Landscape Architects Take the Lead on New Cultural District in Detroit

DIA Plaza and Midtown Connections design competition presentation at Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections

In Detroit, twelve arts, cultural, and educational institutions are clustered together geographically, but have failed to form a unified district, a true destination. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and the Midtown Detroit Inc, hope that a new central public space around the DIA and a broader urban design to boost connectivity and accessibility can change that. In an attempt to create a coherent, inclusive, accessible, and sustainable district that can attract both residents and tourists, DIA and Midtown launched an international design competition last year, which has since yielded three finalists that presented to some 200 local residents at the DIA last week.

More than 40 submissions from 10 countries were narrowed down to eight finalists. And now it’s down to three interdisciplinary teams led by landscape architecture firms: Agence Ter from Paris, France; Mikyoung Kim Design from Boston, Massachusetts; and TEN x TEN, which is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

According to the DIA and Midtown Detroit, Inc, who worked with the twelve educational and cultural institutions, the finalists’ proposals are the result of a year of input from committees and residents, which participated through 40 public engagement sessions.

Public engagement session / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections
Public engagement session / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections

Finalists presented to the competition jury at the DIA, which includes Salvador Salort-Pons, president of the DIA; Maurice Cox, Detroit’s planning director; and landscape architect Julie Bargmann, ASLA, founder of D.I.R.T. Studio.

All the teams seek to shrink down the width of boulevards; remove parking; add event spaces, cafes, and public art installations; and vastly expand public green space. The new designs could be the National Mall of Detroit or a lush, interactive university campus. The design teams seek to bring people in from around the Detroit and the suburbs and keep them there, engaged, enlightened, and entertained year-round.

The Agence Ter team offered meandering paths through forested and planted areas, with experimental event spaces for local artists and public art installations that speak to Detroit’s unique history.

Agence Ter proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition
Agence Ter proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition

The Mikyoung Kim Design team envisioned a verdant space, with a central lawn that can host events, as well as an outdoor movie screen, cafe, playground, and maze garden that converts into an ice rink in winter.

Mikyoung Kim Design proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition
Agence Ter proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition

And the TEN x TEN team proposed a more angular, contemporary design, with green space but also “fog gardens,” an “exploratorium,” and interactive light graffiti wall.

Ten x Ten proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition
Ten x Ten proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition

An exhibition of the proposals is on view at the DIA until April 1. The winning proposal will be announced by the end of April.

This incredible investment in raising Detroit’s profile as a cultural mecca can only help this city get back on its feet after years of disinvestment and near bankruptcy. Only a few years ago, the city seriously considered selling off the amazing art at the DIA to pay down debt. The message of this project is inclusive cultural and ecological revitalization is the new way to do urban revitalization.

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