Ford Places Its Future Bet on a Renewed Detroit


In the post-World War II era, US automakers have accomplished far more than transforming the country’s transportation systems and infrastructure (for better or for worse). Companies like General Motors and Ford also had an impact on American architecture, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. Designers like Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames have shaped Detroit and much of Michigan, be it on the huge GM campus in Warren, Michigan or on the legendary mid-century tables and chairs of Charles and Ray Eames’ offices of the big three Automaker. Mid-century designers had a role in influencing the appearance of many classic cars of the time, such as the Ford Mustang Mach-E interior.

While New York and California are often viewed as leaders in 20th century design, Michigan served as a laboratory for such innovation, and to this day much of the state served as an open-air museum of architecture and design, long before shows like Mad Men set the mood in mid-century cool.

But like the contribution of automakers to making Detroit the richest city in America in 1950, the industry is an example of Motor City’s decline. There is no shortage of analysis and commentary on Detroit’s long decline and troubled recovery over the past decade. But a building that sums up Detroit’s rise, decline, and hope for the future offers a second chance: Ford is investing in Michigan’s majestic Central Station and its environs.

A new beginning for an architectural icon in Detroit

Corktown, just a short hop from downtown Detroit, is a microcosm of American history. Most of Corktown was settled by the Irish in the mid-19th century and was then home to the Germans and finally the Maltese by 1900. Later on, Latinos from Mexico and the southwestern United States moved to the auto assembly plants. After World War II, large parts of the neighborhood were demolished to make way for factories, an investment that was never made.

Michigan Central Station rises above Corktown, Detroit’s railroad hub that was busy for decades until Amtrak’s last train left in 1988. For years, the future of the 13-story Beaux Arts Tower was in doubt until Ford bought the building in 2018.

Now the 107-year-old train station and surrounding grounds will be home to Ford’s future. Ford describes the complex as an upcoming “innovation hub” where the automaker will test new developments in transportation, including autonomous cars and all-electric vehicles.

From the rail hub to the next generation of transport

So far, Ford seems to be keeping its promises. The company and the Detroit city government recently released a report detailing how Ford has met the vast majority of its 40+ community development commitments to the Corktown neighborhood. Some of this progress is by design. In 2016, Detroit residents agreed to a measure requiring large project developers to work with local residents to give them a voice in such a process.

At Michigan Central Station in Detroit, abandoned streets and freight trains will give way to public spaces.

The results could match, if not exceed, the staggering size of some of Silicon Valley’s most acclaimed corporate headquarters. This is not a campus that is shielded from Corktown. If the renovated and remodeled 30-acre complex opens as planned in 2022, open spaces and street art will be among the features that show that Ford’s Corktown innovation center will not be imposed, but rather incorporated into it. Chain link fences, barbed wire, and unsightly power lines are giving way to bicycle lines, green spaces, and architectural features that take advantage of natural light. And while Detroit may never say goodbye to cars, note that this complex’s parking garage is offset from the rest of the buildings, encouraging workers to use the 1,200+ parking spaces to start and finish their daily steps the campus.

“Few architectural works embody the past, present, and future of Detroit better than Michigan Central Station. This plan – led by Ford and elaborated in collaboration with local stakeholders – provides a vision of how the redesigned station, with the public spaces and buildings that surround it, together become a unique and authentic destination for community members, innovators and visitors can be. Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder and creative director of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, said in a recent Ford press release.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU)


Dusty Kennedy