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Architects Invite Detroit Students to Play the Game of City-Making

Envisioning city design as a game.
Envisioning city design as a game.
Interboro Partners

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, we visit a class focused on envisioning a new Detroit.

Envisioning city design as a game. Images courtesy Interboro Partners.

Detroit's plight—its shrinking population, physical deterioration, and official bankruptcy—have been well documented. So, too, are residents' and architects' responses to these conditions. City residents often take the fate of abandoned lots into their own hands, purchasing or simply annexing nearby vacancies into what New York's Interboro Partners, for a 2006 competition, initially dubbed "blots" (the term has since entered the mainstream). Some abandoned buildings have been repurposed—a theater that once hosted vaudeville acts including the Marx Brothers, now a parking garage; the 1900 Grand Army of the Republic castle, purchased from the city in 2011 and now inhabited by a media production company and two restaurants; and more.

Many, many more structures have yet to find uses. An English Gothic church constructed in 1911 was initially left vacant a decade ago when the pastor who ran it died; the fifteen-story previous home of the Detroit Free Press, built in 1925, has been abandoned since 1998; hundreds of factories and warehouses and schools and banks and every conceivable sort of building is potential fodder for creative reimaginings.

And now, says Interboro's Daniel D'Oca, "Everybody's speculating about Detroit."

For a city whose inhabitants may already be engaged in a near-constant game of speculation, whose imaginations need no help coming up with fantastical, useful, community-minded, or profitable uses for structures that desperately need it, the mission of this column appears redundant. More appropriate to crawl under the speculation, and approach the intentions of the various actors at play in the city.

For this, we piggyback on a class taught in 2013 by Interboro Partners—D'Oca, Tobias Armborst, and Georgeen Theodore—for Lawrence Technological University's Critical Practice Studio. Program director and professor Philip Plowright directs a master class program taught by visiting architects that have included M.I.T.'s Alexander D'Hooghe and Toronto-based Lateral Office; Plowright was drawn to Interboro's focus on activism.

"Detroit's got a very, very strong activist thread to it, and LTU is very much proud to be a Detroit school," he says. The course was "part of how we are engaging design on the ground and in the city rather than just theory and objects."

Interboro started by making a map of the city and inviting students to physically place people and their varied motives within it. With yellow cards representing people and outlining their goals, motives, and opportunities in an overlay atop the map, students were able to visualize the actors within the remaking of Detroit.

The course then imagined city-making as a game, with players—landlords, tenants, neighborhood associations, developers, banks, commercial entrepreneurs, preservationists, economic development agencies—who would try to use the hands they were dealt and their varied "chips"—property, money, zoning power—to achieve a desired outcome. In a city in which everyone from billionaire businessmen to Jack White are getting involved, playing for visions of the city ranging from a revitalized business district downtown to a tech town, a creative hub, a return to nature, and everything in between, this hardly seems like a leap.

Within this context, "the students did a project where they put themselves into the mix and came up with a plan and a proposal: what would they want if they were, say, the parks department? And how would they go about getting it?" says D'Oca.

Split into teams, course participants devised games to represent their assigned goals and how they would go about achieving them. One group made a game about the conflict between bikes, cars, and pedestrians. The parks department team used real budget numbers, maintenance cost, key players, capital investments, and more to devise "Parks & Recreation – A Game of Limited Resources" as well as a redevelopment proposal for Belle Isle, a city park whose amenities once included a zoo, aquarium, and a now-overgrown golf course. A housing group came up with a tool kit for community activism (Take Back Detroit) to identify often-fallow speculator-owned property and deter future speculators.

"Architecture doesn't educate students to think about people, but about objects," says Plowright. "We fetishize objects a bit. [The course] immediately shifted away from making pretty objects and to: what are the political, social, economic, financial motives out there, what are the politics of the individual and how do [individuals] get what they want?"

As academic practices go, Plowright's emphasis on architecture as practice as well as object would seem to be working. LTU graduate Amy Swift recently founded Building Hugger, a design build firm focused on preservation trades and restoration, which aims to make restoration work scalable and accessible to homeowners who can't necessarily afford the giant price tags that come with many estimates; another grad, Samantha Szeszulski, won this year's Women In Architecture's Emerging Professional Inspiration Award for a community guerilla art campaign.

In the end, the course generated a playful, smart exercise that prepared LTU students to peer beneath what exists and examine who drives change in their city. As many exciting projects for restoration or renovation of majestic old buildings may exist, as many motivated homeowners convert their blots into sprawling playgrounds or gardens, the structural issues underlying Detroit's larger problems aren't likely to go away without large-scale regulatory and legislative changes, says D'Oca. If and when those changes happen, Detroit architects will be at the helm of re-imagining their city.

And, as D'Oca says, "we're better as architects if we understand the multiple and often conflicting visions that are out there."

· Detroit coverage [Curbed]
· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]