A Detroit design school seeks a seat at the table

What role should design schools play in their local environments — particularly in an era when dramatic demographic shifts, economic upheavals, and technological changes are forcing cities to rethink many long-standing assumptions? Amy Deines, interim dean of the College of Architecture and Design at Detroit’s Lawrence Technological University (LTU), believes that students and citizens alike can benefit from strong links between town and gown.

A new building in the city’s Midtown neighborhood embodies this philosophy. Deines spoke with me about the Detroit Center for Design + Technology and the city it aspires to serve.

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What do you consider Detroit’s strongest assets?

There’s a rich history, there’s existing building stock downtown — the Guardian Building, the Detroit Institute of Arts. The relationship to Canada, being an international border. The strong presence of designers, engineers, and problem solvers is a huge asset. The people, to be quite honest, are what make the city of Detroit.

The art deco Guardian Building, known as Detroit’s “Cathedral of Finance”

So there’s not one answer to your question; it’s a large portfolio of things we can build upon.

And what do you see as the main challenges facing Detroit right now?

I think the obvious one is the scale of the city: 139 square miles. So you could be investing intellectual and financial capital in Midtown, where all the large educational and medical facilities are, and see some return on investment — movement and change. But when you move outside of this range, those changes are not actually being seen by the people who live in other areas of Detroit.

In some areas there is investment from community development organizations; there’s definitely a passion and dedication to make changes there as well. But with just the pure scale of 139 square miles, it’s hard to make an impact everywhere. You have to bring exposure and development into a focused area and hope that it starts to spread.

Abandoned building in Detroit

Abandoned building in Detroit

We are, as a team of creatives, working with academics, the mayor’s office, corporations, thinking about how to be much more tactical in investment in other areas so all these pieces eventually start to overlap.

Does it make sense for Detroit to be 139 square miles?

Yes and no. We can think about land use in a variety of different ways. If we could let some parts become farmland or usable land, I think the 139 square miles could be beneficial in terms of job creation. But telling the last person who lives on a street and has been there for 75 years, “You have to move because we’re turning this into farmland” — when you get to that scale it’s not an easy fix.

And Detroit’s government is not in a position economically to address the city’s needs.

We can’t rely on any traditional support in terms of finances. We need to be creative about a multipronged financial piece that brings in external investment.

So public-private partnerships.

Absolutely. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 10 years, and it works well. And just by sheer exposure it brings people to the table that might not otherwise have invested in the city.

A few years ago I started a studio downtown called detroitSHOP, which was a catalyst for the development of this building we’re in now. detroitSHOP immersed students in real issues in the city of Detroit. They had a client with a project, with a budget, and with impact. As they moved through the semester, the students worked with folks like Dan Gilbert and Matt Cullen from Quicken Loans. It was a really remarkable experience.

Downtown Detroit

How does the tech in Lawrence Tech fit into your program and your work with the city?

I’ll give an example. When I was running the detroitSHOP studio in downtown Detroit, as a charge from the Quicken Loans team, my studio began to develop technology, very conceptual, around the M-1 [proposed streetcar system] stops — the first new large piece of infrastructure in the city of Detroit in a long time.

So my students started to look at ways in which it could benefit the city and M-1 passengers alike to collect some data. They developed a variety of different apps where if you walked into this transit stop with your smart device it would acknowledge you; it would give you the opportunity to connect via LinkedIn or Facebook so that you could let your friends know “I’m at the West Grand Boulevard stop along the M-1.” It would allow the M-1 RAIL to collect data telling it how many people would be on the next train. And for issues of safety, it would trigger lighting in that area. Again, very schematic and very conceptual.

An interesting thing: we did some interviews with different people who work in downtown and then go back, primarily, to the suburbs. Some were completely open to this kind of data collection and others were completely horrified.

From your perspective, why is it so important that LTU is in the city of Detroit?

Well, I wouldn’t say specifically the city of Detroit; I would say being in a city, period. This happens to be the closest city. For any student pursuing a degree in design, art, architecture, engineering, this is a perfect context for understanding where your impacts lie.

Right now 80% of the US population lives in an urban context. But much of the higher education specific to problem-solving for cities — engineering, architecture, urban planning — is still rooted in the campus environment. So to me Detroit presents an opportunity to expose students to the kinds of issues that they’re probably going to be expending a lot of their energy on.

And then of course there’s the whole notion of just being adjacent to different types of people. It creates empathy in some students. As younger designers developing their approach to the design process, it’s important for them to have exposure to all different kinds of demographics — race, posture, economic standing.

Talk to me about the building we’re in, the Detroit Center for Design + Technology.

This is a piece of the College of Architecture and Design, and courses are taught here. We have about 50 students.

Detroit Center for Design + Technology

In addition to academic courses we have a design incubator, and that gives me the opportunity to invest in some of my best and brightest graduates in the hope that talent stays here. Some of my students graduate and go back to their hometowns or to the East or West Coast. I’m trying to create a sustainable mechanism for them to stay in the city of Detroit, with some funding, with intellectual muscle and coaches. I’m working with the mayor’s office to try to find spaces on secondary main streets where they can open up a small business, with the understanding that they have to stay for two years. The city is investing in them; they have to invest in the city.

You’ve chosen to share space in this building with private-sector companies as well as nonprofits.

Yeah. There’s so much work to be done in the city of Detroit — and of course best practices could spread to other postindustrial cities, and I’m a firm believer in collaboration and sharing knowledge and working with the thought leaders who have been here long before I got here. We’re acknowledging that we as an academy don’t have all the answers. We want to reciprocate with partners in the area, coming in and sharing this building as a resource.

2016 Detroit Center for Design + Technology tenant party

What kind of relationships would you like to have with the businesses in Detroit?

Well, the new director of city planning, Maurice Cox, has a very strong reputation for connecting the academy to business stakeholders and to the public arm. I’m trying to ride on this framework he’s providing for us, which links the mayor’s office, city council, and new policy, and ultimately touches on issues of business development, so that we become a part of this conversation. That’s where I’d like to see the relationship go — that we have a seat at the table and can offer data collection and analysis to help the city make solid decisions.

 

Questions for Amy Deines or Francesca Birks? Email adeines@ltu.edu or francesca.birks@arup.com.

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