RE-CONCEIVING DETROIT'S PACKARD PLANT AS URBAN ARCHIPELAGO
In Collaboration with Samaa Elimam
Honorable Mention, Re-animating The Ruins Competition Entry
Location: Detroit, Michigan, USA
"Architecture has been defined in terms of one activity, and that activity is adding to the world. A few years ago I realized the profession was as if lobotomized – it was stuck conceiving of itself only in terms of adding things and not in terms of taking away or erasing things. The same intelligence for adding ought to also deal with its debris.” - Rem Koolhaas, 1996
Among architecture’s greatest contemporary concerns is the question of decayed industrial structures, abandoned buildings suspended in a not too distant past between economic collapse and urban stagnation. As opposed to the ancient ruin – often romanticized as a return of man’s creation to nature – the industrial ruin introduces a more complex, sometimes uneasy, relationship with contemporary cities. The Packard Motor Plant exemplifies this relationship - once a thriving motor plant, it was a microcosm of Detroit’s economic and urban condition, symbolically marking the beginning and end of an era of American industrial prowess.
Hollow Grounds speculates on the future of Packard by experimenting with methods of removal - or hollowing - as a spatial technique, in order to give its ruins a new utility and livelihood. The design attempts to avoid both romanticizing ruin, or bestowing false sense of restored authenticity. Instead the project opts to use a more nuanced vocabulary for engaging the notions of ruin, restoration, and preservation, driven by a different evaluation of historical structures and form to produce a new conception of what it means to revitalize.
PACKARD AS AN URBAN ARCHIPELAGO
The idea of the shrinking city has been approached by numerous architects and urbanists in the late 20th century. In a 1977 manifesto on the shrinking city of Berlin, Oswald Mathias Ungers and Rem Koolhaas metaphorically proposed an “archipelago of architectures.” By identifying substandard areas, and reinforcing existing points of vitality, islands of intense activity would emerge as nodes for economic and social revitalization. As a strategic node only four miles away from the downtown and waterfront, the Packard site embodies this idea of the archipelago. We propose to take this metaphor one step further: to conceive the Packard site as a city within a city.
URBAN BANDS: Spawning from Detroit’s ribbon farm planning history, existing developed urban bands, including Downtown Detroit characterize the city. The Packard site is at the head of one of its own: an existing large scale urban fabric, including industrial and manufacturing facilities. Its adjacency to the Edsel Ford I-94 Freeway makes it an anchor for an urban band that spans from the freeway to the Detroit River, linked through a transportation corridor on Grand Ave, and creating a contemporary urban ribbon.
THE NEW GRAND CIRCUIT: Packard’s strategic urban location positions it near major arteries including Gratiot and East Warren Aves, each with an existing DDOT and selected SMART bus stops. The proposal capitalizes on these adjacencies by bundling them at the center of the Packard site, through a new Bus Rapid Transit line - the New Grand Circuit along Grand Ave. The first phase would connect Packard to the river, followed by a longer term route expansion encircling Downtown Detroit with Packard as a pivotal node.
PROGRAMMATIC ARCHIPELAGOS & LANDSCAPE LINKS: A PHASED REBUILDING
As urban economist Edward Glaeser reveals in Triumph of the City, new construction does not necessarily attract a critical mass. We are interested in exploring how systematic destruction can become generative. Rather than rebuilding Packard overnight and facing the improbability of instantaneously attracting tenants and visitors to its 3.5 million square feet, we catalyze renewal through a phased injection of carefully selected focal points and programs. These seed programmatic and spatial elements will organically grow over time, and generate the critical mass required to push Packard’s rebirth to the next phase.
PHASE 1: THREE ARCHIPELAGOS
The first phase capitalizes on the value of distinct moments unique to the Packard Plant: the iconic water tower, central Building No. 5, and the Merlin aircraft warehouse. These three pieces are recognized as budding archipelagos within a sea of ruin, both as potential seeds that invest in Detroit’s heritage of innovation and experimentation, as well as focal points within the community.
PHASE 2: GROWTH AND EXPANSION
Through gradual entrepreneurial interest, the second phase is the expansion and reactivation of ruins emanating from the archipelagos: the lighthouse as the center of IT offices, the art box embraced by creative studio spaces, and the wedge defined by educational program. This phase witnesses the introduction of preliminary amenities such as cafes, convenience stores, and parking structure.
PHASE 3: LINKS, LANDSCAPE, & VOIDS
Once the islands establish the foundation for a critical mass, they are linked at the broader scale. A void is carved through the existing buildings, creating a hollowed market path that exposes the ruins’ inner skeleton and allows pedestrian access and visibility. At the urban scale, a bus transit hub on Grand Ave connects to the larger transportation network. The site is further connected by a landscape strategy with syncopated courtyards and sunken gardens that range from wild to manicured.
