Reviving Detroit’s former industrial spaces

17 November 2017

The reclamation of former industrial spaces continues apace in cities and towns across the post-industrial West, but might such projects be disenfranchising those already impacted by the demise of traditional industries? How can one involve those who are at risk of being left behind? Ross Davies speaks to Cynthia Davidson, curator of the US pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, and partners from Studio Gang Architects and HENN.

In a recent blog post on – the eponymous website of the late, much-venerated US film critic – one reviewer labelled Detroit as “the new city of American horror”. Its derelict lots, unlit streets, razed apartment buildings and unruly green belt, claimed the commenter, have provided the perfect tableau for a recent clutch of dystopian cinematic releases.

Film criticism aside, this serves as a sad reminder of a city that has seen far better days. A city that once proudly carried the mantle of Motor City – due to its prodigious production of automobiles for Ford, Chrysler and General Motors – and was home to the Motown music label.

Time has been infamously unkind to Detroit, the population of which has declined by over 60% since 1951 and which was dealt the ignominy of being forced to file for bankruptcy in 2013 thanks to years of municipal mismanagement and spiralling debts. It was the Michigan city’s panorama of abandoned industrial facilities and off-kilter urban density that Cynthia Davidson dared to reimagine as part of the US pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, which she co-curated.

The pavilion, sponsored by the US Department of State, posited the reclamation and rehabilitation of the city’s former industrial sites – including renovated models of the derelict Packard automotive plant on Grand Boulevard, a former public works garage in Mexicantown and a postal sorting facility on Fort Street.

“I really believe in using architecture to effect a positive change,” Davidson says over the phone from her New York office, where she is director of the Anyone Corporation, a non-profit group focused on architecture.

“Detroit is a place that has been down on its luck, so, along with fellow curator Mónica Ponce de León, we thought it would be a unique project to commission; not in the sense of a client commissioning an architect but asking US architects what they could imagine happening in the city.”

The concept of construction

Headed by Maurice Cox, Detroit’s newly appointed city planning director, a panel was appointed to select 12 teams of US architects – chosen from over 50 responses to tender across the country – to work on the aforementioned sites and create exhibits.

The resulting reproductions were incredibly diverse. Greg Lynn, an architect with California-based practice FORM, reimagined the Packard plant with a new-age pretzel-like exterior, while the Massachusetts firm Preston Scott Cohen turned the federal post office into a leaf-like structure connecting the north of the city with the river.

Another architect, Detroit-native Andrew Zago, also called for abandoned warehouses close to the Dequindre Cut greenway to be converted into a series of multipurpose edifices, including a refugee centre, public library and community centre.

But what does any of this mean to the people of Detroit? The projects, after all, are purely speculative. Given the rate of exit from the inner city to the suburbs – commonly known as ‘white flight’ – can such new structures really be the catalyst for regeneration?

Davidson is realistic insofar as the construction of such buildings isn’t really on the cards at present – “There are no developers and there’s no money,” she says – but she adds that encouragement must be taken from the warm reception that the exhibition, which moved from Venice to the Motor City’s Museum of Contemporary Art after the Biennale, has received among locals.

“Since moving to Detroit, the exhibition has been standing room only,” says Davidson. “It has helped change the conversation around converting these derelict sites in Detroit. Also, those people who haven’t moved out of the city now want to engage in conversations about what can happen at a larger scale.”

Reclaim the past

Just as the shells of dilapidated facilities offer opportunities for reclamation – not least because of their central location – there have also been some instances of former industrial cities building new shop floors on fresh land.

A notable case is the Volkswagen Transparent Factory in Dresden, Germany. Designed in 2002 by German firm HENN and abutting the Großer Garten – the Baroque-style park in the city centre – the factory is credited with breathing new life into an unassuming quarter.

A particularly striking facet of the facility when it first opened was how it immediately brought social and commercial activity to the area. Freight trains, akin to capillaries, were set up to pump car components from the city centre into the heart of the facility. Since 2016, it has also served as an exhibition space, housing open-air concerts and other public events.

HENN’s brief was simple, recalls senior partner Rainer Sladek; the project was “to bring industry back to the city”. Dresden locals, however, were initially cool to the idea, dismissing it as nothing more than an unsustainable, post-industrial white elephant.

“It was a challenging project, as the people of Dresden really didn’t like the idea in the beginning,” explains Sladek. “Because it was located in the city, near a public park, they feared there would be lots of pollution and noise. We had to convince them that it would be the opposite and that Volkswagen could be a new citizen within the city.”

Today, 15 years later, the people of Dresden “really love the building”, says Sladek, claiming that it has provided them with a sense of civic pride – not to mention jobs.

