Dan Pitera wants architects to plan for a smaller Detroit
Associate Professor of Architecture Dan Pitera sees Detroit’s declining population as an opportunity for architects to help create a new urban landscape.
Pitera is director of UDM’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), which currently has a dozen projects on the drawing boards for nonprofit organizations, mostly in Detroit. He has struggled with the problems created by Detroit’s population decline from two million to the latest U.S. Census estimate of 840,000, but he also has witnessed how the city is developing in new directions.
Detroit has a rich history of cultural diversity, more international trade by land than any other American city and a strong flow of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. Even if the population declines further to around 750,000, as Pitera expects, there will be plenty of opportunities for architects to develop new approaches in response to the dynamic changes he sees ahead for the city. “We could be the model for the new global marketplace and what a new 21st century city should be,” he says. “New York, San Francisco and Paris are old models.” Several years ago Pitera participated in an international study of shrinking cities. Then he spent the 2004-2005 academic year studying the trend at Harvard University as a Loeb Fellow. This past spring, he taught a course on urban population decline at Harvard, using Detroit as a case study. The study is scheduled for publication in book form this fall.
Responding to new trends
In 2005, Detroit had more housing starts than any municipality in the region for the first time in decades. But Pitera believes developers and planners are still reacting to old perceptions about the city, instead of creating new architecture for a changing urban environment. The result is the heavy emphasis on gated communities because of concerns about crime. Public spaces often don’t have benches in order to avoid attracting the homeless. A central theme of Pitera’s research is identifying positive trends in Detroit so that architectural designs can reflect the city’s renewed vitality.
“Developers don’t know how to work in this urban environment, so they are coming in with suburban-style construction,” he says. “If you are to design great buildings and great urban spaces, you need to understand the life of the city.” Pitera stresses the importance of community involvement in architecture design and community planning. All architecture students learn to draw plans and create models, but he wants UDM students to get their inspiration from the people that the buildings will serve. DCDC recently completed designs for an addition to the Early Learning Center in Ann Arbor. The design process involved extensive interviews with the school’s staff, parents and the young children. UDM students created the computer models for the presentation booklet that will be used to raise money for the $400,000 construction project.
“The goal is a participatory design process,” Pitera says. “Students have to learn how to listen so that they can incorporate the clients’ desires and intentions into their planning.”
Pitera has found that listening to the community can lead to an activist role for architects. After the School of Architecture developed a master plan for Detroit’s east side, some residents asked what they could do to immediately change neighborhoods blighted by abandoned and burnt-out buildings.
Following the lead of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, Pitera and his students turned a few eyesores into artistic statements. One building was transformed into a music box by decorating the windows with orange fabric while a jazz band played inside. Another building was covered with little bundles of hay to symbolize the resurgence of urban agriculture in Detroit. Covering a building with latex produced a shroud that has been displayed in Europe.
They wrapped an abandoned building in plastic to create “shrink-wrapped” architecture.
This type of installation art can change attitudes in the neighborhood. Drawing attention to the buildings also prompted city officials to demolish the buildings, clearing the way for progress.
“If we’re not happy with what we see around us, we can look for ways to protest that are productive,” Pitera says.
“Architects can be instigators of political and social action.”
DCDC students also have learned how to improve a neighborhood with volunteer labor and an investment as small as $2,500. This summer, students helped create and implement a plan that turned an abandoned gas station building into a gallery for the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit. The building doubles as an information center for the Woodbridge neighborhood, and the project includes a portable performance stage for the vacant lot across the street.
The inexpensive project has turned an eyesore into a community asset. “Part of my research is on how architecture can actively engage people in community activities,” Pitera says.