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Architectural Plastic Surgery: Even Buildings Want Facelifts

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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 like to read celebrity plastic surgery websites (and who doesn't?) then you know how absolutely heartbreaking and/or thrilling it can be to see a snare-drum facelift or trout mouth turn up on the red carpet. Think of the sideshow attraction that has been Melanie Griffith's face, for example – who can stop staring? On the flip side, a well-executed nip/tuck can be kind of gratifying, like Jennifer Aniston's subtle nosejob or Jane Fonda's tasteful facelift. It seems to all come down to choosing the right plastic surgeon, and not going overboard.

I was thinking about this as I drove around town the other day, noticing recent facelifts on several Detroit buildings and thinking that the same thing applies. We've got all kind of post-operative results here.

photo via Model D.

The most dramatic, and also the best: GM's World Headquarters, the Renaissance Center. Completed in 2006, the major overhaul added a contemporary touch and opened up John Portman's 1977 concrete utopia to both downtown and the riverfront, and improved circulation and navigation inside. All this without destroying the character and charm of the original buildings (you can still get lost inside!). The project team included Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Gensler, SmithGroup and Ghafari Associates and had an if-you-have-to-ask-you-can't-afford-it pricetag. This is the “secret trip to Monaco” of building facelifts, expensive but worth every penny.

The DTE building.

Slightly less successful is DTE Energy Plaza's renovation, designed by Neumann/Smith architecture, which included the addition of a new lobby. It isn't that it's so horrible – on its own it's rather fantastic. But it's like DTE went to the plastic surgeon-to-the-stars, held up a picture of the Ren Cen renovation and said “I want to look like that.” And they certainly got what they paid for. But the overall effect is a pastiche of disparate building styles. A shiny 2008 building slapped on a dullish 1971 building, which was in turn slapped in front of a yellow-brick 1938 building. All linked to a renaissance revival 1921 building. It's certainly an improvement to the overall site plan, it's just a little obvious. Like a necklift without addressing the eyes.

Over in Detroit's Gold Coast neighborhood we have an example of the “Miami back-alley plastic surgeon” at work. 8330 On The River, the least attractive of three high-rises along the river (designed by Nathan Johnson & Associates in 1976 – wait, The Jerk was an architect??), clearly had an inferiority complex, standing alongside the Detroit Towers and the Shoreline East condominiums as it does. Without the confidence to stand on its merits, this poor seniors apartment building resorted to the desperate measures of strippers and transsexuals and injected concrete and superglue for that Brazilian buttlift. OK, maybe not that bad, but still, this was preferable to the original masonry facade? One can only assume maintenance tuckpointing was too costly, so they Tyvek'd the sucker and glued up burgundy and beige architectural panels over the entire high-rise. Now both the residents' average age and the building's color scheme are in the 90's! It will probably require an ER visit within ten years, but it'll seem like eons for anyone who has to look at it regularly. It will be interesting to see how future Detroit building facelifts turn out, not only the ones planned on the downtown buildings but all over as the appeal of commercial real estate spreads. The buildings may be a bargain, but as the saying goes, beware of discount plastic surgery. Here's hoping we get less Joan Rivers and more Angelina Jolie in the architectural facelifts down the road!

— Kelly Ellsworth

· All Previous Kelly Ellsworth Posts [Curbed Detroit]