Restored architectural gem stands out in its industrial space You don’t usually associate large manufacturing factories with architectural beauty. Sightseers at the Ford Rouge Complex’s glass plant, however, might be inclined to think otherwise.
This plant looks different. No concrete, only rivets and steel. From inside, the high roof and floor-to-ceiling windows create an unusually airy, spacious atmosphere. Natural light can’t help but stream in, creating a softness and easy glow.
Designed by famed American industrial architect Albert Kahn, the Ford Rouge’s glass plant was built in 1923 as an automotive glass-production facility. “It was about achieving volume,” Don Pijor, launch manager at the Dearborn Truck Plant and site expert for the glass plant, said of the building’s original design. “This space was built with steel columns riveted together, which gives it much more usable real estate.”
In the late ‘90s, the 40,000-square-foot building was taken out of the complex’s production equation, its sweeping windows covered with aluminum and its new primary purpose as a warehouse.
When the restoration process began in the mid-2000s, the original intent was to transition the building into office space. Pijor later helped persuade Ford Motor Company leadership to put the plant to better use as a prove-out and employee training building for the Ford F-150, the truck built at the Rouge’s Dearborn Truck Plant.
Careful decisions were made at every corner during the restoration. The building’s window glass, for example, had come from Europe, so the restoration team reached out overseas to the original manufacturer for the glass to replace the windows. Entry doors to a fire station that was part of the building’s layout were also replaced to replicate those of the original specs.
“It’s beautiful,” Cynthia Jones, The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour manager, said of the glass plant today. “There’s lots of natural light, and even though the fire station doors are in an area the public doesn’t see,
restoring them showed respect for the continuing history of the site.”
Today, the glass plant is a house for innovation, used for prototyping by Ford engineers and designers. As a result of its newfound purpose, the building’s glass at the lower levels is frosted so outsiders can’t see the confidential work being done inside.
Said Jones of balancing the building’s historical integrity with its modern uses, “When you’re making choices about restoring buildings, you look at product — what is it we’re making at this place and what does it need? You’re also employee-driven because if they can’t do their job well here, changes have to be made. Third, how does it affect the area around it? I think this site has that balance.”
Though the effectiveness of the plant’s current functions are at the forefront of any decision-making about its form, preserving its history is meaningful for the people who work there as well as for posterity. Added Pijor, “To sit in this space and watch flaming ore cars go by, it’s as if it has been like this for 100 years.”
National Historic Landmark The Ford Rouge Complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
The rare designation (with just 2,500 historic landmarks nationwide) usually restricts future changes to a site. The Ford Rouge Complex, however, is recognized as remaining in continual operation, which means the designation can be maintained even as the site continues to evolve.
“It’s important for the public to be aware” of the designation, said Jones. The designation is marked at the complex’s entry with a plaque and a statue of Henry Ford.
Summer 2015 marked 100 years since Ford started acquiring the property which the Rouge now inhabits. “We’re carving out space within this giant industrial complex to recognize its history and the history of the hundreds of thousands of people that have been employed here,” said Jones.
Architects for social impact look, listen and then create experiences that restore community, human dignity and eventually evoke change
Many architects today are discovering that success doesn’tnecessarily depend on talent, vision or how you apply learned design practices in the real world. Much of one’s success, in fact, relies on an ability to listen to and empathize with the needs of the community you’re trying to serve. And oftentimes, these needs aren’t simple, pretty or cut-and-dried.
Architect Michael Maltzan faced such a situation when he was brought on board to build an apartment building in downtown Los Angeles for the homeless. While many of today’s homeless shelters and low-income houses seem drab and without character or aesthetic beauty, Maltzan’s Star Apartments is just the opposite. The striking modular shaped structure adds visual impact to the neighborhood. And while most homeless housing is focused on the much-needed concept of basic shelter — without extra amenities or attention to detail — Maltzan’s design includes a community space with a state-of-the-art kitchen, an edible garden, exercise classrooms, art studios and a basketball court built on the top level of what was once a parking structure.
“I feel that carefully thought-out designs can contribute to a person’s rehabilitation,” said Maltzan, who understands the power of shelter and safety to help transform a life from uncertain to hopeful. “Whether it’s a single-family home, a museum or a school, you have to bring your highest level of design and focus on what makes the individual program unique."
Residents of Star Apartments describe the feeling of having what most overlook everyday — a front door with a lock, a doorbell, running water — as life altering.
