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Detroit’s Renaissance Center…One Cold Hearted Ss-snake.

July 20, 2010

GM Renaissance Center: Total Jerk. As seen from the Detroit River.

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.

Note horizontal separation from older urban fabric, occupied here by a Coast Guard helicopter.

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):

Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York & THIS YouTube video.

On Detroit:

Time magazine infographic on the Amazing, Shrinking Detroit!

Another Time link but photos this time –  Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gabrielle Reisman permalink
    December 6, 2011 11:04 am

    I was in there last summer. It’s surreal, like most of downtown Detroit. There are lots of Chevys on display, the lighting is bright, there’s a CVS and gelato and small flocks of lower-middle class tourists milling about. The connection to the light rail system (which is cute, sort of like a mass transit amusement park ride) was respectably ghostly.

    It definitely felt like it wasn’t at capacity, that it had been built to contain a corporate city inside it so that investors and foreign businessmen never had to venture into the decaying city around it. My boyfriend said its still primarily used for that purpose- to contain foreigners who haven’t heard of Detroit’s mythic collapse and to house drug addled suburban teenagers during the annual electronic music festival (this is how Ben know’s it intimately).

    The myth of that collapse however, was interesting. I think I always saw Detroit as a sister city to New Orleans, somewhere that wore its decay sexy. But Detroit is no New Orleans. It’s actually in Way better shape than New Orleans, or Cairo, or Many other rust belt towns I’ve been through growing up.

    The car industry is still there. And has a whole quadrant of lobbyists (many of whom live by Ben’s family in Farmington Hills) who’s express job is to perpetuate the story of a city destroyed, of an American industry collapsed and in dire need of rescue by the American people. We must buy American to save it.

    Detroit had more money in its boom time than Chicago did, you can see it in the details of the buildings downtown. And the area still has shitloads of money, it’s just all moved to the outer rim, post-9-Mile mark. It was no ghost town though, not what I had imagined. It is ridiculously massive. And it seems crazy to me that so many people would abandon a city to build exurbs. And that more young people aren’t flocking back into town at the chance of buying a $2000 mansion. It must be a powerful myth. And one with a brick of truth inside.

    Me, I’ll stay where it’s warm and decaying and the reality of the city’s destruction is couched in a daiquiri-induced optimism that it’ll all somehow work itself out. And until it does we should dance.

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