How one architecture firm continues to define Detroit’s skyline
With the possible exception of the great Albert Kahn, no more architectural unit has done more to define the Detroit skyline than what is now known as SmithGroupJJR. The company did it with a bevy of notable downtown skyscrapers in the 1920s, and they’re doing it today with projects that are likely to be among the next generation of defining structures in the city.
In the 1920s, Detroit, then known as Smith Hinchman & Grylls, donated three landmark skyscrapers – the Guardian, Penobscot and Buhl towers – made by Wirt Rowland, the company’s chief designer.
Today the company designed the Mike Ilitch School of Business for Wayne State University and the new main Little Caesars building near the Fox Theater, which will lay the foundation stone this week. The projects were designed to add a spirited dash of contemporary design to Detroit’s cityscape.
The playful design for Detroit’s Riverside Park extension was also from the company. So does the appearance of the Detroit RiverWalk and Dequindre Cut, as well as other greenways that run through the city.
► Connected:Greening ideas used to be an important part of the Detroit rebirth today
Like Albert Kahn’s, SmithGroupJJR’s work is everywhere. From Hart Plaza to Joe Louis Arena to Detroit’s Music Hall, the company’s work provides a stage for Detroiters’ daily life. And because architecture plays an important, albeit sometimes subconscious, role in our attitude towards our city, the latest work from SmithGroupJJR will influence Detroit’s view of their hometown for generations to come.
If the company’s work is less well known to the public than, say, the work of Kahn or Minoru Yamasaki, it is because, over the years, the company has relied less on individual genius than on a constantly renewing list of professionals who the first to turn out. Class work year after year.
The company traced its Detroit roots back to 1855 when self-taught Sheldon Smith opened a store in the city. Over the decades, the company built several landmarks – Henry Ford’s Piquette Plant in 1904, which paved the way for the modern automotive industry, and the Guardian and other towers in the 1920s, when Rowland was chief designer.
► Connected: Winter is coming again at the rusty Wayne County Jail
It became Smith Hinchman & Grylls in 1907, SmithGroup in 2000, and SmithGroupJJR in 2011. Today the company works with hundreds of professionals in multiple offices and is still headquartered in the Guardian Building downtown.
Granted, there were a few mistakes along the way. Those awkward outdoor steps at Joe Louis Arena were never a good idea. And the McNamara Federal Building in Michigan and Cass is a 27-story concrete extrusion that does little for street life or the skyline.
But the company’s latest work will advance what I will call thoughtful modernity – glass facades in a simple but elegant and precise style that advances the cause of good architecture.
For the past several decades, downtown Detroit architecture has sought inspiration for the past rather than the future. Buildings like One Detroit Center, with its Gothic-inspired spire and granite exterior, or the postmodern 150 W. Jefferson relied on historical imagery to achieve authenticity and blend in with the classic 1920s downtown look.
► Connected: Morouns haven’t finished blocking Gordie Howe Bridge
In contrast, SmithGroupJJR’s latest designs use the latest advances in glassmaking and urban design to create undeniably contemporary buildings. And Little Caesars’ business school and headquarters show that connecting to pedestrian street life is at the heart of a successful project today.
At the Mike Ilitch School of Business, all classrooms are grouped towards Woodward Avenue so that inside and outside almost merge into a single environment.
“It’s always been about connecting with the city,” said Bob Varga, SmithGroupJJR vice president. “It would be against the road, it would glow at night, the activity inside would be visible from the outside.”
The design even allows a classroom on the first floor to have sliding glass doors that open onto the street
“It’s, in a way, Detroit through and through … specifically, creating an opportunity to connect with the community,” said Varga. “This is a risky move. I don’t know if this would have been considered 10 years ago, and it shows that we can do something really contemporary, modern and not remote from the community.”
And like the Little Caesars headquarters near the Fox Theater, the business school is right on the city’s main drag, rather than sitting back in isolation behind a square.
“There was a strong recognition of the importance of Woodward and the connection that needed to be made,” said Darin Daguanno, director at SmithGroupJJR. “Originally, modernity did not recognize this type of pedestrian experience. Originally, modernism only looked at the entire building experience. We’re trying to understand this pedestrian experience on a different scale. “
This conscious attention to the pedestrian experience is most evident in the many greenway projects the company is working on, such as the RiverWalk.
“It’s not just about designing street scenes, putting in a few planters and doing the usual things. It’s really about placement to a large extent, ”said Lori Singleton, a landscape architect whose company is working on the greenway projects.
Not many architectural firms have been in business for generations, let alone the 160+ years SmithGroupJJR has survived. But there is nothing hidden or tired in his latest work.
The company goes back to the past and looks to the future. The work is as remarkable as any other ever done.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.