At any given moment in Detroit, preservationists, city officials, and developers battle over what to do with the city’s seemingly endless supply of aging structures. It is an ongoing side plot in the city’s revival, with a new building coming into the spotlight at least once a month.
Fortunately there are some in Detroit looking to strike a balance between keeping the old and pushing the new. The opportunities to snap up historic structures at bargain-basement prices—be they by city or county auction, or the traditional purchase process—have afforded many budding entrepreneurs a chance to open up shop for cheap while experimenting with methods of bringing Industrial Age buildings into modern times.
That’s where architects like Kaija Wuollet come in. Wuollet has lived in Detroit for a decade, starting her firm, Laavu, in 2010. Many of the city’s newer restaurants and gathering places bear the Laavu stamp: reclaimed materials, community-minded open space, and innovative new materials mixed with original features.
Wuollet wears many hats: architect, contractor, interior designer, woodworker, bricklayer. Sometimes even accountant. Always interested in engineering, Wuollet said she just “fell into” architecture after visiting the city for a field project. “Historically, architects were known as master builders. They were known as city planners, they would be in charge of imagining a city,” said Wuollet, who often gets her own hands dirty working alongside her clients.
The do-it-yourself mantra among Detroiters is often repeated to outsiders to emphasize the tenacity of its citizens, but insiders know that DIY is borne out of necessity for survival. “It’s very genuine, because we all have to help each other and there are limited resources,” said Wuollet. “Architectural designs will not survive if they are not rooted behind a strong and passionate group of folks that are willing to do the work.”
Wuollet admitted that she did not see herself in Detroit for the long haul when she first arrived, but besides the sense of community, the cost of living in the city gave her more opportunity to have her own firm. “We can afford space. We can afford to try these things,” she said. “We can also afford to make mistakes…because the cost of space isn’t the same as the cost in New York.”
Wuollet’s graduate thesis was centered on how entrepreneurship can act as a catalyst for urban development. A chance meeting with Philip Cooley, Ponyride’s founder, helped her bring that concept to life. In Ponyride, a large co-working space housed in a 1930s factory, Wuollet, the building’s owner, future tenants, and an army of volunteers tore down 1980s finishes with the goal of revealing the original detail. “We took it down to the historic bones,” she said, “and we made shelves out of the studs in the kitchen.”
Gold Cash Gold
Generations of Detroit residents knew the building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wabash Street as a pawnshop with “GOLD CASH GOLD” painted on its exterior. The building’s new owners envisioned keeping some of its predecessor’s aesthetic while still converting it into an upscale brasserie. Wuollet commissioned industrial-sized windows from a vacant building and fitted them with stained glass pieces. The floor was made with materials from an abandoned elementary school’s gymnasium.
For the expansion of Slows, the popular barbecue joint, Wuollet sought to add a new addition with its own character. Ceilings were covered with salvaged wood headed to a landfill and reclaimed steel I-beams and copper were used for a new bar. A large, black-and-white train graphic, hand-painted by artist Zac Meers, covers one wall.
Batch Brewing Co.
One of the many microbreweries opening around town doubles as both a community space and a watering hole. Polycarbonate panels were added to the exterior with LED lighting placed behind the panels. The brewery now helps illuminate the neighborhood, which is not well lit. Inside, the inner workings of the brewery are visible. A bar and dining area accommodate 40-plus people. Prior to the brewery’s opening, Wuollet encouraged the owners—as she does with other clients—to build a relationship with existing residents. “We gave them the language they should use to do that.”