The future of Detroit’s museum district—an area within striking distance of the city’s revitalized downtown that has 12 cultural institutions—received bold ideas and insights into what urban architects and landscape designers would do if given the chance to unite Motown’s Midtown during an all-day series of presentations Wednesday at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

The DIA Plaza project hopes to create cultural, community, and city connections between institutions like the classical art museum and its illustrious neighbors, which include the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Wayne State University, and others.

Three teams with international and national resumes as well as Detroit partners gave what observers called insightful and innovative pitches Wednesday on how their ideas about mobility, technology and a revived infrastructure around the art museum could unite not only the buildings in the up-and-coming Midtown district but to the city and the region as a whole.

The DIA and its local partners will select a winner from the three presentations by spring, officials said. Insiders say the final decision should come before the end of April.

Rendering of an outdoor canopy at night

The Canopy, a proposed addition to the Detroit Institute of Arts, offers a 40,000 sq ft flexible winter garden and exhibition space to activate the east entry of the museum. (Team Agence Ter)

The DIA and its partners, including development organization Midtown Detroit Inc., started this process of building a “heart” for the cultural and educational district in spring 2018. The two also hosted a student competition, led by communications and urban-planning students from around Michigan. The winning team from Wayne State University created a vision of a large cultural campus that removed one of the DIA’s existing parking structures and created an open campus with food trucks, a performance stage and additional signage.

The three presenters at Wednesday’s event had a few items in common – they suggested narrowing Detroit’s legendary Woodward Avenue to make it more pedestrian friendly, closing off little-used streets to create a cultural campus and developing additional “living rooms” and outdoor installation spaces to bring art outside the walls of the major institutions involved.

The initial 44 submissions to the competition RFQ from more than 10 countries and 22 cities were narrowed down to eight firms, each of which presented their ideas to a panel of jurors at a public event at the DIA in June 2018. Each of the three design teams presenting as finalists in the competition include Detroit-area firms as partners.

The three design teams and their partners are: Agence Ter, Paris, France, with team partners Akoaki, Detroit; Harley Etienne, University of Michigan; rootoftwo, metro Detroit; and Transsolar | KlimaEngineering, Germany; Mikyoung Kim Design, Boston, with team partners are James Carpenter Design Associates, New York; CDAD, Detroit; Wkshps, New York; Quinn Evans, Detroit; Giffels Webster, Detroit; Tillett Lighting, New York; Cuseum, Boston; Transsolar | KlimaEngineering, Germany; and Schlaich Bergermann & Partners, New York; and TEN x TEN, Minneapolis, with team partners MASS Design Group, Boston; D MET, Detroit; Atelier Ten, New York; Local Projects, New York; HR&A Advisors, New York; Dr. Craig Wilkins, University of Michigan; and Wade Trim, Detroit.

Detroiters who attended the event said they appreciated the attention to reforesting the area with more trees and landscaping as well as the connections to Detroit-based artists, who could benefit from the additional performance spaces. However, there were concerns about removing parking in an urban center already struggling with having enough space for cars alongside its relatively new tram system known as the QLINE.

Diagram of the site's seasonal programming

Seasonal Program Diagram (Courtesy Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design)

“I’m seeing a great deal of investment in branding and design vision but not so great a connection to cultural/community impact,” said Nick Rowley, a local activist who attended Wednesday’s presentations.

The actor, voiceover artist and events planner said his much of his favorite proposals came from Agence Ter, which focused on developing projects and installations that centered on Detroit issues, such as how to commemorate the 1967 riot/rebellion, as well as local artists. “I like hearing ‘Biennale’ and ‘Afro-Futurist’ being evoked in the same presentation,” he noted.

The judges questioned the three groups for their attention to details like how they would blend walkways with the planned structures, how they proposed to develop the projects over time and whether they had given enough attention to Detroit’s unique artist and resident communities, which all wanted a voice in the final proposal.

When asked whether their proposal was too audacious, Anya Sirota, co-founder of Detroit-based architecture and design studio Akoaki, responded by noting, “Detroit deserves an ambitious project,” and that they worked extensively with community groups, artist communities and event planners to learn about the city, how it hosts events and what it needed to attract both suburbanites and urban dwellers to the cultural center.

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