New Plan Aims to Revamp Midtown Detroit, the City’s Cultural Hub

A team composed of international and local studios and individuals—Agence Ter, rootoftwo, Akoaki, and Harley Etienne—was recently chosen to revitalize the 83-acre area.

detroit DIA Plaza plan
Aerial view of the Detroit Square plan Courtesy Agence Ter, Akoaki, rootoftwo, and Harley Etienne

Over the course of the 20th century, across a series of administrations and economic contexts, Midtown Detroit grew into one of America’s largest (or densest) cultural districts, with over 12 major institutions, such as the Detroit Institute for the Arts (DIA) and the College for Creative Studies. But you wouldn’t know it, even if you were there—the nine-block, 83-acre area is a mish mash of styles spanning Beaux Arts, Modernism, and Brutalism, and has a certain sense of placelessness. The area feels architecturally disjointed, illegible, and fails to translate the vibrancy of each institution into the broader public space.

It’s a problem a group of local stakeholders want to tackle. This week, the economic development agency Midtown Detroit, the DIA, and a host of other institutions announced the winner of its DIA Plaza | Midtown Cultural Connections international design competition, which seeks to implement the first master plan for district since the 1980s.

Designers were challenged with creating a new destination for the city that—unlike many cultural districts that act as high-culture anchors focused on visiting tourists—will serve Detroit’s diverse communities and residents. This brief is in line with the vision of the DIA’s Madrid-born director Salvador Salort-Pons, who has sought to adopt and adapt the town square tradition found in many European capitals.

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detroit DIA Plaza plan
Courtesy Agence Ter, Akoaki, rootoftwo, and Harley Etienne

The winning project team features local and international talent, with expertise including landscape architecture, planning, sustainability, technology, and the arts. Specifically, the team marries Paris-based studio Agence Ter’s experience in large, complex urban projects with rootoftwo, a Detroit-based urbanism- and technology-focused studio, plus Akoaki, a Detroit-based architecture and design studio, and Harley Etienne, an urban planner and assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Each member of the team’s Detroit contingent brings over 10 years of experience working in the city. Together, they have an intimate understanding of Detroit’s constellation of artists, designers, organizations, and institutions. For example, rootoftwo co-founder Cézanne Charles was previously creative industries director for the state of Michigan. The City of Detroit’s chief urban planner Maurice Cox tells Metropolis that it was important for the winning team to understand “who are the cultural producers in a city that is majority black and where there is a natural ferment of creative output that is largely in Detroit neighborhoods.”

Cox added, “The winning proposal goes the furthest in giving a coherent and legible public realm that responds to the individual institutions, but through very strategic insertions and realignments, they’ve been able to give the pedestrians a way of moving through the space that helps them realize they’re in the heart of Midtown.”

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“The Square” Courtesy Agence Ter, Akoaki, rootoftwo, and Harley Etienne

The team’s vision—dubbed Detroit Square—aims to create a welcoming, accessible, pedestrian-friendly district that’s also visually cohesive. The heart of the proposal is “The Square,” a new rectangle-shaped hardscape plaza that both links the area’s cultural institutions and creates a new, recognizable centerpiece for the district. Cutting across The Square is a set of large new greenspaces that create a backyard for the surrounding institutions. The designers say they drew inspiration from the relationship between Bryant Park and the New York Public Library. Framing the entire district is ‘The Necklace,” a meandering pedestrian pathway and promenade that connects all of the institutions.

Detroit Square also proposes a series of streetscape improvements, including putting the adjacent and rapidly gentrifying Woodward Street on a “road diet,” i.e., reducing the number of traffic lanes to improve pedestrians’ experience. Acknowledging and responding to automobile dominance in America’s quintessential motor city, Detroit Square also reimagines how the site integrates parking—introducing a new four-level underground parking structure with capacity for 1,000 vehicles—to liberate space currently used for street parking.

The proposal also introduces playful and adjustable elements throughout the site. A “data jockey” DJ tower and media suites sitting on top of the underground car park will control multimedia and lighting installations across the district, as well as serve as a platform for live music and spoken word performances. A series of LED-enabled totems across the site will provide public wifi, 5G, and wayfinding, and will act as digital canvasses for the work of local artists.

The plan includes upgrades for individual institutions: For the DIA, what the designers describe a “Afrofuturist baroque” entryway composed of a sequence of vaults that will create a new entrance to the museum that, the designers say, will feel more welcoming for the surrounding community. The structure will also act as a platform for digital video and art projection mapping.

detroit DIA Plaza plan
The planned “Afrofuturist baroque” entryway Courtesy Agence Ter, Akoaki, rootoftwo, and Harley Etienne

The process relied on extensive community engagement and consultation, which involved in-depth sessions with a steering committee that included the district’s 12 institutions, plus what Akoaki co-founder Anya Sirota calls the “13th institution”—the Detroit arts community itself. A series of design reviews, presentations, workshops with local residents, and an exhibition at the DIA of the three finalist designs garnered over 500 public comments.

The competition fits into to a wider movement in Detroit under the leadership of Cox to reimagine and reactivate civic and public spaces across the city—from parks and public plazas to waterfront redevelopment, which includes West Riverfront Park, Beacon Park, and Spirit Plaza. 

According to Sirota, the winning design is “not a finished proposal for a finalized outcome; it’s a working diagram for a disparate district.” The project team will now enter an 18-month research, conceptual planning, and engagement phase, working closely with each of the institutions. They will carrying out a series of studies and surveys around topography, mobility and traffic, lighting, and historical analysis.

“For the last decade we’ve been working on creating social environments that produce that radical social mixity: How do you create scenarios where people from different walks of life feel like they belong?” Sirota tells Metropolis. “This competition first and foremost was an opportunity to participate in public discourse on inclusivity and the future of the city.”

You may also enjoy “In Lynn, Massachusetts, a Public Art and Lighting Initiative Enlivens a Former Industrial City Center.”

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