The Urban Design Lab
There are three architectural firms with one client in common: Detroit.
They are not firms that design skyscrapers, hospital complexes, or
luxury condominiums. These firms design urban landscapes, are motivated
by need as well as want and are informed by community consent. Their
architects learn as they go – because they’re students and their
teachers are researchers.
University of Detroit Mercy, Lawrence Technological University
and, most recently, University of Michigan operate “design studios”
like architectural firms to help community organizations redesign their
residential and commercial spaces.
“Essentially, we’re structured to bring great design and thought to
those who often do not have access to it,” explains Dan Pitera,
executive director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at UD Mercy.
design center has the ability to study issues from an objective point
of view, says Craig Wilkins, director of the UM
design studio, located in a new facility in Midtown at the corner of
Mack and Woodward. “Those kinds of research projects don’t have a
client. The client is Detroit, itself,” says Wilkins.
Detroit, being one of four international cities highlighted in a German
study on cities with population shrinkage, offers enormous opportunity
for architects and urban designers to study not only the problems of
the city, but solutions that will be applicable for other cities.
“We have the opportunity to rethink urban design in this city,” says Pitera.
Getting stakeholders involved
The UD Mercy design center was established in 1993 by Steven Vogel, dean
of architecture. Three full-time faculty architects staff the center,
along with other faculty who work on a project-by-project basis. Up to
four students work on projects during each semester. They manage at
least five projects a year.
Getting faculty and students to work with community leaders to forge
architectural solutions unique to Detroit is key to the program’s
“We’re not going to meet a client one-on-one, then go in to design,”
Pitera says. “We have an extensive workshop process that engages all
stakeholders, whether it’s a neighborhood plan, a building, or a
Examples of UD Mercy’s projects include:
• NPower Michigan: UD Mercy designed the facility in
downtown Detroit, which is the Michigan headquarters for the national
nonprofit organization. NPower helps other nonprofits fulfill their
missions by integrating technology into heir daily work. UD Mercy architects
renovated 2,450 square feet of office space.
• Mercy Education Project: A non-profit after-school
tutoring program for female children, young adults and seniors, the
project involved the transformation of 1,500 square feet into
classrooms and snack area. “Many of the participants are intimidated by
the ‘image’ of a school environment,” explains Pitera. “The design of
their project does not find its ‘image’ from past schools, but from the
activities of the space.”
The process begins with the community’s “vision,” explains Joongsub
Kim, director of the Lawrence Technological University Design
Studio, located in Detroit’s New Center.
Kim says faculty and students ask, “What do you want for the neighborhood?
What do you want your neighborhood to look like in 20, 30 years down
the road?’ I treat their vision like a hypothesis.”
Applied research tests the hypothesis as the design process moves
along: the students learn, the community learns, the faculty learns.
combine research and design almost simultaneously,” says Kim. “You have
to come up with a quick design and test it with people from the
neighborhood.” He calls the process “social construction,” in which he
not only teaches students, but teaches community leaders through
experience and example.
Lawrence Tech’s projects include:
• Parkside Neighborhood in Detroit: In collaboration
with the Parkside neighborhood and Detroit Housing Commission, a master
plan and focus site design guidelines for several key sites were
• African American Female Leaders in Neighborhood
Revitalization in Detroit: The design studio is engaged in
community-based applied research involving several African-American
women who have contributed significantly to revitalization of Detroit.
The goal of the project is to raise public awareness regarding their
contributions and to teach future professionals and scholars.
• Kid Cams: Children designing their neighborhoods:
Middle school students in Detroit documented their own neighborhood
with digital camcorders, developing their own ideas about their
environment into design proposals and models for projects to improve
Unlike classroom learning, students receive hands-on exposure to
architectural problems. “Any given project area becomes a living
laboratory for exploring fresh perspectives in community design, for
fostering healthy cultural reform, and for revitalizing the urban
environment,” writes Kim. “The studio serves as a civic design forum
for debating contemporary design paradigms, (and) developing arguments
for new urban theories.”
Some projects may not even involve wood, brick and concrete. In one
instance, Kim and students taught young people about the importance of
respecting their neighborhood. “One of the major complaints I hear in the community is that young
people don’t care; they don’t appreciate their surroundings.”
Design studios must be cognizant of the complex social problems that
impact urban design, says Wilkins of the UM program.
“Detroit is their laboratory, Detroit is their focus,” Wilkins says.
“It’s a way to bring (faculty) into a place where there might be some
UM has long provided urban design services in Detroit, but from its Ann
Arbor campus. By moving to Midtown last year, students and faculty experience
the city full-time, at street level.
Service learning provides “an alternative view of the practice of
architecture,” says Wilkins. A graduate of the University of Detroit,
Wilkins has also been a visiting research scholar specializing in urban
architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the
University of Minnesota Design Center. “Architecture has not always
been the best friend to marginalized groups, so places like the (UM)
Design Center can only help both its image and its product in the long
Detroit’s academic design studios’ impact grows – project by
project, neighborhood by neighborhood. Students graduate with an
enriched sense of urban architecture, faculty researchers build a body
of knowledge of urban design solutions, and residential and commercial
districts are redeveloped.
The future of Detroit is “smaller and smarter,” Pitera says. The
challenge is to rethink the definition of “urban,” in terms of density
and diversity. “Places like New York, Boston, San Francisco are
beautiful places, but they are past paradigms. No innovation is going
to be happening in those (cities) except to fix little areas.
allows for innovation to occur; it celebrates what has been, but looks
toward the future.”
Kim, director of the Lawrence Technological University Design Studio with students
Dan Pitera of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at UDM
Model at the Lawrence Technological University Design Studio
Craig Wilkins, director of the UM
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger