University of Michigan faculty win DIA Plaza/Midtown Cultural Connections design competition

U-M Ann Arbor faculty design proposal uniting cultural and educational spaces

By Sarah M. Parlette - Associated Producer

Renderings of the "Detroit Square" project. Photo | Agence Ter

ANN ARBOR, Mich - Three University of Michigan Ann Arbor faculty members are part of the international team winning the DIA Plaza/Midtown Cultural Connections competition with a design proposal uniting 12 midtown Detroit cultural and educational institutions.

Beating 43 other proposals representing 10 different countries, the winning proposal, titled “Detroit Square,” will connect 12 public institutions spanning 83 acres in Detroit. Bring together a re-imagining of the spaces, the plan envisions revamping the grounds of each institution and changing the specific services of the different spaces and buildings.

Various ideas from the proposed design include a “canopy” of connected glass domes outside the Detroit Institute of Art, a “public living room” outside of the Detroit Public Library and an Aretha Franklin-inspired “Respect cafe” at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. Tying together the design is a “data jockey booth” which will act as a performance and technology hub. Traffic routes would be adjusted and more parking and more pedestrian-friendly spaces are incorporated in the winning plan.

From left to right: Jean Louis Farges, Harley Etienne, Anya Sirota, Olivier Phillipe, John Marshall, Donald Carpenter, Cezanne Charles. Photo | Daryl Marshke/Michigan Photography.

On the team for the winning design is Anya Sirota, an associate professor of the architecture at the U-M A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and a principal of Detroit-based studio Akoaki.

"Our proposal is not calcified or absolute; it is designed to evolve," Sirota said. "We've provided an operational diagram rather than a finished proposal, and now it needs to be adjusted with real input from all of the stakeholders and community."

Two other U-M faculty members, Harley Etienne and John Marshall, are also on the team. Etienne is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Taubman College while Marshall is an associate professor at the U-M Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and Taubman College.

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Detroit city planner Maurice Cox, a judge of the competition, said, "The team brought together something that I would say is a world-class sensibility, an international sensibility that is steeped in local knowledge. And that local knowledge, I would contend, is what distinguished them from all others."

The DIA Plaza/Midtown Cultural Connections competition was launched internationally in 2017. Submissions were narrowed down to three proposals which were pitched to a panel of 11 judges by their respective teams.

"So this perfect mixture of international reach and local knowledge produced the winners that you see today,” Cox said.

Renderings of the "Detroit Square" project. Photo | Agence Ter

The incorporation of innovative technology such as public WIFI, sound projection mapping, 5G connection speeds as well as the utilization of sensors throughout spaces also made “Detroit Square” stand out from other designs in the competition.

"We're obviously viewing this through a technology lens, but we're also looking at it through a social justice lens," Marshall said. "We're going to design for 5G in a way that big tech companies won't—we're interested in protecting the privacy of the citizens that interact with the space."

The team also included Jean Louis Farges of Detroit-based studio Akoaki; Cézanne Charles, co-director of rootoftwo and alumna of the U-M Ford School of Public Policy; and Agence Ter, an internationally renowned landscape and urban design studio based in France.

In July, the team will begin an 18-month, three-part conceptual planning process involving various surveys like topography, parking and stormwater management as well as meet with stakeholders and the public.

The project is anticipated to take between seven and 10 years to complete.

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