The University Record, January 21, 2002

Urban designs featured at TCAUP Charrette

By Dana Ondrei Fair

A charrette design team surveys downtown Detroit and collects photos that will help in their planning. (Photo courtesy of the TCAUP)
What is a “charrette?” In the late 19th century, French architecture students would work day and night preparing Grand Prix de Rome competition entries. Completed drawings were collected on small carts, or charrettes, on which some students would ride and perfect their pieces en route.

The newly revived word describes what took place January 11–15 at the Detroit 2002 Urban Design Charrette, sponsored by the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (TCAUP), the workshop host was Detroit Edison, Ford Motor Company and Gem Theatre. The intensive five-day workshop bustled with activity as nationally renowned architects and urban planners led teams of students from TCAUP, University of Detroit-Mercy and Cass Technical High School in developing fascinating, yet practical design concepts for downtown Detroit.

The first day began with a guided walking tour. Featured landmarks were a what’s what of the city’s past, present and future— Woodward, Gratiot, Washington Boulevard, Time Square, Harmonie Park, Campus Martius, the Madison Theatre, the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and Ford Field. Particular attention is being focused on the sports and entertainment district of Detroit in anticipation of Superbowl XL, scheduled for Ford Fieldhouse in 2006.

Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of TCAUP, gave the charge during the afternoon session, admonishing the design teams that a suburban development mindset is invading the urban arena and potentially “sucking the life out of the city.”

Area stakeholder Gary Targow, Campus Martius, provided insight into projects already in place, such as plans to redevelop the old Motown building. Charrette participants were rallied by other speakers, such as David DiChiera, the powerhouse behind the Detroit Opera Theatre; visionary Chuck Forbes, who during the ’70s purchased the neglected Gem and State Theaters; and Denise Illitch, Olympia Entertainment, who traveled the country and discovered how depressed urban areas are making successful comebacks.

For three days teams participated in the grueling process of reviewing, brainstorming, conceptualizing, sketching and eventually organizing their ideas into dynamic presentations. On day five, modern day charrettes (cars and vans by any other name) carried the presentations to the Gem Theatre, where the teams featured their works.

Team 1 (presenters: Miriam Gusevich, Catholic University, Washington, DC) felt that freeways, operating as a moat around downtown, isolate neighborhoods. The group proposed that certain streets could become more intimate by widening the sidewalks, allowing for cafes and strolling areas. Grand River Park and Time Square Plaza could benefit from landscaping.

The Taubman CAUP Charrette team in Detroit (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)
Attributing social, political, cultural and economic issues to the city’s current state, Team 2 (presenters: Max Bond, Davis Brody Bond, New York) cautioned that clever urban design concepts would not address the larger issues. The charrette audience, more than 300 strong, applauded when the team shared that no provisions were made for parking, instead focusing on filling empty spaces and buildings. Visitors should park elsewhere and take advantage of various forms of public transportation, such as electric buses. As for the People Mover, the team said it is impractical and should be removed. Besides streetscapes, a greenway plan could wrap the city with an “emerald necklace,” possibly becoming what Central Park is to New York. Quality urban schools are required to attract and keep families with children settled downtown.

Titling their presentation “The Stuff of Daily Life,” Team 3 (presenters: Ken Greenberg, Greenberg Consultants, Toronto) fondly referred to the design area as the Golden Banana. They said strategic public investments and subsidies are needed to accelerate housing and small-scale commercial enterprises. Street edges require reinforcement with street-level businesses that would bring activity to the “urban neighborhood.” Novel concepts included a “jazz alley.”

Team 4 (presenters: Damon Leverett, Albert Kahn Associates, Detroit) titled their presentation “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Detroit.” Focusing on the importance of neighborhoods, the group emphasized quality urban living, various and unique residential options, and pedestrian-friendly environments. For example, city dwellers living in townhouses and garden apartments could take advantage of urban green space, providing opportunities for health-conscious and aged individuals. Borrowing from the energy of the mega-sports facilities, the team said a community-based sports complex would bring balance in the form of non-professional sporting events. High-profile retail would animate the area, as would the development of secondary uses for stadium complexes.

The Public Arts Team (presenter: Yvette Amstelveen, InsideOut, Detroit) added color and artistry to the city. The team envisioned downtown with sculptured art featuring ethnocentric garb, sidewalk poetry, mosaic and tiled street works, colored sidewalks, theater-based window displays, artist-inspired bus stops and rotating art exhibits.

Now that the presentations are complete, TCAUP faculty will lead follow-up winter term studios to develop concepts. This summer, the college will produce a book with fully conceptualized charrette ideas. More information is available about this and past charrettes at www.tcaup.umich.edu/charrette/.