In a Context of Emptiness an Adaptive Reuse of the Detroit Continental Motors Complex by Albert Kahn


“…preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions. That makes perfect sense because clearly the whole idea of modernization raises, whether latently or overtly, the issue of what to keep.”
—Rem Koolhaas, Preservation Is Overtaking Us

Revitalization Amidst Emptiness

Experts predict that 90 percent of future real estate development in the near and long term will include renovation and reuse of existing structures. More so than at any time in modernity’s past, future design practice will be shaped by the parameters and the design thinking distinct to adaptive reuse. Not such a bad thing, as arguably the greatest architect of the second millennium—Michelangelo—never designed a completely new building. Adaptive reuse challenges the contemporary architect in several ways. It highlights the needs to negotiate new and old architectural languages in establishing fit, to repurpose spaces through creative programming that is economically and socially regenerative of place, and to reimagine a future quite different from the one projected by the original structure. Methodologically, adaptive reuse projects are stitching operations, usually requiring lines of conceptualization and project framing different from those employed for greenfield buildings.

Our studio will take on this prescient challenge through a partnership with a Detroit entrepreneur who wants to repurpose a former engine testing complex and its site designed by the celebrated American architect, Albert Kahn, a 20th century pioneer in the design of industrial manufacturing facilities. The primary building in the complex is a concrete bunker designed for the testing of engines – pushing them to the point at which they explode – which entailed providing a structure that could absorb that energy. The now-vacated Continental Motors facility in east Detroit is a stunning and other-worldly architectural relic, but its eccentricity does not suggest a ready and natural reuse.

“Wonderland” Economies

Detroit has become a universal signifier of economic shrinkage and spatial entropy – having lost two-thirds of its population and the manufacturing-based economy that sustained it. Demolition and neglect have become substitutes for urban policy and planning. Out of this emptiness, a new Detroit is taking shape at the grassroots level through a constellation of projects focused on well-being and outside of standard consumer-oriented development. Emergent economies in recreation, sports, the arts, education, urban agriculture, culinary arts, light manufacturing, transit, and homesteading are revitalizing this massive industrial city through pockets of activity akin to what author Steven Johnson calls “wonderlands”. In his book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Johnson chronicles the legacy of innovation stemming from a historical pursuit of delight. Wonderland economies are associated with music, taste, aesthetics, games, learning, and public space. Remarkably, he concludes that wonderland economies were no less transformative than utilitarian-based economies associated with technology, manufacturing, and shelter that once made an industrial city like Detroit one of the nation’s wealthiest. Using the Continental Motors facility for a new round of testing, we will ask how might architectural relics once structured around industrial production be retooled to serve a radically different kind of economy, one based in social well-being and delight?

Project Challenge

The studio will require each student to develop a conceptual, programmatic, and organizational proposal that navigates three distinct discourses – Preservation, Industrial Urban Space, Wonderland. They will then apply their synthesized approach to the design of distinct tectonic, terrain, and spatial interventions within the Continental Motors site. A final phase will ask the student to reflect on and visualize the experiential, social and market impact – the value proposition - of their designs for a resurgent Detroit.


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