AIA eye on architecture: Reignite our creative fire

I would like to thank the MOCAD Board for their recent selection of Rice+Lipka Architects and James Corner Field Operations to design their upcoming renovation because it gives us the opportunity to discuss a situation that has long plagued our local creative community. That is the lack of creative and exciting commissions for local architects.

We do not begrudge a talented firm from outside to capture commissions here. We know that cities are built by both local and visiting architects.  We welcome quality architecture and creative ideas from everywhere but we also must give local talent the support and work that will encourage and promote homegrown quality and creativity. 

Architecture is a joint venture between the client and the architect. Architects cannot do good work without an enlightened and knowledgeable client that encourages and recognizes talent and good design. If those clients do not offer quality commissions to local firms, local firms cannot do the creative work we all want to see.

It’s a regressive spiral that has lead to creative stagnation. We create an architectural ghetto that promotes mediocrity. For many years we have talked about the brain drain that is happening here in Michigan. How do we expect creatives to stay here if they do not have the opportunity to be creative?

There is no doubt that the selected architects are creative and exciting, with some wonderful projects around the world. There is also no doubt that we have architects here that can do the same kind of great work given the opportunity. We need this quality of design here in Detroit but, we also need to nurture and support the local talent that can do it. Opportunity is the operative word.

I do not know how MOCAD selected Rice + Lipka and James Corner Field Operations, the firm that designed New York's High Line, but I offer this thought. 

Imagine a design competition entered by local and visiting architects pouring creative ideas into MOCAD’s new home. Imagine how this would stimulate our local architectural community, bring exciting new ideas from elsewhere and would benefit the art community and MOCAD as well, not only in the final product but in the synergies between the architectural art communities which could have lasting benefits beyond the grand opening of the building. 

When François Mitterrand, then President of France, decided that Paris needed new contemporary public architecture, a diverse group of architects where selected, some through international competitions. From that effort we have the renovation for the Louvre by I.M Pei, the Musee de Orsay by Gae Aulenti, the Institute of the Arab World by Christian Portzamparc and the Pompidou Center by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. 

Imagine an open forum of ideas and work that would not only lead to a new and great MOCAD but also energize the local architectural community.

I challenge every institution and client that cares about Detroit’s creative community to help rebuild our creative fire. Expect the most of us. We want our clients to insist on great design. We want our local creative community to flourish and this will only happen when our local clients offer us the opportunity to work on great commissions. I also challenge every Detroit area architect to live up to high expectations.

Let’s push the boundaries on every project we encounter and prove we have some of the most creative, innovative and professional architects in the world. 

Especially in these times of serious economic challenge, when the unemployment rate for architects in this area has reached well over 30 percent, we need the opportunity to compete for this great work and we have to live up to the highest standards.

With great respect to all and desire to see our local architectural talent grow and prosper, Frank X. Arvan, President, American Institute of Architects, Detroit Chapter.

Frank X. Arvan offers his opinions on Detroit's built environment to Model D each month. Comments and rebuttals are always welcome. 
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