Blog: Michael Poris

From a master plan for North Corktown to designing public spaces for the Michigan Opera, Michael Poris, has his hand all over downtown Detroit. A principal of architectural firm McIntosh Poris Associates, Michael continues to offer up solutions for the city's revival. Key points: Down with demolition and a call for an economic development czar.

Michael Poris - Post 4: Back to Detroit

I grew up in the Detroit area and deeply cherish its place in American iconography and history. Our city created the auto industry. Detroit's bravura design and manufacturing smarts altered the 20th century—and changed the world.

Today, many in the country dismiss Detroit. Easily forgotten now is the immense wealth this region generated, the torrents of tax dollars that poured into Washington, DC, for decades, to be redirected into rural electrical, water, and highway subsidies. On the back of Detroit—and yes, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles—rural America was civilized, and our military supplied and paid for. Even today, urban America subsidizes the countryside, and we haven't heard anything like a "thank-you" lately.

Globalization and a nearly hostile federal government undercut Detroit in the fourth quarter of the 20th century. Yet, in 1994, as a 32-year-old architect, I came back to Detroit, just as downtown was hitting bottom.

I stayed, and I am glad that I did.

Why? Detroit is a place where one can design, be active, and have an impact on the community. In my early career, I worked for architecture firms like Frank Gehry and Morphosis in Los Angeles, and Cesar Pelli New Haven. The experience was great, and the work was incredible. Much of it was situated overseas, which brought conflicting feelings of excitement of new worlds, yet disconnection with my present reality of Los Angeles mini-malls and freeways. The LA riots in 1993 affected me deeply, having lived through the '67 riots in Detroit. What was I doing working on projects around the globe while my city burned?

But back in Detroit, I found a place where a young architect could plant roots and work on a city many had abandoned. My business partner, the late Douglas McIntosh, and I saw Detroit like Berlin or Beirut after the wars, and were excited by the possibilities here. The potential was mixed with a palpable desire to preserve our architectural and neighborhood heritages. After all, I grew up here. I understood the context. I got the beat.

And there was something else—for decades, home-grown talent had left the area. There was a generation gap in Detroit architects, and some of the existing design icons like Gunnar Birkerts, William Kessler, Louis G. Redstone, and Minoru Yamasaki were in their twilight years. The local architecture schools turned out graduates who promptly, left the state. The relative vacuum translated into opportunity.

Doug came home first, and encouraged me to follow. We were childhood friends growing up in the Detroit suburbs and attending the University of Michigan together. He, like me, went to graduate architecture school elsewhere (he in New Haven, me in Los Angeles), worked in big firms, and then saw the potential of Detroit and felt the responsibility of a native son. Within a year of returning, we were active in downtown planning and preservation, helping to thwart the best efforts of the demolitionists to erase nearly the entirety of our architectural past.

There have been victories as well as losses. The 1998 flattening of the Hudson's Department Store Building was bad, but it could have been far worse had the 1995 plan in front of then-Mayor Archer to tear down the entire east side of Woodward—from the Kerns block to Grand Circus—for a park gone forward. Losing Gleaners' Temple on Woodward was bad, but losing all the buildings in the area now known as Tech Town would have been far worse, as was planned by then-Wayne State President David Adamany.

Going up against the DDA plan to demolish all the buildings on Park Avenue to make way for stadium parking in 1996 didn't make us many friends, but did create the Park Avenue Historic District that saved the Kales, Iodent, and Cliff Bell's buildings for later renovations. We saw the Book Cadillac and Fort Shelby renovated, but lost the Statler Hotel, Madison-Lenox Hotel, and Motown buildings on Woodward. Incredibly, 15 years later we are still facing threats from city council and the DDA of demolitions of the Lafayette Building and Michigan Central Depot.

Our daytime job of designing homes helped support our work for community development groups such as Greater Corktown Development Group, Mexican Town Community Development, Genesis Housing Corporation, Messiah Housing Corporation, Jefferson East Business Association, Southwest Detroit Business Association, and the Heidelberg Project, among others.

I say to anyone, and especially to Detroiters, that members of the creative classes can do more, on a larger scale, and with more meaning in Detroit than in any of the usual creative meccas, such as Portland or Los Angeles or New York. It is easier here to make a difference in your community. (Need I mention you can actually buy a nice house here too?)

This story of opportunity and a sense of meaning and history—this is what we need to highlight and preserve to attract and keep graduates in Michigan and in Detroit. We need to show the creative classes the Detroit alternative to professional and personal anonymity in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. Those cities are fun, great places to live and work, but they are done, cooked, baked, and out of the oven. We're still kneading the dough here.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I think a manufacturing and design renaissance is in Detroit's near future, especially if we reform government to seize the opportunities. Globalization and a dismissive federal government have been body blows, but a cheaper dollar, rising energy costs, soaring costs in the Far East, and lots of fresh water could be our salvation.

I hope to continue to play a role in this renaissance, and I invite all of you to join me.