Author Archives: jwitherspoon

2013 Detroit Design Festival


After a brief hiatus, RogueHAA is back in action for the 2013 Detroit Design Festival. Our installation seeks to activate an empty pocket parking lot in Detroit’s North End with a series of grass terraces combined with blank writing walls. Rather than a creating static object to be viewed from a distance, we propose a literal platform for conversation and reflection. Each section of the installation wall will include a different provocation as a means to catalyze and frame a conversation about the city.

Throughout the festival, visitors will be encouraged to write their ideas, thoughts, challenges, and pictures on the walls of the installation. These will be collected and curated as part of an online gallery to promote engagement with a larger audience, and longevity beyond the festival itself.

The installation will located at 2871 E. Grand Blvd and will open Saturday September 21, at noon. Be sure to check out the rest of the the Festival Happenings here

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Dlectricity Competition Entry

rogueHAA recently entered a competition for the upcoming DLECTRICITY festival. For two nights in October, the Woodward Corridor will be filled with light-based art, installations, and performances as invited artists and designers create site-specific work that will activate the evening streetscape. Our project proposal is currently under review but we should have a decision soon so stay tuned.

Below is an excerpt from the project statement:

LIGHT TERRAIN   Ignasi de Solà-Morales defines terrain vague as land in a “potentially exploitable state but already possessing some definition to which we are external,” or “strange places” that “exist outside the city’s effective circuits and productive structures.” Detroit is an often cited characterization of Sola-Morales’ concept, yet these “strange places” are typically understood as either unacceptable results of economic decay, or as sites of optimistically unrealistic potential, divorced from the realities that created them. Our installation seeks to bring a more nuanced approach to Terrain Vague that both recognizes the realities of urban vacancy while maintaining the possibility inherent within. By creating a space for interaction and conversation, our installation attempts to both literally and conceptually establish a provisional ‘ground’ for interaction among DLECTRICITY viewers that strikes a balance between planned and spontaneous, solid and void, architectural object and landscape. Continue reading

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Urban Futures Panel Discussion

…Indeed, the chance to pioneer, to be part of a unique and significant new community, was, for many, an important factor in deciding to settle there…” (Forum Magazine, 1960)

Urban Futures
Last month, RogueHAA convened the latest panel discussion in its Provocations: Challenging Detroit’s Design Discourse series. Lafayette Park served both as backdrop and case study for a discussion of the broad social, political, architectural, and urbanistic issues that surround this development. Lafayette Park began as an urban renewal initiative known as the Gratiot Redevelopment Project which targeted 129 acres of land within the primarily working class African-American neighborhood of Black Bottom. Between 1946 and 1958, thousands of residents were displaced and the site largely remained vacant until the city retained Chicago-based developer Herbert Greenwald, architect Mies van der Rohe, urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer and landscape designer Alfred Caldwell to design a plan for redevelopment. By the early 1960’s, three 22-floor high-rises, 21 buildings with 186 ground-level housing units, and a large park were completed. Despite the controversy surrounding its implementation, the Lafayette development has achieved many of the goals of Modernist planning and urban renewal and today is one of the most economically viable and racial diverse neighborhoods in the city.

To this context rogueHAA brought together the following distinguished professionals to discuss the many facets of Lafayette Park:

Danielle Aubert (assistant professor of graphic design, WSU)

Robert Fishman (professor of urban planning, U of M)

Kevin Harrington (professor emeritus, IIT)

Michelle Johnson (executive director, Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative)

Hilanius Phillips (Former head city planner, City of Detroit)

Brent Ryan (assistant professor of urban design and public policy, MIT)

Optimistically titled Urban Futures, the event addressed both the history of its planning and execution, but also the many paradoxes that accompany one of the more successful of Detroit’s urban neighborhoods. Does Detroit offer similar opportunities for avant- garde planning and large scale urban interventions today? What successes and sacrifices accompany the Modernist social agenda, and are there lessons to be learned as we seek to engage in equitable and sustainable redevelopment here and in other Rustbelt cities? While the presentations and subsequent discussion covered a broad array of topics, there were a number of themes that emerged.

