No one has taken as much blame for Detroit’s woes as the major American car companies who, through the early 20th century, concentrated themselves there to such an extent that the city’s name became a byword for the industry.
Despite the contradiction of an urban metropolis owing so much to an explosion in car ownership, for decades the arrangement worked reasonably well. But eventually, as the likes of Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors faltered – especially during the oil crises of the 1970s, when Japanese and European manufacturers gained the upper hand while homegrown ones responded with plant closures and massive layoffs – so the fortunes of the Motor City flagged.
Watching in dismay as his hometown turned hollower by the day, Ford chairman Henry Ford II had an idea: surely if all the car manufacturers – indeed, all the city’s industrial companies – got together, they could pool their resources and build Detroit out of its spiral? And so, in 1970, arose the non-profit organisation Detroit Renaissance, the city’s newest advocate for downtown – and, with its plan to kickstart the local economy by putting up the world’s largest private development, its most ambitious.
Having picked out a choice site on the underdeveloped International Riverfront, Detroit Renaissance was left to figure out what sort of project it wanted to build – and, more importantly, who should design it. But Ford had a man in mind: impressed on a visit to Atlanta by the city’s Peachtree Center – a high-rise district of offices, hotels, convention spaces and shopping galleries all connected by skybridges – he called on its mastermind, the architect and developer John C Portman Jr, to envision the similarly multipurpose piece of urban space that would become Detroit’s Renaissance Center.
For his work in Atlanta, Architectural Record dubbed Portman a “one-man urban renewal program”. Up until the 1990s, he specialised in futuristically recreating swathes of old American downtowns, either with multi-block complexes, such as the Peachtree Center and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center, or with large, detached structures – usually hotels – such as New York’s Marriott Marquis and the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles. The Renaissance Center, however, offered Portman the opportunity to do a bit of both.
A 73-storey Detroit Marriott hotel rose as the cylindrical glass centrepiece of an interconnected complex that also featured four shorter, more traditional (but equally shiny) office towers – all placed on top of a three-storey cement podium. Boosters of the Renaissance Center, accommodating everything from bars and restaurants to banks and theaters, described it as a “city within a city”.
Ford had even grander words for the fruit of his own organisational labours: “Detroit has reached the bottom and is on its way back up,” he declared when the centre opened in 1977. And for a while, a renaissance did indeed appear on its way: two years later, adjacent buildings had increased in value by 50%, downtown dining had risen by 40%, and the office occupancy rate (the Renaissance Center’s 2.2m sq ft included) reached 84%.
But the unignorable structure also drew its critics – even before its construction. Charles Blessing, then director of the Detroit City Planning Commission, disapproved of it early on, objecting to the very elements of the design that observers lament to this day: its isolation from the rest of downtown, its failure to integrate with other planned riverfront projects, and its stark contrast with the existing texture of the city. “It wants to stand alone,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger, “and fails to do the crucial thing that all good urban buildings must do – relate carefully to what is around them.”
Sociologist and urban scholar William H Whyte used the term “megastructure” to describe then-fashionable projects such as the Renaissance Center; where “in spirit as well as form, the suburban shopping mall is transplanted to downtown, and security is raised to the nth degree”... employing “guards and elaborate warning systems” and “manifestly defensive” entry designs. He added: “Where the Renaissance Center faces Detroit, there is a large concrete berm athwart the entrance. It’s a wonder there isn’t a portcullis. But the message is clear. Afraid of Detroit? Come in and be safe.”
It speaks to the state of American cities in the 1970s that any development meant to entice people back in had first to guarantee their protection; hence the number of downtown buildings of that era, especially Portman’s, that were accused of “turning their backs” on the streets, if not actively sucking life out of them. “Cities, and certainly Detroit, have at least the image of being unsafe places,” said Portman. “To reverse that, we have to give people city environments where they feel safe.”
But even Portman, who has chosen to leave the Renaissance Center off the long list of buildings on his website, clearly had his reservations about the final product. “To understand the Renaissance Center, you have to understand the basic situation of Detroit when we started the project,” he later explained. “The first time I went, as I was checking in [to my hotel], I was told to not walk on the streets. If I left the hotel, I had to take a taxi to go to a restaurant, and when I came out of the restaurant I had to take a taxi back. This was the circumstance in which we found ourselves.”
One school of thought holds that Portman’s security-obsessed fortresses tear irreparable holes into the urban fabric; another, that he did his best to create safe, awe-inspiring environments in American city centres at a time when most developers and architects had washed their hands of them. He must, though, take the blame for some of the Renaissance Center’s most notoriously bothersome features, such as the “disorienting array of ramps, escalators and elevators” and “repetitive circular geometry” cited in 1978 by Progressive Architecture magazine.
Yet Portman’s original 15-tower design also included elements that were never built, such as a series of residential buildings on the water which might have played a part in energising the depleted downtown.
Since it first opened, the Renaissance Center has undergone several rounds of renovation – one of them by the well-regarded firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, who worked to open up the “confusing, inward-focused complex” to the city around it. That happened in the 1990s, after the development had changed hands several times: already haemorrhaging money in the early 1980s, the Ford-owned centre went on the market and, by 1996, ended up in the hands of General Motors, a company with problems of its own, which paid just $72m for a building that had cost $350m to construct.
For all its spectacle, the Renaissance Center appears to have done essentially nothing to reduce Detroit’s loss of industry, investment and appeal – which saw the 1950 population high of 1,850,000 fall to 701,000 in 2013, when the city declared bankruptcy.
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In the past couple of years, however, while the outskirts have continued their return to the state of nature apace, downtown Detroit has seen a consolidation. Young professionals and the businesses that cater to them have arrived, a number of development projects have set about rehabilitating the city’s proud 19th- and early-20th-century architectural heritage, and work has begun on a new rail line down Woodward Avenue, the main commercial strip.
“We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes,” goes the city’s motto, written in 1805. Whether this latest, more dispersed attempt at urban revival will prevail remains to be seen – but, sooner or later, Detroit will find out what works. Thanks to the Renaissance Center, it already knows what doesn’t.
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