PHASE 4: ADDITIONAL SERVICES AND INFIL
Through landscape and linking, the site engages the community and increases investment interest. Parallel to the provision of complete services and amenities, phase 04 invests in Detroit’s education and witnesses the development of Packard’s historical and cultural heritage, including an automotive museum and art gallery.
GENERATIVE DESTRUCTION: SURGICAL DEMOLITION AS STRATEGY FOR SPACE MAKING
At Packard’s urban scale, not only does a singular form of expression become difficult, it likely becomes oppressive. Meanwhile a cohesive identity is still desired, which leads to the archipelago as an ideal metaphor of expression - a series of distinct forms in proximity to one another that share similar characteristics, and in concert are able to generate a collective image. Each node is the result of a unique operation on the ruin that enables its understanding in a relative context. The ruins in between the nodes are either maintained or surgically carved away to create a linking corridor that runs along the entirety of the site. In this context, the ruin not only transforms what is around it, but ultimately becomes the unifying glue. It is the heterogeneous manipulation of ruin that creates the archipelago, and a precise and targeted demolition of ruin that creates a connective-current guiding the wanderer from island to island. Here, destruction is generative, and the process of hollowing - a sort of series of Gordon Matta-Clark operations - begins to create truly unique spaces of circulation and inhabitation.
As the new Packard grows outward from its initial programs of art, technology, and manufacturing, investing in the diversification of program - offices, education, transportation, and amenities – will ensure a vibrant mixed-use community resistant to the rise and fall of singular industries. The project seeks to amplify the aesthetics of the Packard Factory that are characteristic to the building, understanding its symbolic significance to the city’s heritage. Typologies of the original building, including courtyards, bridges, and tunnels, are reconceived in a new way, inspiring a unique urban morphology that weaves architecture with landscape throughout the site. In this way, the Packard becomes a cultural monument to the rise and fall of an industry, a moment in the collective consciousness of Detroit and the entire country.
FROM WATER TOWER TO URBAN BEACON: THE PACKARD LIGHT HOUSE
The packard water tower is an essential icon of Packard Plant’s identity. Its 175 ft height is unmatched by any other structure in its proximity, and its photogenic silhouette is the subject of many urban explorers’ photographs. In reanimating the ruins of Packard, the treatment of the water tower becomes a central element in broadcasting what type of transformation is taking place.
As part of the initial re-awakening of Packard Plant, the structure of the water tower is reinforced, and at the location of horizontal supports, floorplates are inserted. A lightmetal sheath slips over the existing structural frame, turning the water tower into an enclosed space while a sequence of ascending stairs spiral upwards, from exterior to interior. The tower becomes an observation deck as well as a public reading room and lounge, a place for viewing and reflecting. As one of the first pieces that will undergo metamorphosis on the site, the water tower becomes a renewed urban beacon - an inland light house - that towers during the day and glows at night, attracting thinkers, makers, and all those who are curious.
AN EXCAVATED MONUMENT: ART BOX EXHIBITION HALL
One of the most distinctive structures in the Packard Plant is the single 7-story building no. 5 on the site. The height of this formerly multi-function building in conjunction with its massive floorplate is a commanding presence on the site. Furthermore, concentrically radiating U-shaped buildings along its sides only further implies that it is a jewel box at the heart of Packard Plant. An exhibition hall for large scale art sculptures and installations embraces the opportunity to extend the impressive visual scale of the exterior into an experiential interior of the same vastness.
Unnecessary portions of floorplates are punched out after the surrounding columns and beams are reinforced, leaving small islands of platforms scattered about a forest of structure. A pair of meandering stairs snake through the structure to connect platforms. Essentially, the shell of this structure becomes reconceived as a three-dimensional scaffolding for a group of geometric figures floating in its midst. A sphere, a pyramid, a cube, each of these exhibition halls range in scale, form and lighting, creating truly unique backdrops for monumental art.
SLIVERS OF PRESENCE IN THE CITY: PACKARD INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
The former Rolls Royce Merlin aircraft engines building and adjacent structures are converted into a comprehensive urban education campus for the advancement of fabrication technologies. The future campus begins with the development of the fabrication and production warehouse in Phase 10, which also creates on-site pre-fab capabilities for the rest of Packard Plant. In subsequent phases, additional programs are added to complete the campus including: classrooms, offices, lecture halls, auditorium, and library.
In Phase 01, a wedge-shaped robotics showroom is inserted at the end of the warehouse, completing a rectangular volume. This new piece cantilevers its presence over the air-rights envelope of the I-94 freeway - as a symbol of renewed investment in the culture of making - seen by all traveling to and from Detroit’s city center. Further on, a series of wedges are carved out of the existing volumes: an auditorium facing the park, a ramp connecting classroms and the fabrication hall, and a serrated facade to engage and invite public participation.