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New Corktown

Rice School of Architecture faculty Albert Pope and Jesus Vassallo of the Houston-based research and design team “Present Future,” produced a powerful and imaginative proposal for innovative construction and its potential to improve quality of life. They were one of 12 teams chosen from more than 250 entries by the curators of the United States Pavilion, Monica Ponce de Leon and Cynthia Davidson. The pavilion imagines four sites in Detroit as architectural projects that incite new conversations for a city now known more for its decline than its tradition of music and industry. Present Future demonstrates ingenuity with ideas rooted in tomorrow’s concerns. It cultivates a sense of place that gestates over time in three cycles: agricultural, human, and building construction.

Aptly named “New Corktown,” Present Future’s project takes great care in its approach toward “newness” through the renovation of an existing building, the George W. Young Post Office, into a place for community services, including a grocery store and greenhouse. The proposal varies building types with integrated opportunities for greenspace. Finally, as low-­carbon economies of scale develop over decades and existing buildings reach the end of their lives, Present Future imagines a 40-story timber-constructed complex and superblock at the same site. As opposed to a tabula rasa approach to urban design, “New Corktown” proposes small­-scale gestures which perform more like a strategy. This visionary, albeit plausible strategy activates open space through urban forestry and offsets high-density construction through the use of timber production. Additionally, this model of sowing the seeds of future construction contributes to a larger discussion about the future and viability of the carbon economy of the 21st century.

Present Future’s ideas are supported by 21 beautifully detailed drawings outlining 10-year phases over the course of 50 years. The square drawings and large wood model have responded to the call to imagine life in a postindustrial city through a high level of attention to detail and thoughtfulness, in keeping with Aravena’s goals of representing a way to utilize research to develop theories for producing architectural projects that impact construction and improve the quality of life at both local and global scales. The proposal is relevant to a broad range of contexts beyond Detroit. It could be read as a design response to the lessons learned from relentless speculation and leap-frog development in Houston.

by Daisy Ames, Visiting Studio Critic at the Rice School of Architecture

Corktown, one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods, served as a thriving center for successive waves of new immigrants and home to generations of Detroiters until the mid-20th century. This cycle was interrupted by the city’s depopulation, which began in 1950, and by well-intentioned urban renewal programs. First, new freeway construction effectively cut Corktown off from the city on all three of its contiguous sides, reducing access to the area from 53 streets to 11, which must bridge the trenched highways. Later, the southeast quadrant of Corktown was razed to make way for the Westside Industrial District, which includes the massive George W. Young Post Office that cuts the district off from the Detroit River. Today, with little building stock and fewer than four dwelling units per acre, Corktown is virtually empty. Without a surrounding fabric, work on the two-block post office site alone would not stimulate urban renewal in the traditional sense. Thus, we address the entire 250 blocks bounded by the river and highways with a proposal to develop a New Corktown in 10-year phases over the next 50 years, a period synchronized with the typical five-year cycle of population shifts, 25-year life cycle of trees, and 50-year life cycle of buildings. The project imagines the renewal of the entire district’s urban fabric as a high-density environment that takes advantage of Corktown’s existing urban infrastructure, achieves low-cost housing through economies of scale, and responds to the challenges of climate change.

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This project cultivates a sense of place that gestates over time in three cycles: agricultural, human, and building construction. Following descriptions outline the 10-year phases over the course of 50 years:

Quotes from Pope and Vassallo:

“As we move into the future, it gets more important to cut our energy consumption,” Pope said.

“We’re anticipating that older parts of the city will be sites for new density and new development that will effectively cut consumption by 70 percent.”

He’s not just thinking about Detroit. A theme in Pope’s work is that the roots of the future exist today and that the current state of any neighborhood “inevitably will inform its evolution,” a concept dubbed “Present Future.” He has been applying the same strategy to a proposal for Houston’s Fifth Ward in collaboration with Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability.

“There is a well-known urban theorist, Aldo Rossi, who said the most important, most permanent part of the city is the plan, which is manifest in the first 4 inches above the ground,” Pope said.

“The plan locks in the land ownership, the public street network, utility runs and a slew of associated functions. Buildings come and go, but it is the plan that has staying power.

“That’s one of the things Detroit and the Fifth Ward have going for them,” he said. “They have existing urban infrastructure and a public matrix of streets and blocks that have enormous potential in the future. But because it’s more or less invisible (from ground level), people don’t appreciate its potential.”

The professors visited Corktown and talked to residents and city officials last year. They found what once was a small Irish enclave in the city became, in the 1950s, a larger urban landscape locked in by highways and the Detroit River. Vassallo noted the original neighborhood had 54 roadway connections to other parts of the city. After years of highway construction, 10 remain.

Envisioning the transition from Corktown to what they are calling New Corktown over the next 50 years, Pope and Vassallo see the neighborhood’s landlocked nature as an opportunity to grow up, not out. Their master plan, presented in 10-year increments, would have the neighborhood’s density increase tenfold and also incorporate forested carbon sinks – five-block-wide “plantations” set at regular intervals to keep residents close to nature no matter where they live. The architects received guidance from foresters at the Rice Land Lumber Co., an extensive Louisiana tree farm owned by Rice for more than 100 years.

“The most environmentally efficient city in the United States at this moment is Manhattan because of the lower footprint, the bigger buildings and the fact people don’t have cars and don’t need cars,” Pope noted. Taking cars out of Motor City may seem unrealistic, but increased density would encourage the development of more efficient mass transportation that Detroit now lacks, he said.

The professors see their proposed waterfront structure as a gateway destination for the neighborhood. It features a 40-story residential tower, a hotel, a conference center and an outdoor performance space facing a river walk that is already under development. The design is made primarily of renewable wood.

“We’re trying to create an environment where a person can visualize and be aware of the need to synchronize our rhythms of consumption and production with the actual rhythms of what the land can provide,” Vassallo said. “The trees operate as buffers, a way to make sure there’s open space at the scale of the new construction.”

Pope said the extensive use of wood composites as basic construction materials is a trend that hasn’t been fully exploited – and needs to be. “We are anticipating the development of carbon pricing, which will change the economics of development,” he said. Carbon pricing is considered by many to be a tax that emitters will be charged for each ton of carbon released to the atmosphere. Pope explained that such pricing will make steel and concrete prohibitively expensive. “It’s not obvious to many people that a carbon market is coming. To us, it’s very obvious, and there’s no way around it.

“One of the things it means is that wood is going to be the cheapest material you can use. There are fewer carbon emissions, and it’s the most efficient material you can build with,” he said. “We’re trying to see the potential in building efficient environments based on density.

“Trying to combine all those things with a coherent planning strategy for the area has been our ambition for the project,” Pope said.

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