Detroit viaducts to get makeover

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
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Midtown Detroit Inc. announced winners Thursday of a competition to renovate three scary-looking underpasses that connect Midtown to New Center into light-filled art experiences.

An artist rendition of “Reflector,” a Cass Avenue viaduct improvement plan by Detroit design company BioLINIA. Two other firms will revamp other viaducts in the city. ( Courtesy of the Reflector Midtown Viaduct project )

Viaducts beneath train tracks at Cass, Second and Third will get reworked by, respectively, bioLINIA of Detroit, Ann Arbor’s r+d LAB and Detroit’s New D Media Arts.

Each team gets $75,000. The New Economy Initiative put in $230,000, and the Knight Foundation $75,000. Midtown Detroit will also contribute funds.

Two of the winners were in the 2012 Dlectricity. New D Media Arts created “Knowledge is Power,” a 3-D projection on the Detroit Public Library.

And r+d LAB designed “Menotme” at Warren and Woodward, a playful interactive blob that reacted when squeezed.

But why bother perking up underpasses in the first place?

“These viaducts have been complete barriers,” said Detroit architect Robert Kraemer, who was not involved in the competition. “They’re creepy and scary,” he added, and cause most pedestrians to ditch any thought of walking from Midtown to New Center.

Becky Nix of bioLINIA, who helped design Detroit’s Red Bull House of Art, said it’s all about linking districts.

“We architects always talk about connecting places,” she said, “something everyone’s obsessed with in Detroit. In this case, the train tracks disconnect the two neighborhoods.”

The underpasses, which vary in size, are up 18 feet tall, 80 feet wide and 135 feet long, according to Annmarie Borucki, special projects manager at Midtown Detroit. Each has three tunnels, separated by concrete arches — a roadway in the middle and pedestrian lanes on either side.

Nix and partner Olek Zemplinski will install “Reflector” in the Cass viaduct, with 7,500 freeway reflectors sited to bounce light in all directions as headlights pass through.

A rendering of “Light Bender” by New D Media Arts of Detroit, one of three projects to civilize scary viaducts in Midtown.

“We were looking for a low-tech, non-traditional lighting solution,” Nix said.

For “Resonance” on Second Avenue, r+d LAB will mount 22 LED interactive light boxes on walls and ceilings to create dramatic overlapping bands of light and dark.

“As you pass through,” said r+d’s Cezanne Charles, who’s working with partners John Marshall and Karl Daubmann, “it will send a wave of light across the transverse spaces that will get brighter the farther you go.”

When pedestrians approach from opposite ends, she adds, the light waves will collide in the middle, creating a “cascading, ripple effect.”

Third Avenue will get “Light Bender” from New D Media Arts that will distribute light in reaction to motion.

According to designers Gabriel Hall and Daniel Land, you’ll be able to use your mobile device to bend waves of brightly colored light along the pedestrian paths.

Competition winners were chosen by an independent panel of local artists and design professionals. Work is expected to be completed by the end of October.

The idea of reworking the viaducts grew out of the 2013 Tech Town District Plan by Boston’s Sasaki Associates. Tech Town is at the north end of Midtown.

The hope, said Jim Boyle, senior program officer at the New Economy Initiative, is that the upgrades will generate economic payoffs.

“These will help signal to the rest of the creative world that this area is a cool place to come do business,” Boyle said.

“You’ve got to create the right environment,” he added. “University graduates tell us they want walkable, urban, fun and creative environments. It seems like a small thing, but it’s really a big deal.”

Or as Nix put it, the underpass designs “can provide a little magic, creating transformative spaces that act as gateways to another part of the city.”

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