An Almost “Eco” Architectural and Automotive Tour of Detroit

Detroit Institute of the Arts, DIA, Detroit, Diego Riveral,
Detroit Institute of the Arts

Detroit, the city and the industry, are both on their way back. American automakers are finally getting the fact cars have to be reliable, exquisitely designed and, in an era of rising fuel prices, as energy efficient as possible. It took the severe financial panic of 2008-2009 to knock some sense into these companies, but now the “Big 3” have recovered and are manufacturing cars to the standard their employees always knew was possible, only to have their talents hampered by a lethargic organizational structure and dismissive management. Now, these companies are in the middle of what could be another golden era. Ford Motor insists it is on a most futuristic way forward, while paying homage to its vibrant past as a company that not only transformed transportation, but built the American middle class.

While TriplePundit was in Michigan last week for Ford’s annual Trends Conference, we had an opportunity to drive a 2014 Ford Escape through the streets of Detroit. Ford’s point was to demonstrate the growing linkage between architecture and automotive design. Such a connection was not the case during the 1950s and early 1960s, a high point of American automotive design, when architecture for the most part in the U.S. was austere and drab. And now just walk around Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn where buildings exude charm on par with mausoleums. These buildings are hardly tombs, however: they have become hubs of innovation that at times feel more Silicon Valley than Rust Belt.

Now, Ford certainly has a point about this architecture-automotive convergence: outside of Chicago, Detroit boasts the best collection of architecture within the U.S. And Detroit is unique: unlike most large American cities, the Motor City is a city of houses, not apartments. Even sprawled-out Los Angeles boasts towering apartments and lofts in neighborhoods such as Westwood and Hollywood. But Detroit, at its heyday in 1950 when the city had almost 2 million residents and the automotive industry displayed America’s bombastic industrial might, was the epicentre of the American dream. Detroit also demonstrated how, in the long run, unsustainable that dream was—a country of over 300 million people cannot live in an environment where unchecked development leads to all of us living in a four bedroom house with two cars in the garage and more parked outside. During the past decade, Detroit demonstrated the American nightmare as its population cratered from 1 million to 700,000 residents, foreclosures further devastated the once proud city’s landscape and the automobile industry almost collapsed. But Ford and Detroit are past that nadir and are moving ahead. The city is becoming home to a nascent hub of tech-savvy entrepreneurs, the Big 3 are becoming lifestyle and technology companies and transplants are finding opportunity by moving into beautiful buildings where most naked eyes only see despair.

So, on Wednesday morning, we set out in our SUVs to explore Detroit’s core. When I first heard we were setting out in an Escape, I rolled my eyes. After all, our fixation on SUVs in the past 20 years ended up causing plenty of financial hardships when many American families could no longer afford to drive their boxy cars when fuel prices spiked after 2008. But the 2014 Ford Escape is sleeker and more compact—in fact, it felt far more nimble than my whale-sized Nissan Altima. With its Eco-Boost engine, its fuel efficiency is on par, or better than, many sedans on the market. The car’s acceleration, thanks to the respectable 184-lb feet of torque and 178-horsepower, was handy as I barrelled down I-94 from Dearborn to Detroit.

We started our tour at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (above right) one of the best art museums in America. And, like Ford’s current product offering, the DIA is affordable—its admission is far cheaper than other top art museums and offers way more value. The DIA is plunked in the middle of Midtown Detroit on Woodward Avenue, a neighborhood relatively pristine as Wayne State University continues to grow and supports a hub of young technology startups. And as was the case of Ford, the DIA was forward-thinking—just as Henry Ford transformed automobile manufacturing, the DIA, with the Ford family’s support, grew an amazing collection of art. One of the gems is the Detroit Industry Murals, brimming with Marxist Diego Rivera’s confrontational views of industrialization. Just before the installation’s opening in the 1930s, the city’s business and religious establishment was livid over Rivera’s depiction of manufacturing and capitalism. Edsel Ford, however, insisted the murals stay, and today, the Rivera Court offers the best examples of the artist’s work outside of Mexico.

Michigan Central Station, Detroit, Leon Kaye
Michigan Central Station


Next was the Michigan Central Station (above), Exhibit A of how the automobile industry’s growth, in part, sabotaged America’s rail system. Shuttered since 1988, this Beaux-Arts masterpiece is now a symbol of the “ruin porn” which sadly brings its share of tourists and photographers to Detroit. For now the station hosts Hollywood film shots instead of what, at times, were millions of passengers who made their way to other destinations across America. The station exhibits both American automakers’ long decline since the 1970s as well as its potential to recover and modernize in the coming years.

Heidelberg Project, Detroit, Leon Kaye
Heidelberg Project


In a neighborhood savaged after the 1967 Detroit Race riots, the Heidelberg Project (above) displays both hope and sadness for Detroit’s hard knocks. Tyree Guyton has groomed this art installation since 1986. Abandoned bungalows are now brightly painted while a shopping cart full of manky doll heads remind us how Detroit was once home to thriving families who worked on the assembly lines. A burned out house reminds of us of Detroit’s scars; yet the towering trees providing shade reminds us of how the next generation of cars could potentially have less environmental impact than the gas guzzlers of the past.

Penobscot Building, downtown Detroit, Detroit, Leon Kaye
Penobscot Building, downtown Detroit 

Finally, the Penobscot Building (right), once the tallest building between Chicago and New York, reveals how design can be both ornamental and functional. It also reminded me of how technology still has a ways to go before cars can truly be that third place besides our home and offices. Ford’s navigation system, which had led me astray before, humorously diverted me from my route at one point. No navigation “favorite” had been programmed into the system, so when I entered in the building’s name, it did lead me to another reddish art deco masterpiece—but to the Guardian Building, not the Penobscot. My trip, just like the automotive industry, had its fair share of bumps.

The two hour trip, besides reminding me of how rich Detroit’s architectural heritage is, did instill in me the sense of how much the automotive industry is reliant on good design. Customers demand it, companies in all sectors must provide it and market realities require great design at a moderate price. Ford is getting it: its 2014 Festiva, for example, offers a cost-effective and fuel-efficient car that is appealing to the eye, yet avoids the tin can vibe of its ancestor, the Escort—or, lordy, the Pinto. Finally, the tour reminded me that Detroit is benefiting from business leaders such as Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch who are investing millions into the city—but could also gain from a commitment from the automakers, too. True, Ford has been in Dearborn for decades, but if the automakers had more of a presence within Detroit’s boundaries, Detroit would be more of a city, not just a “concept” and a term to describe the industry at large.

Disclosure: Ford Motor paid for Leon Kaye’s costs to attend the Trends Conference in Dearborn.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credits: Leon Kaye]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

One response

  1. Michigan Central Station should be refurbished as a casino…. it has all the potential for spectacular gambling halls and enough space for hotel rooms. It would be a rather dramatic architectural gem. In fact, the old rails could be replaced with new and offer luxury train coaches from around the East Coast and Midwest to arrive under the new casino as a dedicated destination. One could arrive at the Station, gamble or enjoy the restaurants, shops, spas and theaters within the building as a weekend rendezvous.One would not have to deal with local traffic unless one wants to explore Detroit and it’s environs. This might bring jobs and income to the local economy and also be the incentive for other related businesses to spring up around the old station. It could be one of several “hubs” of economic activity for Detroit that could be a template for other neighborhoods to capitalize on their heritage.

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