Design team's 'boldness' wins competition to reshape Detroit's cultural district

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — A team that includes one of France's top landscape architecture and urban design firms, along with five other members with plenty of Detroit experience, has won an international competition to reshape the city’s cultural center. 

Its plan, called “Detroit Square,” suggests radically changing 10 blocks around 12 cultural and educational institutions.

Among the recommendations: Consider shrinking the number of traffic lanes on Woodward Avenue between the Detroit Institute of Arts and the main Detroit Public Library, add plenty of walkable green space and outdoor performance venues, build several outdoor cafés, convert an underground garage into a cutting-edge gallery, and lay the groundwork for a tech-savvy future. 

And that isn’t the half of what the winning team suggests. 

Early estimates put the plan's cost at $75 million to $85 million and could take around 10 years to be finished.  But the first phases of the redesign could be ready early next decade, organizers said. The design competition attracted 44 entries from at least 10 countries and 22 cities, according to Midtown Detroit Inc., the nonprofit leading the campaign.

“Of course, we have to design a nice public space, a common ground that will be very efficient and lovely,” said Olivier Philippe, one of the founders and principals of Paris-based Agence Ter

“One of the issues was how to make a stronger relationship between the inside and the outside of the buildings. Today, the buildings are quite introverted. This is the history, not the choice of the institutions, but the history. It is not just about the landscape, but about creating synergy.” 

The plan would better connect the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, the main Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the College for Creative Studies, the Michigan Science Center, the Scarab Club, the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit, the University of Michigan’s Horace H. Education Memorial Building and the Hellenic Museum of Michigan. The Science Center building also contains the University Prep Science & Math Middle School.

This is a rendering of a proposed sculpture garden for the College for Creative Studies.

Philippe will be in Detroit Monday for the official announcement of the winning design team, an event to be held at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library.

He will be joined by other principal members of the team, which includes Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges of Akoaki, a Detroit architecture and design studio; Cezanne Charles and John Marshall, founders of rootoftwo  hybrid design firm in Ann Arbor, and Harley Etienne, an urban planner and associate professor at the University of Michigan. 

"It was the boldness of the scheme," said Jonathan Massey, one of nine jurors who chose the winning design.

“The ambitions of creating this giant rectangular frame” around the institutions that would serve as the connected green space sparked much debate among the jurors, said Massey, dean of the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “It’s a very big move.” 

The selection comes after three finalists teams had months of discussions with leaders of the various institutions, city officials, as well as holding public meetings to get a sense of what many wanted.

Many mentioned the desire to better connect, not just by making the area more walkable, but also explore ways to collaborate in programming, several team members said. 

“Our first challenge was to imagine how to reconnect them according to a new framework," said Anya Sirota. “What would they share? How would you know you have arrived? What are their entry conditions? If they have large programs, how can those programs spill out and benefit other institutions?” 

Many of the institutions are “ready for big change,” said Etienne, one of three UM faculty members on the winning team. 

“So many institutions are tired of being described as behind the DIA, or across the street from the DIA,” Etienne said, referring to the Detroit Institute of Arts. “How do you reorient the place so no one feels like they are the neglected backyard?” 

To address that, Etienne and his colleagues suggested creating a big green space linking the blocks around the Scarab Club, the Michigan Science Center and the Charles H. Wright African American Museum.

The green space could include a "data jockey booth" for live performances, while traffic lanes could be reduced around the area.

Another idea: Building a Respect Café, an outdoor/indoor venue, as part of the Wright Museum. 

“It’s not just an homage to Aretha, but to Detroiters who deserve respect,” Etienne said. 

A canopy addition suggested for the John R entrance of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The rootoftwo firm focuses on technology issues and public art installations. "This is a once in a generation opportunity," Marshall said. He and his partner Charles will work on how to make the new space adaptable to technology, as well as potentially create installations and objects that allow people to examine the role technology plays in their lives. 

Etienne is among the Detroit area team members whose work has focused on creating “equitable design” to give more presence to communities often neglected by major cultural institutions. 

The Akoaki team, for example, has worked extensively in the city's North End neighborhood, including collaborating with the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and, five years ago, creating the Mothership, a mobile DJ booth and broadcast module in honor of musician George Clinton's “P-Funk Mothership.”

The Mothership became part of an art and performance center in a former auto garage in the North End that was called O.N.E. Mile. 

The winning team soon begins an intensive 18-month period in which the many of the nuts and bolts of the plan get fleshed out. The process will include many public meetings, along with discussions with city officials and the participating institutions to get a better sense of how much of the plan will become reality.

The William Davidson Foundation is a major funder. Other contributors include the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. The Davidson Foundation has been giving financial support to the design competition since its early stages two years ago. "We were inspired by the ambition and collaboration, and particularly, the level of community engagement that has characterized the effort so far," Darin McKeever, President and CEO of the Davidson Foundation. 

Funding is expected to come from foundations, grants and corporations as the plan progresses through the years. No taxpayer funding is being considered, Midtown Detroit officials said in a previous interview. The plan also recommends physical changes in several of the institutions, recommending such things as cafes. That would likely mean individual institutions raising its own funds through capital campaigns. 

The plan will help achieve many longtime goals for the area, said Susan Mosey, Midtown Detroit Inc.'s executive director. 

Among the recommendations: A proposed
pedestrian path that would help link 12 cultural and educational institutions in Detroit's Midtown.

The new linked space will encourage collaborations in programming and marketing, Mosey said. The plan may revive an idea known as a Museum Pass — allowing people to pay one price to get access to all of the museums and other centers. 

The idea of making the area more of a linked cultural campus has been discussed for more than 60 years, and various attempts to accomplish that have been made in the past, organizers said.

“The area attracts 2 million people a year,” Mosey said. “We think with the more coordinated approach, that can really be boosted.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN