A June protest in Detroit
Laura Walker A June protest in Detroit

A friend, the graphic designer Erik Adigard, recently pointed me to one of the more poignant images from the wave of civil unrest sweeping our country: a protester holding up a “Defund the Police” sign in front of the Renaissance Center in Detroit. All around him, people are milling about, many of them with bicycles, showing little concern for the traffic patterns of what is normally a major intersection. A street sign marks one of the roads as being Woodward Avenue, which cuts all the way from the lakeside to the city’s far suburbs. To the right you can see The Fist, Robert Graham’s 24-foot-long work of art inspired by the arm of boxer Joe Louis.

What struck me about this photograph, taken by Laura Walker, AIA, an associate at SmithGroup, and published with her recent Architect’s Newspaper op-ed, How Can Architects Promote Black Liberation While Designing Police Stations?, was the confluence of symbolism. First, there is the sculpture. It is a memorial to a hero who fought discrimination inside and outside the ring. It is not some glorification of either a general or a slave owner. It is also a fragment, rather than a statue of the whole body. It hangs in the air as an emblem of pure power. It is a floating rebuke to how we think of art and architecture as rooted monuments.

Then there is the Renaissance Center, now rebranded as the GMRenCen. Built between 1971 and 1977, and designed by John Portman to include office space, a hotel, restaurants, clubs, and retail establishments, it was intended to be a “city within a city.” There was a reason for that: a few years earlier, Detroit had been engulfed by riots and protests. They were triggered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but they also had roots in the city’s history of embedded racism.

"The Fist," by Robert Graham
Flickr/Creative Commons/Ken Lund “The Fist,” by Robert Graham

Henry Ford II, who commissioned the project, claimed that it would be a symbol of Detroit’s rebirth after that violence, but it was a peculiar one: located away from both the central business district and the city’s neighborhoods, it was (and is) an inward-turned Emerald City, sheathed in acres of reflective glass that mask the interior. The whole is protected by concrete parking garages that originally provided just one point of access from the street—an entrance that could easily be closed off in the case of new riots.

The Renaissance Center, home first to the Ford Corporation and now General Motors, as well as what was once the fanciest businessman’s club in town, was an act of corporate isolation. If it was a harbinger of the future, it was one where white men ran corporations that separated themselves from the communities that fed them, worked for them, and that they supposedly served.

That tactic proved less than successful. The center did not generate significant new development in the surrounding area and was itself never exactly bustling. It is now, despite a renovation in the early aughts that cost as much as the original development, a relic of a bygone era of urban renewal. It is also, as the photograph shows, an emblem of how increasingly useless buildings as objects have become. The Renaissance Center is just a backdrop. Nothing much happens there. The action is taking place in front, on the corner. The people aren’t confined to air-conditioned isolation but have taken over the streets.

The Renaissance Center