Exhibit showcases ideas to sprout Cultural Center around DIA

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Pedestrians pass one of the "Gateways," shaped like an abstract D, that TENxTEN employs to announce your arrival in the cultural district.

Detroit Institute of Arts Director Salvador Salort-Pons threw down the gauntlet a couple years ago:

Wouldn't it be cool to redesign the property around the museum to create a beckoning public space that could act as a pedestrian magnet and hang-out spot, much like a European piazza?

An overview of the Detroit Square proposal from Agence Ter and partners, showing the greening of the entire district.

The idea quickly mushroomed far beyond its initial parameters. Now you've got the chance to personally inspect the three finalist proposals, winnowed down from 44, in the exhibition, "A New Vision for Detroit’s Cultural Center: The DIA Plaza/Midtown Cultural Connections International Design Competition."

The compact, entertaining show, on the museum second floor right next to the "Ruben & Isabel Toledo: Labor of Love" exhibition, will be up through April 1.  

"It’s a great little exhibition," said Susan Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc., which is heavily involved in the process. "It’s super-fun, and just really gets your mind going."

On display are plans and nifty videos that help viewers make sense of the whole project. Visitors are invited to leave comments on a wall before leaving -- those make for interesting viewing as well. 

The winning design will be announced in April, date yet to be determined. 

At issue is nothing less than a redesign of roughly 80 acres surrounding the DIA and 11 adjacent cultural institutions, from the Detroit Public Library to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the College for Creative Studies and the Michigan Science Center. 

If all works out as hoped, in a decade or so this cultural commons could be the beating heart of a new Detroit, the destination you'll head to when you're in a mood for urban pleasures and exploration. 

One of the tall, digital wayfinding "Beacons" from TENxTEN reminds visitors they're only "13 steps" from the Diego Rivera murals.

"This is an incredible opportunity," said Maura Rockcastle of TENxTEN landscape architects, "with some of the most amazing institutions in the country clustered around the same location. It's constantly compared to the National Mall in Washington," she added, "but it’s much more compressed." 

An aerial view from TENxTEN's proposal, illustrating the greening of the area.

Bringing the various institutions into closer unison is a key aim. 

“It's important for success that all the Cultural Center partners have equal voice at the table," said Salort-Pons, "so we can develop – as a team – a space that meets everyone’s needs."

While the three designs are each unique, they all possess common elements. Each plans to put Woodward between the DIA and the library on a "road diet," reducing lanes and creating pedestrian safe zones where none exists today. 

Restaurants, cafes and space for cultural programming and entertainment intended to draw a steady stream of visitors figure in each. And to a greater or lesser degree, every plan turns the vast parking lot behind the DIA into a green space that would act as a sort of central park for the entire museum district. 

A park called Midtown Yards stretches behind the DIA in the proposal by Mikyoung Kim Design and partners.

The team headed by Boston's Mikyoung Kim Design focused on creating a unique identity for the whole district, with shared civic space for collaborative programming. 

High points include the Midtown Yards, a 12-acre park and event space where the DIA parking lot sits now, with playgrounds, event platforms, contemplative gardens and art walks.

The Mikyoung Kim Design plan envisions a kid-friendly fountain maze behind the Scarab Club.

People magnets include a Midtown Eatery outside the DIA, a kid-friendly maze fountain, and The Porch with its wooden decks south of the library, where Kim hopes Wayne State students will mingle with library patrons.

She sees a multilayered approach to creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment. 

"For me, a neighborhood isn't a singular sculpture, but this rich tapestry," Kim said. "We create the platform. Our definition of success is when people make it their own, and start to draw on it like a chalk board."

A sculptural landscape forms part of Mikyoung Kim's vision.

Key to the Detroit Square proposal from Agence Ter and partners is a new canopy on the John R side of the DIA that would blend inside and out as you enter the museum, and erase the sense that you were at the back door. 

Agence Ter's proposal imagines The Canopy attached to the back of the DIA to make a more inviting entrance.

"With The Canopy, what we now consider the back would become a more populist, exuberant and playful place to come in," said the U-Mich architecture professor Anya Sirota, a principal at Akoaki design who's acting as team lead for Agence Ter. 

"We’ve imagined a multiplicity of entrances that are porous," she added, "so you don’t have to commit to going into the DIA to appreciate this space that creates a soft boundary between indoors and outdoors, and could host exhibitions, a cafe or a winter garden."

The park planned behind the museum would be designed to unite the DIA, CCS and the Wright Museum in a shared space. At the Brush Street end will be the Transformer -- a flexible platform for performance or display by artists or institutions.

And cast around the whole project, from Cass to Brush, Farnsworth to Kirby, would be The Necklace, a network of winding, seductive pedestrian pathways. 

The "d.tour" plan from Minneapolis' TENxTEN and its partners also aims to unite what have, until now, been discrete cultural entities.

 "We're interested in truly connecting the institutions to one another and to a common ground in an equal way," said TENxTEN's Rockcastle. 

Surprises as you wander this cultural campus include a landscape punctuated by a fog barrens, water walls, stacked stone walls and an interactive graffiti wall on the Kirby side of the DIA. 

"Gateways" to the district -- huge, sculptural plays on the letter "D" -- will let you know you've arrived, helping to brand the area.

Similarly, tall digital-screen "Beacons," also D-shaped, will be programmed to encourage wayfinding and exploration, pointing out, for example, that "You're only 13 steps away from some of the most controversial murals in history."

(Psst -- those would be Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" frescoes at the DIA.)

Maurice Cox, director of planning and development for the city of Detroit, pictures a transformed landscape that will feel utterly unique. 

"It may feel more like a buildings-in-a-park setting than it does now," he said.

"There will be a far more robust landscape, with streets playing a less-dominant role. You know," Cox added, "people will walk for blocks of it's a good walk. And attention to the space in between the institutions is what will give us that good walk."

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 


'A New Vision for Detroit’s Cultural Center'

Through Apr. 14

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit 

9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. 

Free to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties

All others: $14 - adults, $9 - seniors, $8 - college students, $6 - kids 6-17

(313) 833-7900