Kenneth Davis is a peer counselor at the Skid Row Housing Trust, which built Star Apartments in 2013. He is also a resident of the complex. “Once I moved in and closed my door, my life flashed before me,” said Davis, who had to transition from a life behind bars and then on the streets to living in his own apartment. “At 49 years old, I finally had my own closed door. This made me feel as safe as others in society. It was phenomenal to hear my doorbell. It was music to my ears. The effect my home had on me: It gave me tranquility. I did not want to go backwards in life ever again.”
Davis returned to school and completed a drug and alcohol studies program and became certified as a mental health peer specialist for the Skid Row Housing Trust. Actions, he said, that are a direct result of having a place he could call home. “I see the same effect of permanent, supportive housing in residents. Eyes glowing in the groups that I facilitate, eager to participate from a good night’s sleep on a soft bed. I’ve seen mental illness and addiction addressed and tackled daily because of the power of a locked door.”
Add in the fact that the Skid Row Housing Trust also provides on-site access to health care and job training services, and that makes Star Apartments, as well as the trust’s two-dozen other buildings, a successful working example of design for social impact.
CONNECT, CREATE, CHANGE This idea that the people you are designing something for have a voice that needs to be heard before you start creating is at the heart of the social impact movement seeping into the world of modern architecture. The notion that improving living conditions and preserving a sense of community for everyone should be paramount before a design is drawn or a foundation laid.
Some of the most mainstream examples of design for social impact do not necessarily tackle such hardhitting societal issues as homelessness, either.
Celebrating its fifth anniversary in San Francisco, Pavement to Parks has made a commitment to converting underutilized street space into urban parklets and plazas that help foster neighborhood interaction, support local businesses and reimagine city streets. Most are temporary interventions, but some, such as the Jane Warner Plaza at Castro and Market streets designed by Seth Boor of Boor Bridges Architecture, have become permanent neighborhood fixtures.
The temporary spaces often occupy parking spots and underused curb space, and add much-needed friendly, colorful and quaint public gathering areas in what might otherwise be a concrete-centric landscape. The Ocean Avenue Mobile Parklet, for example, made its way up and down San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue, spending six months at one location before it moved to the next.
Designed and built by public high school students who are architecture interns at the Youth Art Exchange in San Francisco, the parklet project introduced students to the philosophies of social impact design to connect community, create commerce and beautify the neighborhood.
In San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District, the Noriega Street Parklet replaces three diagonal parking spots. The unique shape of the space gave designers the opportunity to create two separate, usable areas well suited to the diverse groups they knew made up the community. One is larger and more open for children, strollers and owners and their pets. The other is more protected and intimate for the quieter and older crowds.
In contrast to the Noriega Street Parklet’s angles and sharper edges is the whimsical, elongated design of the Sunset Parklet on Judah Street. If studied close enough for long enough, it looks somewhat like an ancient Viking longship, with modern-day addons, of course, such as a bike rack. Developing the spaces between a business and the street to help make cities more livable: What was once a guerrilla idea has become institutionalized with endless opportunities for access and inclusion.
Parklets are now popping up everywhere, from college campuses in Iowa to spaces across the world in Chile.
LISTEN, OBSERVE, UNDERSTAND On the more serious side of design for social impact is architect Liz Ogbu of Studio O, who has personally created an entire practice revolving around solving social issues through humancentered design practices. Actively involved in shaping some of the world’s leading public interest design nonprofits, Ogbu is part of the inaugural class of Innovators-in-Residence at IDEO.org, the sister nonprofit of the international design firm IDEO, which supports spreading human-centered design to improve the lives of low income communities across the globe
Ogbu has designed everything from thought-provoking exhibits and resource spaces for day laborers to public sidewalk plazas. She takes great inspiration from the concepts shared by pioneer architect Le Corbusier, who once said, “A house is a machine for living in” as well as “The home should be the treasure chest of living.”
“I have been on this long journey of linking up what is normally taught as architecture and design to the physical and tangibles of the containers in which people live their lives,” Ogbu said. “I want the process to be more active. I want to create more than just the container, giving people more agency to be able to shape it.”
Most recently, Ogbu found herself tackling how to upgrade sanitation services for residents of a remote village in Ghana. While she was there, she observed men, women and children often standing in long lines for public toilets. “We spent a week just talking to the people in their homes,” said Ogbu. “We talked to moms, pastors in churches, staff while they worked, in order to understand what their lives were like in general.”