Conscious gentrification

How important, then, is this sense of self-respect – particularly for cities such as Detroit and Dresden, which were once industrial powerhouses? Should manufacturing hubs do their utmost to reflect the heritage that came to define them?

“I think civic identity is changing back to the old way,” says Malte Koditz, a senior architect with HENN. “Cities have to be able to be developed based on cultural or economic changes. It’s just a natural development process. Once upon a time, huge production facilities in industrial areas were required on a larger scale; today, they can be reused on a smaller scale, providing spaces for new industries that do not require the same space as a production facility from the 1930s and ’40s.”

“I personally don’t think they need to reflect their industrial heritage at all,” argues Davidson. “Take the current symbol of modern Detroit – it’s the Renaissance Center, built in 1977. The city isn’t going to return to the glory days of the automobile, as we don’t ride in the same way we did then. It’s like arguing that the city has to be harnessed to the world of Henry Ford.”

Koditz and Davidson are right; civic pride should not be a practice in nostalgia for former glories. Nonetheless, some would argue that the reclamation of industrial spaces should not go down the path of gentrification at the expense of all that has gone before.

This was a theme notably visited by Rem Koolhaas in his influential 1995 essay, ‘The Generic City’, in which the OMA principal argued that “progress, identity, architecture, the city and the street are things of the past” at the hands of creeping modernisation.

In London, the renovation of Battersea Power Station and the surrounding Nine Elms site has been held up by some as the crest of an ongoing tidal wave of gentrification taking place in the UK capital.

Earlier this year, Rafael Viñoly, who has been brought in to lead the £9-billion renovation of the Grade II-listed building south-west of the Thames, released a walkthrough video revealing a boutique high street, a new tube station and luxury apartments on the site.

There is little to suggest that the project will dispel fears among many Londoners that local residents will be pushed out of the area in favour of considerably more well-heeled residents. London’s former planning chief, Peter Wynne Rees, once described the idea for Nine Elms as “a slum for rich people”. Viñoly could not be reached for comment for this article.

Recovering the city

For a city commonly described as being in the midst of a housing crisis, such projects are at risk of further disenfranchising those already impacted by the demise of traditional industries.

“Housing is central to all of this, especially in Detroit,” says Davidson. “There aren’t many apartment buildings in the city except low-income housing. These are individual houses that were abandoned as a result of ‘white flight’, meaning there isn’t enough housing stock left to repopulate the city.”

The answer to the successful marriage of the recovery of industrial spaces with sociocultural harmony and diversity could lie in tactical urbanism, an approach based on short-term, low-cost interventions and policies to bring about long-term change in struggling neighbourhoods.

It’s a philosophy supported by Chicago-based urban design practice Studio Gang, which recently launched a national initiative called ‘Reimagining the Civic Commons’. Working together with the Knight Foundation and Kresge Foundation, the $40-million project aims to invest in civic buildings in cities that have fallen on hard times. At present, the practice is working to connect architects with community leaders in cities including Akron, Chicago, Detroit and Memphis to revitalise public spaces, particularly in low-income or working-class neighbourhoods, in an effort to reverse trends of economic and social segregation.

At the 2015 Chicago Biennial, the practice also proposed the Polis Station concept, in which large police stations in disenfranchised areas could be converted into communal hubs in a bid to promote more harmonious relations between locals and the law. While the focus is on reimagining existing community spaces, including libraries and parks, there’s no reason why the idea of tactical urbanism can’t be applied to former industrial spaces.

“Tactical urbanism is a great technique for testing ideas and whether the programming is right,” says senior director Gia Biagi. “When it’s done in the right way, and architects and planners are talking with people about where they are, and what their needs and aspirations are, there’s the chance of long-term investment anywhere.”

This requires a mix of forward thinking and decent communication skills, adds Biagi.

“It’s important to be thinking about the consequences of design decisions as early as possible in the project,” she explains. “If you are doing a good job of getting the people with the most at stake at the table, throughout the project – not just as a perfunctory check on the list – then you are going to address those issues earlier, and you can come up with community-based solutions that mean more and have more mutual benefits.”

Through the warp and weft of the post-industrial age, every city, be it London, Detroit or Dresden, has had to forsake some part of its manufacturing history and move on. Reconciling the past with the future is no easy undertaking, but the cities that breathe new life into their abandoned warehouses or shuttered factories with a goal of socioeconomic inclusion for those that need it most can only do right by their citizens.

The Volkswagen Transparent Factory in Dresden, designed by HENN.
The factory has revitalised the area.
The US pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale.

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