Race & Relocation
Underlying much of the conversation was the reality of the vast displacement that occurred through the urban renewal process, and the failed relocation strategies implemented by the city leadership. As discussed in rogueHAA’s A Brief History of Black Bottom exhibit, the area was cleared in the early 1950s as part of a campaign to eradicate the extreme conditions in Detroit’s slums. The Lafayette Park development model was based largely on the rejection of the chaos and congestion of the industrial city. From a utopian and socialist agenda, the ‘tower in the garden’ represented a reprieve from the extreme density in these areas. Ironically, by the time the development was implemented the city had already begun to lose population at its center. As described by Robert Fishman (professor of urban planning, U of M), this intentional removal of working class poor was also seen as a way to stem the massive suburban migration that followed World War II by encouraging the middle class to remain in the city. While one of the goals of the project was purported to be better housing conditions for the primarily black, working-class residents of Black Bottom, the other was the buoying of property values and the establishment of a new urban model. Continue reading

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Frenetic Urbanism

For a few days last week, the small urban triangle known as Capitol Park and the surrounding area was radically transformed for the filming of Transformers 3. Piles of rubble, explosions, robots, and a new streetscape were installed as part of director Michael Bay’s elaborate set. This sort of temporary urbanism is becoming more and more common as the Michigan film incentive draws site scouts to the area. In upcoming films, Detroit will be portraying Paris, the Soviet Union, Switzerland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and many other U.S. cities. In recent months residents have witnessed rallies by the ‘Peoples’ Liberation Army’, dramatic life of a retired CIA operative, even stumbled upon a rogue NYC subway station at the Guardian Building. While it is exciting to experience the instant gratification of these fleeting installations, we should not to overlook the slow but lasting progress occurring in urban spaces like Capitol Park.
The Capitol Park Improvement Project, which calls for new paving, landscaping, lighting, and signage, has been underway since last year and is nearing completion. The park is bordered by Griswold, Shelby, and State streets and held the first State Capitol Building in 1837 when Michigan gained statehood. The site functioned as a transit hub from 1955 until the recent completion of the Rosa Parks Transit Center. Now the Downtown Detroit Partnership and the city of Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority have joined with the design firm Merz & Associates to return the park to a public greenspace.

Watching the simultaneous development of fast and slow urban interventions in Capitol Park, one wonders if its possible to coordinate the enormous investment involved in the staging of movie sets to lasting urban benefit. How can the creative freedom and imagination that go into these filmic vignettes be incorporated into planning models and similarly how can urban development projects partner with film crews to more permanently enhance the environments they engage?


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Detroit Transit, Part 1


Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night? – Jack Kerouac

Detroit is ironically the most and least likely place to discuss mass transit. Once the home of one of the nation’s most extensive streetcar systems, Detroit has become synonymous with decentralization, suburban expansion, and the dominance of the automobile.  Where human mobility was once limited by the location of rail lines, canals, and the limited travel range of other non-motorized forms of transportation, the car provided a universal form of personal transportation which could be used at virtually any geographic scale. Unfortunately, the success of the car came at the expense of all other modes of transportation, eventually leading Detroit and other cities toward an inefficient and unsustainable transit monoculture.

Recently, infrastructural failures in this country have gained national and international attention. With increasing national imperative, as well as efforts at the regional and local level, it appears mass transit is finally becoming a reality. High-speed rail development in Florida between Tampa, Orlando and Miami, and in California linking Sacramento, San Francisco and L.A., has been covered extensively throughout the media. Portland Oregon’s streetcar system has become a benchmark for urban transit in this country. And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has allocated substantial funds to the development of public transit systems, indicating a shift in support and investment toward sustainable car alternatives. As this transition occurs, however, it is important to consider not only the new forms of transportation infrastructure and technology that will be necessary, but also the relationship between these and existing development patterns. Continue reading

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BACK TO THE FUTURE.  Last month the Taubman School of Architecture hosted the ambitiously titled Future of Design Conference, bringing together a prestigious group of design professionals to present their thoughts and work on the conference topic. Based on the Pecha Kucha format, each individual was given fifteen minutes to present a rapid-fire succession of projects, speculations, and research, and diatribe. While certain thematic similarities surfaced throughout the course of the presentations, by and large the variety of presented topics reflected the current diversity of the design field. One consistent topic, however, centered on the ways technology is changing the means and methods of architectural production. To contextualize this theme, it is interesting to trace the evolution of technology as it relates to avant-garde architecture and design practices.

Historically, “visionary architecture” has existed as work which is often highly polemic and rarely built. In his book Visionary Architecture: Blueprints of the Modern Imagination, Neil Spiller writes that “this history is linked to the metaphorphosis of the ‘machine’ and the technologies that embody it. Whether ‘machines’ are the conceptual ones of Marchel Duchamp, the mechanized armatures of cranes on a building site, the virtual machines within computers or the cabbalistic machines of Daniel Liebskind, they have all influenced the course of architectural vision.” Works such as, Constant’s New Babylon (1950), Archigram’s Walking City (1964), Superstudio’s Continuous Monument (1971), or even Buckminster Fuller’s proposed Dome for Manhattan (1960), functioned not as serious proposals for built work, but as devices for questioning certain social, political, and technological issues. Continue reading

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