this project. It’s a little bit unusual for me,” Chan said. “This is very much about community engagement. It was a chance to do something in a city that seems on the verge of another transformation.”
Chan pointed out the developer recently invited area residents to check out the huts and said the reaction was enthusiastic and positive. Chan and others involved in the development were not aware of any other Quonset hut projects.
The local design and architecture firm Studio Detroit designed and built the prototype huts, and will work with Chan on the larger development.
“We want something that will be integrated into the neighborhood,” Chan said.
The Quonset hut developments may just be the first phase in more new commercial and residential projects in the Woodbridge and Core City area, Patrick said.
“Detroit is attracting a lot of attention because of its great history, but, also the moment it is going through right now,” in terms of finding new uses for the vast amount of empty space and blighted structures in the city, Patrick said.
Detroit was recently the first U.S. city to receive the “city of design” designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. It joins 47 other cities from 33 countries as a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, which is intended to showcase cities with a strong legacy in a variety of creative fields.
And in Venice, Italy, Detroit has the rare honor of being the sole focus of the U.S. entry of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, the showcase and awards that are considered the Oscars for contemporary architects and designers. At the Biennale, 64 countries show the best their nation has to offer.
The Quonset hut development sounds like a “creative marriage” between Detroit neighborhoods and the formal worlds of architecture and design, said Robert Fishman, interim dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.
“There is so much creativity going on in Detroit neighborhoods in terms of what to do with empty spaces — community gardens are one example,” Fishman said. “But that has to be complemented with the advanced thinking that only trained architecture can supply. The two together will be a very powerful combination.”