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Cheap is an Opportunity

The Motor City has 33,529 vacant houses. To most of the country, that's 33,529 reasons to wring its hands over What To Do About Detroit. To young architects, it's a GOLD MINE!!!

Photo of James McBennett
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"Five research fellows from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning transformed an abandoned house in Hamtramck (which is basically Detroit) into their very own lab rat. The recent architecture grads gave it new stairs, walls, glazing, rooms -- the works. But it wasn't some heroic attempt to build shelter for down and outs, which a lot of architecture schools are into these days. It was a pure design exercise -- one aimed at rethinking the conventions of a single-family home -- and it shows how much creativity you can draw from the great arsenal of Detroit's ruins.

The fellows bought the house at a foreclosure auction for a whopping $500. It was literally a shell -- no doors, no windows, no electricity, no plumbing, no stairs. There she is. What a beaut!

The house has been passed on to a Hamtramck design collective, which will take on further architectural "interventions." It's refreshing to see this sort of thing in a city practically defined by its failures (cars, crime, RoboCop 3). We've all heard the phrase "design loves a depression." By that logic, Detroit should be a design utopia. And it's had its moments. See examples here and here.

But the city's hemorrhaging people. The population has skinnied down from 1.85 million residents in 1950 to 951,270 in 2000 (a figure expected to slip further in the 2010 Census). So even though the landscape's perfectly suited to a creative surge, the talent pool would rather create elsewhere. Who can blame them? Detroit, as we all know too well, doesn't do utopia."

I remember a newspaper headline in the property pages, "If I owned a house in Detroit and a house in hell, I would rather live in hell and rent out Detroit." I have never been, but that doesn't paint a pretty picture. On property prices, they must be low, so beyond the House, one can buy a cheap factory, cheap warehouse, cheap whatever that can allow experimentation that simply cannot take place in the big expensive city. The Shopping Mall as we know it came from a couple of places, one being http://www.taubman.com/ from nearby Michigan.

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Photo of Lindsay

I love this post and could not agree more! Detroit is a clean canvas and I think the cities down will eventually turn into and up! Baltimore is, personally, one of my favorite American cities and they have had a lot of rough times too... all it takes in an open mind, some creativity, and some investors to turn around a neighborhood!

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