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A large stainless steel fountain that’s a ring supported by two legs. Below there’s a black granite pool on a concrete surface. A row of skyscrapers is behind the fountain.
The Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain.

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The unsung brilliance of Hart Plaza

Designed by Isamu Noguchi, the downtown gathering space has features that still seem futuristic today. But it’s also starting to show its age.

Every Memorial Day weekend for the last 20 years, the electronic music festival Movement has taken place at Hart Plaza. The outdoor public space in downtown Detroit is unique among festival venues for its urban location, hardscape surface, and asymmetrical design features.

But Sam Fotias, operations director of the production company Paxahau, which runs Movement, says the atmosphere there can be unparalleled.

“When you’re watching a headlining set and everything is right—the weather is perfect, it’s an awesome crowd, the sound system is humming—and you’re standing in the middle of the city where techno was created, you gain a profound appreciation for the fact that the venue is synonymous with the event, synonymous with the history of the music, synonymous with the legacy of the genre. So it just all comes together.

“It’s not just a venue,” he adds. “It is really one of the primary facets of what makes this event so special. You’re not out in the middle of a field with no attachment to anything. You’re in this unique retro-futuristic place in the middle of the city on the river.”

Those qualities are why Hart Plaza is home to numerous festivals, parades, and gatherings year-round that invite people from all over to congregate and make the 14-acre space their own. In addition to Movement, there’s other city-wide gatherings like Motor City Pride and Detroit Jazz Fest, and culturally and ethnically specific festivals like the Albanian American Festival, Arab and Chaldean Festival, and the Detroit China Festival.

Joggers, dog walkers, and lunch breakers can experience the leisurely side of Hart Plaza, meandering through its multiple levels and intriguing sculptures, while getting great views of the city’s central business district and the Detroit River.

Long rows of concrete stairs and benches rise from a concrete amphitheater.
One of Hart Plaza’s amphitheaters.
Photo by Michelle Gerard

The fact that one venue can be a setting for so many different gatherings is a testament to Japanese-American landscape architect and designer Isamu Noguchi’s vision.

Noguchi was born to an American mother and a Japanese father, and spent his childhood in Japan and Indiana. As a designer, he was deeply impressed by the Italian Piazzas that served as city centers and had an elastic quality other public spaces didn’t offer.

His entry to a city of Detroit competition for a fountain at a new plaza was ultimately selected by Bob Hastings, chairman of the architecture firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. He not only won the commission for the Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain, but was soon working with the architecture firm on the full plaza design.

Noguchi had a varied career designing gardens, busts, playgrounds, sculptures, corporate buildings, and even furniture. But Dakin Hart, senior curator of The Noguchi Museum in New York, thinks the Dodge Fountain is a distillation of all his best qualities as a designer.

“When he was commissioned,” Hart says, “he was told very clearly what kind of fountain they wanted. They were thinking of an old fashioned fountain—a big thing with a basin and water shooting through the air—and he obviously didn’t make that at all, not even close. He was absolutely bound and determined to make contemporary-feeling fountains. He was setting out to make, not just a modern one, but a futuristic one.”

Dodge Fountain in the center of Hart Plaza still looks futuristic today. The stainless steel ring and two supporting legs, which stand over a black granite pool, is capable of creating different water configurations through its 300 jets and lights.

Noguchi also designed Pylon, the 120-foot stainless steel column at the plaza’s entrance.

But Hart Plaza, which opened in 1979, is starting to show its age. His innovative fountain is still a gorgeous site, but isn’t functioning at full capacity, and many other facets of the space don’t meet the technological demands and standards of today’s audiences.

A jungle of concrete stairs and benches.
The many levels and winding paths of Hart Plaza.

Hart Plaza’s electrical grid, internet access, and brick and mortar space for backstage accommodations are among the updates that Fotias says need fixing. And Hart Plaza’s multilevel, round, hard surface structure is something that Paxahau has to routinely work around in preparation for Movement.

“For how much we love that facility, for how much appreciate all of the energy and love that Isamu Noguchi has put into that, it is a very challenging space,” Fotias says.

At the same time, during 2019’s Movement Festival, Paxahau hosted the president of the Noguchi Foundation and a throng of Noguchi enthusiasts. The group had only seen pictures of Hart Plaza and never actually visited Detroit. But Fotias says the visit offered a perspective on just how special Noguchi’s work on Hart Plaza is.

Could money be infused into Hart Plaza to create a dynamic, expanded downtown public space? Detroit City Council recently allocated $800,000 to renovate Spirit Plaza, a car-free area north of Jefferson Avenue. Both the east and west riverfronts are getting multi-million dollar renovations. In 2017, an esplanade was built in the median of Woodward Avenue and some hold fantasies of tunneling Jefferson at Woodward to create a continuous pathway to Hart Plaza.

But Tiffany Crawford, press secretary for the city’s Department of Public Works, says there are no plans to upgrade Hart Plaza’s infrastructure at this time.

“Hart Plaza is part of a larger study of our downtown entertainment venues that aims to fully utilize our waterfront as an asset, which includes The Aretha Franklin Amphitheater, Spirit Plaza, and Hart Plaza,” Crawford says.

Ultimately, it’s no wonder the plaza has become such a conundrum. Noguchi spent his whole life pushing against the rigid constraints of society, and Hart Plaza was created out of his insistence on blending, not conforming. By intermingling performance space with gathering space, by introducing sculpture to an urban landscape, Noguchi artfully crafted a city center out of disparate parts in service of a future that he could only imagine.

Hart Plaza

1 Hart Plaza, , MI 48226 (313) 877-8057 Visit Website

Detroit River

, Detroit, MI 48226
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