At the end of this information gathering, Ogbu helped formulate plans to increase access to a pay toilet system in public spaces that would aid in the sanitation issues and generate much-needed revenue.
“The heart of human-centered design is the idea of empathy. It is important to take the time to listen, observe and understand people,” said Ogbu. “Just because someone is poor does not mean that they do not have desires and aspirations.”
Ogbu stresses the value of listening to the challenges and responding with designs that solve problems. “Developing deep empathetic skills and including people as part of the process of design is not social design, it’s just good design,” she added. “Whether you are building a gorgeous tower being paid for by a multibillion-dollar company or working on a toilet project, you are always trying to preserve the beauty of the project and the people it serves.”
Ever have an idea that just got away from you? Things started out with the best intentions in mind, and then before you knew it, a perfect storm carried your idea away, along with all of those good intentions? That's the story behind the office cubicle we all love to hate and its underappreciated designer Robert Propst.
Before it was known as the cubicle, it was called the Action Office System. Propst invented the concept in the 1960s after intense study of how "the world of work" operates. The Action Office debuted under the Herman Miller name in 1968 and literally transformed the nation's idea of the workplace.
"The name was intentional," said Marc Greuther, our chief curator here at The Henry Ford (we have an archived collection of Propst's work). "Propst believed in fluidity and movement. He had an active mind and wanted to create a space that wouldn't pen you in."
"The idea was that everyone had a unique way of working," noted Greuther, "so Propst created an area that was highly customizable, allowing workers to transform their space in a way that best suited them."
Things started to go awry when the government began offering tax incentives to businesses for office expenses. Since the Action Office System's square cubicle could create the most workspaces in a single area - equating to the biggest tax break - it quickly became the Action Office option that sold best. And Propst became the unintentional father of the office-cube farm we know today.
"Propst attacked the things that attacked him," Greuther added. "He liked solving problems and had his hands in many areas, from toys and playground equipment to hotel carts." Propst, in fact, had more than 120 patented inventions to his name when he died in 2000.
"He is a truly underappreciated and under-recognized designer of our time."
Culture Lab Detroit is a catalyst for conversations and collaborations between Detroit's artists, designers, innovators, technologists and the larger design world. In other words Culture Lab Detroit was designed for all of us.
Two years ago I attended an exhibition in Paris that examined the importance of the relationship between nature, culture, business, and the social fabric within a city. The exhibit began with a look at how a 16th century Spanish city was designed to incorporate and encourage creativity and growth and it ended by asking the same questions of a modern city. What are the ingredients of a thriving city and how to fill its spaces.
The exhibit was called The Fertile City. And that modern day city it examined was Detroit.
It was astonishing to travel to a European museum to see an exhibit that focused so heavily on the struggles of Detroit. But I soon realized it was fitting that anyone looking at the effects of a damaged urban landscape in the 21st century would study Detroit. We have so many open uncertain spaces, and yet so many assets, so much ripe potential.
Some of those open spaces are geographic. Some are economic. Some are social. But the thing is that's all changing. Bit by bit, this city that has captured international attention is starting to fill its voids, recognizing them as assets in a way that is uniquely Detroit.
Today's Detroit innovators are pioneers. Through their efforts they're carefully blazing the trail for a more culturally vibrant landscape. They are the new vanguard of Detroit. Each one is a piece of the puzzle - gardening here, sewing there, creating art over there. And hundreds more pieces have found a home at incubator sites like the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, the Russell Industrial Center, Ponyride or the Green Garage. These places give structure and a home to artists, innovators, entrepreneurs and technologists.
This is a world-class town filled with world-class people. Culture Lab hopes to connect and inspire the best problem solvers in Detroit with world-class artists, innovators and thinkers internationally as a way to increase awareness and the imprint of Detroit's creative community around the globe.
I hope you can join me in learning more about these new innovators and celebrating this surge of creativity and ideas on Thursday, April 18, at the College for Creative Studies for an evening of conversation and collaboration with my good friend David Stark. David is a world-renowned event designer, author, and installation artist. Joining David that evening will be Mark Binelli, Michael Rush, Toni Griffin, and Daniel Caudill. You can learn more about the event, hosted by Culture Lab Detroit, here.
Jane Schulak is the founder of Culture Lab Detroit. Jane believes that by sharing these experiences this will increase the awareness and the imprint of Detroit's creative community internationally.