Designing Detroit

If the Great Recession has an unofficial mascot, it's Detroit. Even though the once-mighty Motown has been in a slow-motion death-spin since the days of the K-car, the city's abandoned factories and hollowed-out neighborhoods have lately been rediscovered as metaphors for the failures of capitalism -- and the hopefulness of art.

Time magazine recently featured a photo-essay on Detroit's beautiful decay, by French fashion photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, while a Financial Times article on the Motor City's complicated decline even mentions "Mad Max," the cinematic depiction of the end of Western civilization, as a brutal free-for-all waged by cavemen with cars.

But all is not lost: In last week's New York Times, ad executive and new Detroit resident Toby Barlow, who we featured in Dwell's December/January issue, wrote an op-ed about buying a co-op in the classic Mies van der Rohe development, Lafayette Park, for only $100,000.  He describes how the city is becoming a "vast, enormous canvas" for artists, who see it as a Promised Land of gritty urbanity and cheap housing. It's like the East Village of the '70s, but a hundred times the size.
The Detroit enclave of Hamtramck was named by Blender magazine as one of the "most rock'n'roll cities" in the U.S. (just below that stalwart of cool, Williamsburg), and it's also where artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert recently bought a wrecked house in an iffy neighborhood, then purchased a few more abandoned properties nearby, all for under $5000. They re-sold one of the houses to another couple of artists for $100, with the idea that together they would work to rehab and retrofit the foreclosed homes, stripped of their utilities and wiring, into a mini art colony relying on alternative power technologies (and with their own radio station).

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Cope and Reichert call their studio Design99, based on a $0.99/hour pricing scheme that allows them to offer architectural services that are affordable to just about anyone. The "Power house Project" is just one of Design99's endeavors (they also have a retail storefront on Hamtramck's commercial strip), but it's a primary focus as they aim to demonstrate through their own actions how to renovate Detroit properties using existing community and human resources in place of nearly non-existent financial ones.

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"We would like to prove that you can renovate old Detroit houses cheaply, but with even more quality, efficiency and functionality, as well as aesthetic design, than if you simply bought all the raw materials from a big box store, hired a professional crew and finished the project in a week," they say on their site. They have been mapping the neighborhood and intend to employ neighbors in the renovation process and offer educational opportunities for the community to learn more about incorporating renewable energy technology, gardens, and other strategies in their homes.

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The first Power house Project location is an architectural manifesto-in-progress, with fresh paint, new landscaping, and an attic camera obscura the latest additions. (Their status as urban-art homesteaders – and their feelings about being newly minted media darlings – is described on Detroit's Model D blog.) 

Spectators to all this interest in Detroit as smoldering metaphor and tabula rasa are the rest of Detroit's one million residents, who may have an opinion or two about outsiders' views of their city. In his Times article, Barlow mentions that some German artists are thinking of relocating to Detroit to build a giant, two-story beehive; as hopeful as all these stories are, when Germans pick your town to build their beehive, you know there's nowhere to go but up.

Check out Dwell's slideshow of the Lafayette Park development.

All images courtesy of Design99.


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