Town / Gown

Town / Gown

Like many college towns, East Lansing, Michigan, has an ambiguous relationship with the massive university in its midst. The institution of higher learning here is Michigan State University (MSU), which since its founding in 1855 has basically driven development in the small city adjacent to the state capital of Lansing, about 90 miles west of Detroit.

Such is the context from front page for a public exhibition and “inquiry” organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum that mulls the future of East Lansing, MSU, and the American college town in the 21st Century. The Broad, which turned heads in 2012 by recruiting starchitect Zaha Hadid for its new $40 million museum building, invited emerging architectural firms from across the country to submit speculative projects addressing Michigan Avenue and Grand River Avenue, which form the border between MSU to the south and downtown East Lansing to the north.

“These are projects that are intended to have an impact on general conversations, but also on how we see the town,” said Alec Hathaway, the museum’s associate curator of architecture and design. Most of the firms invited to submit had never been to East Lansing, Hathaway said, adding that they sought geographic diversity beyond the usual mix of New York City and Los Angeles–based firms. “We just wanted to bring in outside perspectives and in a sense ask people to respond to what they saw when they came to visit,” said Hathaway. “We’ve got a pretty good depth of issues and responses.”

Firms involved include Bionic; DIGSAU; LEVENBETTS Studio; Min | Day; PLY Architecture, MAde Studio, and Political Scape Economy; Stoss; UrbanLab; and WXY Studio. According to Hathaway, while everyone addressed the unique town-gown relationship between East Lansing and MSU, the projects in East Lansing 2030: Collegeville Re-Envisioned explore a variety of underlying issues, from stormwater management and global warming to the shared experience of watching a football game.

Chicago’s UrbanLab tackled the town-gown divide across East Lansing’s de facto Main Street, Michigan / Grand River Avenue. Alluding whimsically to a need for density in town, UrbanLab made a playful, interactive model of a “Clustered Quad”—design schemes of which mix and match a variety of programs within a stadium-scale ring of mixed-use buildings at the north end of campus.

“It’s basically a cartoon,” said UrbanLab principal Martin Felsen. “It’s about what happens when a highly defined shape is inserted into a boundary condition. We wanted to provoke a discussion about growth, density, expanding into agricultural land, and housing.”

Football, practically an elemental force in East Lansing, factored into other “MSU 2030” submissions. LEVENBETTS’ “HELIOcity” singled out sunlight as the unifying element on and off campus, proposing a series of interventions that would redirect and harvest the sun’s rays “in order to sustain, collect and delight the inhabitants” of East Lansing. Formally speaking they took cues from a study of Spartan Stadium and other Big Ten college footballs arenas. “Football became sort of a model for them,” said Hathaway, “for spaces to connect and activate the city.”

Other projects tap themes of environmental sustainability and local ecological resources. A team of firms based in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, held up MSU’s land grant legacy with “Common Table,” a proposal to bring university and community groups together with shared spaces devoted to local food and agriculture. Boston-based Stoss organized its designs around “Carbon Nests” that would remake East Grand River Avenue into “a working, breathing civic parkway that funnels stormwater and counteracts the emissions of the vehicles it carries.”

Much of the working was about bringing townies and students together, whether through shared botanical gardens and housing (Min | Day), a transportation nexus (WXY), an experiment in “ramped urbanism” (DIGSAU), or a parking garage repurposed for mixed-use development (Bionic).

The exhibition, which will continue to dovetail with public lectures and other programs, is up at the Broad Museum through mid 2015—in a gallery facing out from campus toward greater East Lansing.