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Better Luck Next Time Detroit Architects: MOCAD Made The Right Choice

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Meet a Curbed Detroit contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she brings us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.

If you've been paying attention (and who hasn't?), the latest scandalette to take over the Detroit-centric internets involves MOCAD's selection of two out-of state firms for the planning of their upcoming building and site renovations. Some people think they should have chosen a local architecture firm, including, naturally, some local architects. Now setting aside that the fact that the selection of these firms, Rice+Lipka Architects and James Corner Field Operations, is what I consider an out-of-the-park home run choice for both MOCAD and the city, the fact remains there are some bruised feelings out there. The only problem? Local architects pretty much did this to themselves.
Detroit is not the new-construction boomtown it once was, and architects in these parts face many challenges: a population relatively averse to new architectural ideas, developers who drive the design of their buildings through cost management with little regard to aesthetics and a super shitty economy, to name just a few. It's been 40 years since architects brought us some of downtown's interesting modernist buildings, or even the fabulous office parks of Southfield. So we get it, when a plum commission appears in the area what local architect wouldn't want their name on it? But in the immortal words of Janet Jackson, I know you used to do a lot of nice things for me, but what have you done for me lately?

? The University Tower Apartments

A few outstanding smaller projects aside (such as Curbed Detroit faves Mills Pharmacy by M1/DTW and Frank Arvan's residence), the majority of our area's new buildings have been nothing to write home about. Residential architecture seems to drive the best of what's happening, much of the rest generally feels like generic infill. Even Wayne State University, whose campus buildings from the 1960s continue to inspire, now brings us things like the University Tower at Cass north of Canfield and the “Union at Midtown” at Cass and Warren.

And it isn't just about the quality of local work, it's about the engagement of local architects in critical discussions about the built environment. A few venues have emerged, such as the RogueHAA's forums (which hit the nail on the head with their last one, “ArchiCRITICAL: Evolving Detroit's Architectural Criticism”), but when a travesty like Studio One Apartments on Woodward appears, where is the design community's outcry for better design? Who is telling developers, institutions and other architects that they think we should be doing better?

In yesterday's Model D commentary on the issue, Frank Arvan places the blame on the client, saying “Architects cannot do good work without an enlightened and knowledgeable client that encourages and recognizes talent and good design,” which is a total cop-out. Difficulty in finding good clients is an age-old complaint of architects – I was watching a 1981 interview with Massimo Vignelli the other day and he said exactly that. That doesn't have to limit good design. Part of the job for any designer is educating the client and pushing them toward the best work possible. And really, if you're sitting around waiting for enlightened clients in the Detroit area, we might as well give up now.

As a final note, I think it is important to talk about the merits of the selected firms. Architects Rice+Lipka worked on Dia:Beacon, a former industrial building transformed into a museum along the Hudson River in New York state. It is one of the great contemporary art museums in the country as well as an outstanding adaptive reuse project. Landscape architects James Corner Fields Operations worked on the High Line in Manhattan, one of the most-lauded landscape architecture projects in recent memory. This kind of experience is hard to match anywhere in the world, not just Detroit, and is so specifically suited for MOCAD's requirements it's impossible to imagine a better choice. So in this instance, I think local architects should rejoice, because for the first time in years we will be getting a quality architectural project in Detroit. Even if you're not the designer, you have to be happy about that.

In his commentary Arvan issues a challenge to clients to expect the most from their architects. I'd like to issue a similar challenge, this time to architects. Show us you can do it. Assume that you are the driver of good design in the client-architect relationship, and it's your job to do the enlightening. Maybe it's time to engage in more fair, honest peer criticism of the built environment in the city. Maybe it's time to start working on better relationships with the institutional and philanthropic entities that are currently driving new construction. Maybe it's time to end the practice of giving away mediocre preliminary design work for free in order to get the commission if the deal comes together. Maybe it's time to step outside the bubble and engage the community a little more. Maybe it's time to look in the mirror and acknowledge the client isn't the only one to blame.

And maybe it's time to start exporting some of the great work we've only seen glimpses of. Find clients who will let you do your best, so the next time a significant opportunity like the MOCAD project comes along, there's no question a local architect is the best choice.

— Kelly Ellsworth

· All previous posts by Kelly Ellsworth [Curbed Detroit]
· MOCAD Picks Two NYC Firms For Renovation: Rice+Lipka Architects and James Corner Field Operations [Curbed Detroit]
· Local Architect Criticizes MOCAD For Selecting NYC Firms [Curbed Detroit]