The New DIA: The Architects

Visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts since its grand reopening is a bit like learning the answer to a riddle you've been turning over in your head for days: the solution that was once so elusive seems suddenly so obvious. When the DIA broke ground on its six-year, $158 million renovation and expansion project in 2001, there were those who wondered if the museum, plagued with structural problems and notorious for its convoluted layout, could create something environmentally and curatorially state-of-the-art.

Those doubts were laid to rest in November 2007, when the public saw the sleek and user-friendly "new" DIA designed by New Jersey-based Michael Graves & Associates — celebrity architects who, like all master craftsmen, make what's hard look easy.

Founded in 1885, the DIA has enjoyed its home on Woodward Avenue since 1927, when it occupied the Beaux-Arts building designed by renowned French architect Paul Philippe Cret. The building, which with its brilliant white marble facade was instantly dubbed a "temple of art," was flanked by Gunnar Birkerts' modernist South and North wings in 1966 and 1971, respectively. Over time, penetration of the building by water and dissatisfaction with its increasingly complicated floor plan led the museum to craft an ambitious makeover that would include essential structural upgrades, improved traffic flow and way-finding patterns, and increased gallery space. The scope of the project grew even larger in 2004, when asbestos was found and the DIA decided to gut the interior of the north and south wings.

When it was completed this fall, the plan had increased the DIA's gallery space by 30% and brought the museum's total square footage to 657,650 square feet. The facades boast 67,000 pieces of new "Vermont Danby" marble, brought to Detroit from the same quarry that supplied Cret's building, and the interiors now provide optimal conditions for the storage and display of the museum's roughly 60,000 objects.

But the biggest boon to the public is arguably the simplified floor plan that Graves achieved through his "spine." An art-filled corridor, the spine serves as a north-south axis and helps visitors orient themselves as they move throughout the museum.

Graves says the spine is true to the spirit of Cret's original design — which was reproduced in the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica to illustrate the ideal museum layout.

"The wonderful thing about Cret's plan is its utter simplicity — which doesn't make it simplistic," Graves says. "While our plan was not all that hard in terms of its conceptual basis, what was difficult was to move everything around to have all of the jewels in the museum sit off of [the spine] and create a way to walk through so you could chose to engage in those jewels or not."

Graves likens the result to the layout of Florence's Uffizi museum, which was made from a Catholic cardinal's house and uses both rooms and corridors to display art. "It becomes a real joy connecting gallery to gallery or corridor to gallery," he says. "It gives you one way to go through and another to come back, so the return route is as important as the route going."

The local crew

The architect of record for the DIA renovation was SmithGroup, which was founded in 1852 and is the oldest continually practicing architecture and engineering firm in the U.S. According to Carolina Lopez, a SmithGroup architect and renovation project manager, Graves recommended to the DIA that SmithGroup get involved in the project earlier than is typical for the architect of record. This was largely because of SmithGroup's Building Technology Group, which has extensive experience with forensic investigation and assessment and suggested innovative technologies to solve some of the biggest challenges facing renovators.

A good example was SmithGroup's approach to the exterior wall cladding of the North and South wings. The firm decided against traditional insulation and vapor barrier materials — such as rigid board and sheet products that must be taped together at the joints and which are inherently cumbersome — and instead used a spray-on insulation and vapor barrier system to maintain the galleries' specially conditioned air levels.

SmithGroup also had the advantage of being a prominent architectural engineering firm with a large office in Detroit (located in the beautiful art deco Guardian Building the firm designed nearly 70 years ago when it was Smith, Hinchman & Grylls). It has recently worked on the MGM Grand Detroit Casino and Hotel Complex (with Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson), Comerica Park and Ford Field.

"It's a great thing to be able to give back to the city by working on local projects," says Lopez, noting that the firm's sister company, SmithGroup JJR, had a lead role in the development of Detroit's Riverwalk. "To be able to work on such a monumental project and for it to come out well feels good. We're helping to make art in Detroit more accessible."

Big challenges, opportunities

Lopez says the biggest challenge in the project was the discovery of asbestos, which set the project back several years and tens of millions of dollars. "I think the fact that the construction and design teams and the DIA were able to work together to get over that obstacle in a fairly short period of time is really commendable. It was a huge addition to the scope of project, but of course it gave the DIA the opportunity to redesign its galleries. So even though it was the biggest challenge and the biggest blow, it was probably the biggest opportunity."

Graves says he enjoyed some of his own opportunities working on the DIA.

"We'd never used this much marble before, and to get to go to the same quarry where the original marble is from was quite exciting," he says. "It's from Vermont and we went there frequently. It's something that all architects want to have a chance to do, but to do it at this scale and with Cret's building looking over our shoulders was very exciting. I imagine, when I look at what we've done, that we've got Cret walking along side of us, because he's that sort of a figure to architects."

Graves says his new marble may also create an opportunity for Cret's.

"Some people were worried about the fact that our marble is much lighter than Cret's, but our assumption is that Cret's marble will be cleaned in the not too distant future and that that will make his match ours," he says, adding the current contrast might "urge Detroit and the city fathers to clean the Cret building."

After all, Graves says he was careful to design a structure that wouldn't upstage Cret's — or anything inside it, for that matter.

"Today people are making rather glamorous statements to get a city's notice or a state's notice," he says. "They are making buildings that are outrageous to get the press to knock down their door, because the press is interested in controversy and the 'new.' But when you do something that is contextual or sensitive, where 20 years ago people would say that's the way it should be done, today people may say: Where's the outrage? Why should we go there? What's to see?

"What's to see is the art. We have essentially made an addition to a very, very important work of architecture. We didn't want to make a statement and go away. We wanted to make a statement that architecture and art enhance each other. It isn't one in lieu of the other."


Newly Renovated Prentis Court

European Galleries

Asian Art within the "Spine" Corridor

New African-American Art Galleries

New Stairway off the "Spine"

Cret's Original Marble Building alongside the New Michael Graves' Designed Addition

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger