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From Car Factory to Urban Building Block

By T.R. Witcher

Competition gives designers around the world the chance to "reanimate" one of Detroit's most famous ruins.

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Recreation, agriculture, and renewable energy sources would surround the Packard plant in the winning entry, titled Crossing the Plant. Nadau Lavergne Architectures

October 7, 2014—The first part of Detroit's Packard Plant, a multiple-building complex designed by Albert Kahn in 1903, opened its doors in 1903, but the facility continued to be expanded until 1915. The behemoth featured the world's first use of a reinforced-concrete structural system for the automotive industry and led to what was known as the Kahn system of reinforcement. Developed and patented by Khan's brother Julius Khan, the system used steel rebar that was bent and frayed at the ends to increase its interaction with concrete and improve shear, and was used internationally in the design of the first skyscrapers.

The Packard Plant presaged modern manufacturing facility engineering. For close to 50 years the enormous facility, more than half a mile long, churned out luxury Packard automobiles. When the last Packard rolled off the line in 1954, the factory, much like the city, began a long and slow decline. Today the facility is a hulking symbol of both Detroit's long deterioration and its underlying resiliency.

"Even though the plant has suffered blight, fire, abandonment, and copper scrapping, the over-built shells of the structure continue to stand," says architectural historian Kari Smith, LEED-AP, a project manager for the Packard's current owner, Lima, Peru-based Arte Express.

Now the Packard, improbably, could become the most powerful symbol of Detroit's slow rebound. The organization Parallel Projections hosted a design competition to develop a new vision for the aging complex. Parallel Projections was launched by designer Kyle Beneventi and two colleagues, Keelan Hanks and Zach Eling. The architecture school graduates had participated in competitions and found that many were focused on lofty ideas and academic exploration but lacked real-world application, according to Beneventi. He and his peers wanted to create a new class of competition that could "connect innovative academic exploration …with policy makers and architecture firms and really try to get into how these design ideas can address the 'built e' and relevant social issues."

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A serpentine belt, inspired by engine belts, would house an automotive museum in the second-place entry, The Packard Belt. Javier Galindo

For their inaugural competition, which they call Reanimate the Ruins, they chose Detroit, a city with no shortage of social issues. "We began researching, and through our research we found that Detroit's decline was in part due to its sprawl," says Beneventi. "We thought it was ironic that Motor City's decline was caused in part by the motor car itself."

They found even more irony in using an abandoned car plant to explore ways to turn the city's fortunes around. "We were hoping that this competition would address both the urban scale by creating a secondary node of density to support the city center," says Beneventi, "and then address the architectural scale by providing the necessary program to make each node successful.

"In looking at other successful urban conditions, that was a consistent theme: as things grow out from the city center, you need secondary density to support and feed back in," he explains.

The Packard plant, located about 5 mi from downtown, was an ideal place to test the theory, but the trio left the brief vague. "We assigned the site and raised the issues but we didn't want to be too prescriptive with what program we were requesting," says Beneventi. "We wanted the designers to have a little more freedom in their exploration."

Officially announced in May, the competition garnered entries from more than 200 designers from 30 countries by July. The designers were both students and professionals, and they worked within several design disciplines. Winners were announced in August.

"I knew about Detroit—the perils of the city and its recent bankruptcy, along with its history," says New York-based designer Javier Galindo, whose entry, The Packard Belt, won second place. "It is a story that is poignant for me since I was born in Havana, a city that has also become synonymous with destruction and ruin." 

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The third-place entry in a competition to redesign and reuse a former Packard plant in Detroit, called Ecological Engineering Center Detroit, features both an aquaponic plant and a waste-to-energy plant. Toni Yli-Suvanto

Galindo started by asking himself what kind of building these ruins once were. "Obviously it was a building in which cars were born," he says. That got him thinking about the relationship between cars and buildings. "The relationship between the car and the building has often been very autonomous. The car is for the street, the building is for people, and they rarely crisscross. This condition is what I wanted to counteract in favor of a more inclusive and integrated system. It seemed the perfect opportunity and place to reignite this dialogue."

Galindo's plan calls for linking the different parts of the long plant with a beltlike structure that angles through the entire site. This 60 ft wide structure would house a linear automotive museum and would accommodate cars as well as pedestrians. The various ends of the belt would be used for urban agriculture.

"The serpentine belt is a way to stitch all those different parts together," says Galindo. "I thought of a promenade or passage through the building in which the car serves as the main transportation system as a way to rebrand the updated plant in its relationship to Detroit's car culture."

