In December 2015, Detroit became America’s first city to be named a UNESCO City of Design. The announcement came as a bit of a surprise for most who associate ‘Motor City’ with, well, the booming auto industry of the Fifties. Dig a little deeper though and you will find that Detroit is most deserving of the title, which recognizes a city's design legacy and commitment to promote cultural and creative industries. Its architectural history is rich with works by Eames, Knoll, Bertoia, Diffrient, Rapson, Weese, Saarinen, Libeskind, Yamasaki, Kahn, Dow and Earle; many of which set world records during the glorious Golden Age. While several of these buildings fell into disuse, there’s been a resurging interest in the city’s historic and current design/cultural scene by a number of international hotels, galleries and lifestyle brands. Here we take a look at six of the city’s most noteworthy pre-Depression projects.
David Whitney Building
At 19 storeys, the David Whitney Building is one of the most iconic skyscrapers of America’s Golden Age. The 1915 structure, designed by Architect Graham, Burnham & Co, was erected in tribute to the lumber and shipping magnate David Whitney Jr, and currently houses Aloft Detroit. While its Neo-Renaissance terracotta and glazed-brick facade makes an impact at first go; within, it’s the four-storey atrium that shines through. Once one of the most visited retail destinations in Midwestern USA, the space boasts marble, terracotta and gold-leaf work in its atrium, wood-lined elevators and marble-clad corridors.
Belle Isle Aquarium
The aquatic collection at Belle Isle Aquarium is far from impressive. Most visitors flock there for one simple fact: the building is one of America’s oldest, and perhaps, the only one still functional aquariums. Like most of Detroit’s early architecture, the building’s design was advanced for its time. Launched in 1904, the aquarium opened at a time when the ocean was still unchartered territory. Architect Albert Kahn evokes this sense of mystery via an elaborate ocean-themed engraving at the entrance and green tile-clad interiors to effect a sense of being underwater. The establishment which shut down in 2005, saw a revival seven years later, thanks to the efforts of volunteers and renovation grants.
Westin Book Cadillac Hotel
When the Book Cadillac was unveiled in 1924, it claimed to be the world's tallest hotel, frequented by auto barons, American presidents and Hollywood stars alike. The establishment eventually shut down in the mid-Eighties after a prolonged period of the state’s declining job scene. In November 2008, however, the 33-storey tower was revived to its original glory. The USD200 million, two-year-long restoration was a collaborative effort between the city and Cleveland developer John Ferchill. Today, architect John Scott’s Italian Renaissance stone-grey building is home to modern dark wood and marble interiors. It comprises 453 guest rooms, three ballrooms, three restaurants, a spa, a pool and the popular Motor Bar. Don’t forget to give the wall of artefacts a look – here you will find objects from the hotel’s earliest days, including an original guest room doorknob replete with the Cadillac insignia.
In the 1920s, the Michigan Theatre’s Italian Renaissance interiors flaunted towering pillars and mirrored walls in its five-storey tall, domed lobby. The movie palace hosted legends like the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Since then it has swapped several roles – from a rock club starring the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop to a car park to the backdrop of rap star Eminem’s 8 Mile, and more recently, a skate park. Although much of it was gutted to make space for the parking lot, its crumbling ceiling offers glimmers of its once ornate interiors. All is not lost though – a couple of years ago, the property was bought by the Boydell Group developers, known to resurrect forgotten architectural gems as creative spaces.
Detroit Institute of Arts
Set in the heart of the city’s cultural scene, the Detroit Institute of Arts is the city’s was launched in 1927. The Beaux Arts structure is capacious with over a hundred galleries. On the must-see list are works by Degas, Cézanne and African-American artists; and Diego Rivera's expansive ‘Detroit Industry’ mural. Kresge Court, a courtyard café, is where you can catch a breather between exhibits.