Architects as Urban Alchemists

Buildings and cities reflect the soul of a culture. Our needs and aspirations, our creative spirit shows in their wood, steel, glass and concrete. The built environment is a record of how we live and where we stand in history. The crumbling Michigan Central Train Station, once proud and full of energy, tells a story. In spectacular decline for decades, it still speaks to us, though now its expression is melancholy, its heart broken, its soul brooding. The gleaming new Boll Family YMCA and Comerica Park tell another more optimistic story, one of opening up a dialogue with the streets that surround them.

It’s not just the individual buildings that reveal how we live — it’s how the buildings are arranged that make a city. Where buildings come together forming dense vibrant streets and squares you find intense and creative human connections. Where buildings are spread out, life is slower; there is less opportunity for human contact.

All of us are affected by the built world in dramatic ways. Good buildings and good city forms add joy and beauty to life. Bad buildings and ill planned cities make life gray and slow.

The question

With these thoughts in mind, we spoke with several prominent regional architects, asking them one simple yet complex question: How can innovative architecture and urban design help transform the region?

The architects were:

• Michael Poris, AIA, of McIntosh Poris in Birmingham.

• Rainy Hamilton, AIA, of Hamilton Anderson in Detroit.

• Sam Bayne, AIA, Principal of Architectural Design for Harley Ellis Devereaux in Southfield.

• Michael Guthrie of Van Tine/Guthrie Studio of Architecture in Northville.

• Francis X. Arvan conducted the interviews. Arvan, an architect and principal of FX Architecture in Royal Oak then answered the same question he posed to the four architects.

The promise of vibrant urban life

Poris has been involved in hundreds of commercial and residential projects in the Detroit area since the 1990s. His works have helped revitalize sections of Lafayette Park, the New Center — where he is converting the GM Argonaut Building into 250 lofts — and suburban gems like the Albert Kahn-designed Franklin Hills Country Club.

Poris sees good design as a magnet for bringing professional talent to the region.

"Innovative architecture and a quality urban environment will attract and help retain young educated people," Poris says. "It’s no coincidence that while Michigan is losing population, Downtown Detroit, with its promise of a vibrant urban life is gaining population and 85% of that population is college educated. Young educated people seek a vibrant urban life."

Poris says keeping these people in the region is critical to its survival. “They are the people we hire," he says. "It’s difficult to find talent to support a creative architectural firm when we are losing our creative work force to other cities." Poris recently returned from Berlin, where he observed, "Every building being built there is good. If we are to compete for young talent nationally and internationally we need to do the same."

Hamilton's resume includes work on the new School of the Arts on the campus of Detroit's Orchestra Place and a master design plan for renovation and maintenance of the University of Michigan libraries. In his conversation with Arvan he remained focused on the connection between architecture, the economy and our social conscience. "Architecture uplifts the human spirit," Hamilton says. "We need to focus on long-term quality and not the short-term bottom line."

Hamilton was not just speaking about the quality of our architecture, but also about the quality of public education and the will to seek social justice for all. Beautiful buildings are just gilding a shaky foundation. The real connections come on the human and social levels.

The creative instinct

The firm that Bayne works for, Harley Ellis Devereaux, is responsible for the shimmering A. Alfred Taubman Student Services Center at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. Bayne says architecture alone cannot solve society's ills but he points to two hopeful examples of what it can do.

The GM Tech center in Warren, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1955, is still considered a modern research campus half century after it was built. Innovative brick glazing technologies and revolutionary neoprene window gasket systems (which only became common X ago) were created for those buildings. The Tech Center was a magnet that attracted the brightest engineers from around the world.

Bayne says that as Detroit loses manufacturing jobs it makes sense to emulate Saarinen’s vision by focusing our efforts on building creative environments for research. To wit, Harley Ellis Devereaux is currently working on renovations of the historic tech center buildings.

Bayne also looks to the effect unique, iconic buildings and inventive civic structures have on a local economy. He points to Frank Gehry's design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain  or the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Santiago Calatrava. These powerful buildings have become tourist attractions in and of themselves, drawing visitors from around the world. They have profoundly changed the image of the cities they are in.

Michael Guthrie's firm is working on a Bagley St. pedestrian bridge extension that will reunite a Mexicantown neighborhood divided over 40 years ago by the construction of the I-75 expressway. He says people in the region often take for granted the air of creativity that was established here long ago. "Detroit was a hotbed of innovation and it still has great engineering and prototyping capabilities," Guthrie says. "People in other parts of the country see it, but many Detroiters do not."

The buildings of Detroit’s golden age were inspired by that same creative instinct. "The architecture of today should talk about the future," he says, "not about the nostalgic past."

Form, space and technology

In answering his own question, Arvan talks about the Detroit region's image as a conservative town for design.

"Modern architecture has had a bad rap, sometimes deserved," Arvan says, adding that people often think of it as sterile and inhuman. "But modernism is based on the principal that there are new ways to make buildings, and that architectural form, space and technology can make life richer and easier. These new technologies can make better buildings."

Arvan also says passive solar energy, green roofs and other sustainable trends in modern architecture are all part of non-traditional architecture.

"We must look to innovative architecture if we hope to advance in this century," he says. "There is a lack of innovative, or even really good, modern architecture and urban design here in Detroit. Some exists, but it is not the norm."

The reasons? Arvan says that innovative architecture takes more courage, skill, labor and money. "It is not highly profitable for the architect, but it benefits the built environment for all," he says. "It takes dedicated artistic professionals willing to go beyond typical architectural service. These people and the clients who are willing to engage them are rare."

But Arvan is optimistic about the future of the region, and says good design can help play a powerful role in its shaping. He says thinking about long-term quality not short-term profit is essential. "Build on the past but don't copy it," he says. "Innovative and optimistic architecture reflects and sustains the culture of creativity we are trying to rebuild."

Arvan believes the entire region must set its vision high in education, the economy and especially in architecture.

"Architects do not turn rust into gold by themselves," Arvan says. "It is a shared endeavor. Architects, developers, business and government leaders, everyone helps shape the built world. It's this collective effort that must come together to make a great city."

Francis X. Arvan is a graduate of Lawrence Technological University and Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture. He taught architecture at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. A native metro Detroiter, Arvan moved back to Michigan in 1997, established Royal Oak-based FX Architecture and is currently the chair of the Royal Oak Main Street Design Committee. He writes about architecture for Model D and metromode.

Walter Wasacz is editor-at-large for Model D and metromode.

Dave Krieger is the managing photographer of Model D and a major contributer to metromode.


The new Lawrence Tech Student Center - Southfield

Rainy Hamilton, AIA of Hamilton Anderson in Detroit

Compuware Building interior - Detroit

The new Boll Family YMCA on Broadway was designed by SMITHGROUP - Detroit

Compuware Building exterior - Detroit

Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger