Detroit Design Month highlights projects ‘For a Better Detroit’

This year’s edition of Detroit Design Month features a number of adaptive reuse projects, including furniture made from recycled bulletproof glass and religious buildings converted into art spaces.

The annual festival, organized by local NGO Design Core Detroit, creates programs to celebrate the city’s design projects and initiatives.

It highlights a number of innovators but also puts forward educational and collaborative initiatives in an approach that often takes city-wide principles.

Artist Paula Chubatis and I.M. Weiss Gallery installed fabric sculptures in a restored 1930s building. Photography by Joseph Tiano

Organizers are also focusing on business development to try to mitigate the disparities and lack of opportunities that have come as a result of decades of disinvestment from the city.

“We encourage multidisciplinary teams and encourage taking a look at the design process – so we can have a better Detroit and not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Kiana Wenzel, Detroit Design Month director, told Dezeen.

“We bridge the gap by matching designers with buyers and then promoting a holistic way of practice. So Detroit is better in the future.”

Technology company New Lab opened a location in the city earlier this year. Photography by Brian Ferry

Programming also focused on the city’s recently restored buildings, with the festival promoting a series of exhibitions and talks in buildings that were previously in disrepair.

These included talks in the recently completed space of technology incubator Newlab, which is housed in a 1936 Art Deco building restored by architecture studios Gensler and Civilian.

The development method transformed a series of abandoned buildings into the Detroit Design District. Photographed by Raj Mehta Photography

Art exhibitions were held in formerly abandoned spaces such as a monastery and a church, as well as in the post-industrial spaces comprising the newly minted Detroit Design District.

For the latter, local artist Isabelle Weiss commissioned artist Paula Chubatis to fill a restored 1930s building with fabric sculptures.

Smaller reuse projects have included the work of Woodward Throwbacks, a gallery and studio that reuses materials from demolished buildings, including a series of coffee tables made from recycled bulletproof glass.

Woodward Throwbacks reuses building materials to make furniture. Photography by Liz Cardwell

A variety of new constructions were also on display during the fair, including the city’s first 3D printed house, which local tech company Citizen Robotics is pitching as an affordable solution to infilling architecture.

The festival also showcased metal Quonset huts built in a developing area called Core City, a project by national developer Prince Concepts.

The work of these developers, including Method Development, which is behind the adaptive reuse projects in the Detroit Design District, and Bedrock, the development company owned by American entrepreneur Daniel Gilbert, was particularly evident in the programming.

Bedrock is behind a slew of developments including an ongoing skyscraper designed by SHoP Architects in the heart of downtown.

Fiber Club* Detroit art exhibition held in a former convent. Photography by Liz Cardwell

Coalition building is essential to the city’s revitalization, Wenzel said.

“If a developer comes to your area, if they don’t contact you, you can contact them,” Wenzel told Dezeen.

“People know we do it differently in Detroit. We come together,” she said, noting that on-the-ground collaboration with artists and community members is essential to public acceptance of projects.

“We all have to pull in the same direction. Everyone has a role. It’s not the new Detroit; it’s not the old Detroit. It’s about Detroit competing against other cities in the world.”

3D printed housing has been developed to enhance construction. Image courtesy of Citizen Robotics

Wenzel also said part of this citywide collaboration is changing the language surrounding Detroit and the problems that have plagued it in past decades, including abandoned land and deteriorating public services.

“Instead of ‘disturbed land’ or ‘vacant land,’ we talk about land use models and land use strategies,” she said.

One land use strategy is converting empty plots of land into native plant ecosystems and community spaces implemented by Detroit Land Lab.

After it was abandoned, the city demolished thousands of homes, leaving large tracts of property without a structure within the city limits.

The project supervises the reclamation and replanting of hundreds of buildings within the city and the installation of places for gatherings and holding events.

“In the past, a lot of properties have turned into real estate, unfortunately, which has led to a lot of disinvestment, because they are speculating and that suppresses the market,” said executive director Tanya Stevens.

“But the population has come of age, let’s say, in the last 10 or 12 years, and people are revitalizing guerrilla warfare in this land.”

Native plants are being replanted and community spaces installed on abandoned properties. Photography by Liz Cardwell

Through this initiative, residents learn how to remediate soil, especially in those lands where the land has been contaminated due to improperly carried out demolitions.

Other recent festivals seeking to rejuvenate cities and address racial inequality in the United States include Counterpublics, a festival in St. Louis that has installed a number of artworks including a large-scale installation by Torkwase Dyson.

The top photo is of a restored church with artwork by Ian Solomon. Photography by Mara Magiarossi-Leitner

Detroit Design Month runs from September 1 to September 30, 2023. For more talks, events and exhibitions in architecture and design, visit Dezeen’s events guide.

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