Over the past two years, the DIA Plaza/Midtown Cultural Connections international design competition accepted project proposals that could transform the Midtown district of Detroit. The goal of the competition is to unite 12 cultural institutions, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Public Library and University of Michigan. 

More than forty project submissions were narrowed down to three finalists and a winner titled “Detroit Square.” The project has a core team of Olivier Phillippe from Agence Ter (based in Paris, France); Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges from Akoaki (Detroit); Cezanne Charles and John Marshall from rootoftwo (Detroit); and Harley Etienne, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.  

In addition to Etienne, three other of these team members have ties to the University. Sirota is an associate professor of architecture at the Taubman College, Marshall is an associate professor at the School of Art & Design and Taubman College and Charles is an alum of the School of Public Policy. 

Sirota said she believes her team’s key to success was their plan being more fluid and adaptable instead of concrete and decisive. 

“It is not a finished plan; it is not a masterplan in and of itself,” Sirota said. “It is a framework to engage the 12 institutions. It proceeds with a very clear, strong diagram of its shared parts, but then assumes they will need to be adjusted to conform to the material reality of the institutions’ needs … (The plan’s key to success was) the capacity of the plan to adapt and the admission that this early, a finished master plan would practically be inappropriate given the complexity of the stakeholders and partners.”

Additionally, Sirota talked about the team’s extension of the scope of the project.  

“We imagined a 13th institution, which was the artistic and creative ecosystem of the city at large,” Sirota said.  “So it was a broader idea about arts and culture in the city. By taking this 13th institution into consideration, we were able to imagine programming the public landscape in a very particular and inclusive way.”

“Detroit Square” reshapes the Midtown area into a more engaging and welcoming space. It plans on adding a “Respect Cafe” outside the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, multiple public art projects and sculptures that will line pedestrian-friendly walkways, gardens and two plazas for large events.  

The design also aims to make the area technology friendly by establishing public Wi-Fi and reliable 5G connection. To reduce the number of parked cars around this area, an underground parking structure will be built to accommodate approximately 1,000 cars. 

Marshall spoke about the plan’s priority to connect each institution in a way that is accessible to pedestrians through a network of pathways they call The Necklace.

“The Necklace offers a cultural route through the district at a more intimate scale than the public square,” Marshall said in an email statement. “Pathway configurations accommodate connections to/from surrounding institutions, destinations, and better links from the cultural district to the rest of Midtown.”

Marshall also described the next steps that the project will take. In July, the team will begin a “three-phased conceptual plan framework.” During this time, the team will conduct multiple studies to examine the area and to best decide how to proceed. The opinions of residents and community members will be taken into consideration.

“The community will be welcome to provide feedback via an ongoing series of tours, workshops and other hands-on opportunities during this 18-month planning period,” Marshall said. 

A group of 10 jurors decided the winning project of this competition. Juror Julie Bargmann, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and the founder and principal of D.I.R.T. Studio,  referred to her position as a “hauntingly humbling” honor due to its significance. She spoke to her excitement for the Detroit area and how this project will impact it. 

“Detroit is going through this incredible regeneration,” Bargmann said. “(Detroit) also needs cultural health. That’s what this project is saying: we are going to invest in that.”

Bargmann also explained how “Detroit Square” will help transform the Midtown area.  She hopes the project will turn these beautiful institutions inside out and make them feel accessible to all Detroit residents and visitors.  

“The DIA … The Charles Wright, the library, imagine all of their guts spilling out. That’s a new atmosphere,” she said. “The cultural heart will no longer be sealed in … If the institutions are turned inside out, they are not as intimidating.”

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