Detroit’s Renaissance Center…One Cold Hearted Ss-snake.
The GM Renaissance Center in Detroit, MI (architect: John Portman, 1977) is an oft-referenced example of interior urbanism. Like other buildings of this type, old Renny-poo is large – really – and contains many functions typically provided by many blocks of urban fabric. According to the Wikipedia article on this behemoth (to be read aloud: bo-wheee-moth) the seven-skyscraper complex contains the Western hemisphere’s tallest hotel skyscraper, movie theaters, shops, restaurants, offices and etc. etc. everything. The entire thing sits atop a plinth a couple of stories tall, which very effectively separates Renny from the rest of the city. These are the architectural facts – easy to learn in class or online. The actual experience of the building’s exterior is shocking, especially given its aggressively and gregariously deteriorating surroundings.
After viewing this building in-person, I would categorize it firmly as a Cold-Hearted-Snake. It’s visual and physical ignorance to the decay around it is visceral. It separates itself not only vertically (on its plinth) but also horizontally and materially from the city on which it turns its back. I understand that there are some mass transit connections inside the buildings – so I admit that I am lacking in experience of the interior and the feeling of connection to the city from within the complex. Perhaps those that inhabit the interior feel visually connected to the city? Does this assuage their guilt for occupying this aloof douchebag of a building? Was the exterior experience of the complex different when Detroit was a healthier city?
If anyone has thoughts or insight, please do share.
Interesting to note, as well, is that the population of Detroit began to fall in the decade of the 70s around the time that this building was erected (see Time magazine link). This leads me to think that either this building came to the party too late or that it was deliberately designed as an exclusive fortress in light of the coming tidal wave of economic and urban decline. In any case the architect, John Portman, won the 1978 Medal for Innovations in Hotel Design from the National American Institute of Architects. One only hopes that the days of rewarding arrogance and middle-finger-ism are coming to an end. If not, I suppose that’s one thing that my generation of architects and designers can get up to.
On urbanism (interior and otherwise):
Time magazine infographic on the Amazing, Shrinking Detroit!
Another Time link but photos this time – Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline