Detroit is no stranger to design, consider this; some of the 20th century’s most notable architects, sculptors and designers called Detroit home:Louis Kamper, Wirt Rowland, Albert Kahn, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki, Marshall Fredericks, Julius Melchers, Carl Milles, Corrado Parducci and Isamu Noguchi, now that’s impressive. The architecture in Detroit is recognized as being among the finest in the country. The city was home to men of wealth and power; Ford, Dodge, Hecker, Fisher, Hudson, Kresge, Scripps, Whitney and Lindbergh to name a few. There was money, lots of money; when things were built they were made of the finest materials, the rich hired the men that created the face of the city. The Detroit Institute of Arts, to this day, remains one of the top art museums in the US and CCS one of the best design schools. This city has always embraced art and design, over the last few years we have experienced a new momentum and Detroit has become known as an epicenter of the art scene.
The 2012 Detroit Design Festival took place September 19-23, we couldn’t wait to get downtown and check out all it had to offer. The list of activities was enormous, impossible to see in one visit, but one was all we had, we crammed as much as we could into one night. We began with the Grand River Creative Corridor, which of course, took place on Grand River, between Rosa Parks Blvd and Warren Ave. Earlier in the year Derek Weaver, managing director of 4731 Gallery, hired local graffiti muralist Sintex to do three pieces on his building; why stop there? What kind of impact would it have on the area if you kept going down the street? They decided to find out; enlisting help from other Detroit based artists the project grew to 50 murals on 15 buildings, Wow! As we drove down Grand River we were awestruck, one scene after another, eventually we came to the last one and parked. You can’t fully absorb and appreciate the works unless you get out on foot to take it all in. The images are bold and colorful, the detail precise; some are amusing, others dark and a bit scary. A huge cartoon bolt greets passing traffic and lets them know this building is home to a nut and bolt manufacturer. Murals feature imaginary characters from alley cats to sinister beings, settings range from eerie cityscapes to bright splashes of color; the graffiti has become a welcome tourist attraction. As we headed back to the car we noticed many camera toting tourists on the sidewalk, the plan seems to be working.
We arrived at Slow’s to Go on Cass with just enough time to grab a quick sandwich before our next activity. We placed our order and took a seat by a window; seating is limited as this is basically a take-out place. Before long our meal was ready, packed neatly in a brown paper bag we unloaded it immediately and went to work. You can’t go wrong with the Longhorn sandwich; tender beef brisket sliced and piled high on Texas toast topped with melted cheese, onion marmalade and spicy bbq sauce, love it! The house salad is quite good topped with the honey jalapeno vinaigrette and no visit to Slow’s would be complete without a side of mac and cheese. The food disappeared in record time and we were off again.
Next we were scheduled to take a tour of Minoru Yamasaki’s buildings on the campus of WSU; since September 11, 2001 Yamasaki is probably best known as the architect of the World Trade Center Towers. In the early days of his career he was hired by the prestigious Detroit firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls. He was a man of vision, in 1949 he started his own firm Yamasaki & Associates; he stayed here for the rest of his life. Our tour began at the McGregor Memorial Conference Center on Ferry Mall, we had never been inside so this would be a new experience. Before our guide arrived we had a chance to look around, completed in 1958 it has a definite mid-century feel to it. Two-stories tall, the front and back entrances are glass, the ceiling is a skylight made up of glass and a series of triangular designs. Just inside the entrance an overhead bridge connects the two sides of this symmetrical structure. The triangular theme continues throughout the open space. The floors and stairs are marble, railings are stainless steel polished to the highest shine. Our guide was a wealth of information, he was actually an associate of Yamasaki’s, he worked with him for many years. He provided us with great detail on the building’s construction, he was filled with stories of his days spent at the firm. Darkness had fallen while we were inside; once outdoors we looked at the building in a new perspective, all lit up more attention is drawn to the metal screens that lay over the entrance doors, the building sets on a marble platform, columns rise up from the ground ending in a triangular pattern at the top. The original reflecting pools and sunken gardens that wrap around two sides of the building are currently being restored, we will definitely be back to see them when they are finished.
Nearby is the Education building, completed in 1960 the exterior is classic Yamasaki; again we have columns and a repeated geometric pattern, this time a hexagon. Since the space was used for classrooms the interior lacks the finer detail found in his public buildings. We walked across campus to the DeRoy Auditorium; opened in 1964 it was built to serve the business school and is used as a lecture hall. This nearly square building is also surrounded by a reflecting pool, though currently empty. I have always admired the buildings facade; reaching up two stories it is windowless, cast concrete panels with raised ribs resemble Calla Lillies, at ground level the ribs project out about four inches, gradually increasing to almost two feet at the top, it is a striking effect. Inside is a small entrance lobby to the auditorium itself. Downstairs is a tunnel that connects the auditorium to Prentis Hall, also designed by Yamasaki. Located on Cass Ave across from the main branch of the Detroit Public Library the business school also opened in 1964. My favorite part is the wide walk-through that separates the north and south wings of the structure allowing us to look through to the mall and the auditorium. I highly recommend a walk through campus!
Time was ticking by, we jumped back in the car to check out Eastern Market After Dark. It was a Thursday night and people were everywhere; boutiques and galleries were open late, a fashion show was in full swing under shed number two. Over on Winder Street the Red Bull House of Art Detroit was a hub of activity. The building, originally the home of E & B Brewery has been turned into lofts on the upper levels and an amazing gallery on the first and lower level. For the next three years a new group of eight artists will take over the studio cubes every eight to ten weeks. Red Bull covers the cost of artists materials serving as an incubation project for up and coming artists. As awesome as the main floor is, the basement is way cool; the underground space was once a prohibition hide-a-way. As we head down the stairs it is dark, almost feeling our way through until we come to huge brick archways lit by LED lights casting a glow of red and blue. At the end of the hall we are immersed into a brightly lit room that serves as a second large gallery, what a unique place. After we got a good look at the artwork it was back outside; we followed the crowd around the corner to a couple of other open galleries, most places were filled with people shoulder to shoulder, curious and eager to see what the creative community is up to.
The Detroit Design Festival is a community curated and supported festival highlighting the talents of the local creative community. Put on by the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) they form a partnership between CCS and Michigan business leaders. DC3 believes Detroit has all the assets to be a global center of design and creative innovation; I couldn’t agree more.