Detroit is eager to tear down houses, as thousands of abandoned, foreclosed, and burned-out homes sit vacant in large swaths across the city. Five architecture fellows from the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning sought to do the exact opposite: each would construct something new on one dilapidated site. These teaching and research fellows pooled their stipends, $4,000 each, and banded together, opting out of a traditional studio presentation of their research in favor of full-scale field work. With that goal in mind, they purchased a foreclosed property at auction for $500 in the near north community of Hamtramck and began their project: Five Fellows: Full Scale.
From the get-go, the designers received some real street lessons in actualizing their concepts within Detroit’s challenging framework of devastated neighborhoods. The house had no plumbing, electricity, doors, or windows. While these conditions would cause heart-stopping anxiety in any homeowner, it all came with the territory, according to fellow Catie Newell, who turned these challenges into assets: “Instantly, we had a site, materials, and something extraordinary to respond to.” Vacant lots and abandoned homes fallen victim to foreclosure or arson surround the home. It’s not likely these homes will be filled with residents anytime soon. This led the group to explore various interventions, challenging traditional single-family home typology.
No project responds to these challenges more earnestly than Thomas Moran’s Tables and Chairs, which is both conceptually and practically inspired by the conditions of Detroit. His design focuses on the basic need for a staircase, something the home was also lacking. He constructed a multi-tiered structure with simple materials and hand tools (there was no guarantee that electricity would be restored). Using inexpensive 1 x 2s, nails, and wood glue, the almost bleacher-like staircase cascades from an opening in the second level down into what used to be a dining area. It will serve as a mode of transport from one level to the next, while simultaneously offering a place to congregate or display plants and objects.
Catie Newell’s project, Weatherizing, is an ethereal alternative to the house as a traditional material system and barrier to atmospheric and weather conditions. She installed 1,000 glass tubes through the walls and roof of the garage that serve as conduits to air, light, and water, while calling out architectural features. She wanted her installation to be a “registration of what weather conditions are without being something obvious like a window or a door.” The daytime effect can be seen on the interior as the light is picked up and carried through the glass. At night, LEDs charged from rooftop solar panels lend a fiber-optic glow to the exterior.
A new space within the home, About Face, was designed by Rosalyne Shieh as an octagonal staircase wrapped in fabric that transverses and reorients the house. Capped by a bubble window, it provides a new way to see the neighborhood, anticipating future tear-downs. The Tingle Room is Ellie Abrons’ effort to reconsider materials and thin surfaces such as paint or window treatments that normally adorn our walls. And Meredith Miller’s R.O. creates an operable door/vestibule, securing the interior and providing an entrance for the structure.
When asked if Moran would be interested in moving to Detroit, he said, “It’s still a challenging place to live.” But their work won’t be lost. The fellows donated the house to Design 99, where artists and architects will continue to add to and intervene in the home’s design. The next group will apparently add the plumbing.