The third-place entry, Ecological Engineering Center Detroit (EECD), was designed by Toni Yli-Suvanto, a principal of Helsinki-based Toni Yli-Suvanto Architects. "What I wanted to explore was how to take advantage of this potential and not let it vanish and not let it fall apart," says Yli-Suvanto. "And how can you convert the situation into the benefit of Detroit?"

Yli-Suvanto imagined a hybrid space, complete with residential, entertainment, market, research, and work spaces for people with a range of job types. Yli-Suvanto would renovate two large volumes, which bookend the northern and southern sides, into an aquaponic food-production plant and a waste-to-energy plant. The former would feature a vegetable farm fed by nutrients from fish waste; the vegetables in turn would purify the water for the fish.  

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The winning entry, Crossing the Plant, calls for the development of shops, offices, and housing along the long north-south spine of the facility. Nadau Lavergne Architectures

The energy plant consists of another closed cycle, using organic waste from the community, the aquaponic farm, and the rest of the EECD. Using aerobic processes and composting, the system would release biogas and convert the waste to nutrients that could be used by the plants. The process would also generate gray water for reuse in certain applications. 

The design also attempts to keep as much of the site's industrial feel as possible. "I thought it would honor the past," says Yli-Suvanto. "There is something symbolic in the whole volume of these renovated plants. They have a common denominator that provides a lot of jobs and contributes to the environment and mitigation of climate change."

Most of the historic Packard Plant site was purchased in late 2013 for $405,000 by Arte Express, which specializes in revitalizing historic, undervalued, abandoned buildings in cities as far flung as Madrid, Barcelona, and most recently, Lima. In the Peruvian capital, Arte Express revitalized more than 25 buildings in the once seedy historic core, bringing in retail and commercial development. The work, says Smith, "basically brought back the historic center of Lima. We see this project following that model."

Beneventi says raising awareness is the first step of the process of moving the site forward. "The people who have the position or the means to make expensive changes don't always have the staff or the vision," he says. "Our first step is just to connect those two. I think that was successfully done." From there, they hope to continue to act as facilitators so that ideas from the competition can be elaborated upon.

The Packard may yet become, in Beneventi's words, the poster child for successful adaptive use, setting a high bar both for urban planning and sustainable design. "We do believe that the Packard has the potential to become a positive icon for Detroit again."

"Today, any redevelopment of the Packard site will have considerable challenges," notes Dan Kinkead, the director of projects for Detroit Future City, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the city and a competition juror. "One would certainly struggle to identify any discernable conventional market for residential/retail/commercial, etc. On the other hand, many 'less conventional' uses appear to have broader application, including agriculture and energy production. The location and physical structure of Packard make it an intriguing candidate for these uses. This gives it a fundamental value proposition that other properties may not have."

The property spans 3.5 million sq ft. Smith says that the company envisions the complete revitalization of the 40-acre site within an 8-to-15-year window. Arte Express believes between 80 and 85 percent of the structure can be renovated. "The conversion of a historic area on the east side of Detroit with this scale and magnitude will spur job creation, further development, and bring amenities to the neighborhood surrounding the Packard plant—all of which are very needed," Smith says. "Detroit is ready for something to happen on the east side that's going to bring positive change. The Packard Plant is the beginning of that change."

The competition was under way before Arte Express purchased the property. "Owner Fernando Palazuelo and I were very impressed by the design competition in general," she says. "We are very interested in several of the entries." The company is close to launching its website,, which will show progress on the development, information, and photos of the history of the plant and may include some of the entries of the competition. 

When asked about the design entries that might inspire their own work, Smith noted the winning entry, Cross the Plant, which was produced by Paris-based Nadau Laverge Architectures. "His ideas on layout, scope, and use ties in very well to what we're coming up with for the master plan," Smith says. "He obviously recognized the importance of retaining the historic architecture."  

Crossing the Plant envisions reubranizing the complex with a straightforward mixed use of shops, offices, and housing along the long north-south spine of the plant, as well as the creation of a new east-west axis. The site would be surrounded by green space for agriculture, recreation, and wind power.

"We decide to take part in the competition because the subject is very interesting," says Vincent Lavergne, a principal of Nadau Lavergne. "It's about Detroit, but it's [also] about all the old industrial areas in the world. What I like in this kind of subject [is] it's more than only an architectural project. It's more than an urbanist, master planning project."

For Lavernge, the project touches all aspects of the way humans relate to their environment: social, economic, agricultural, even anthropological. "It could be seen as a global civil engineering project, able to propose new places of life and new ways of life."

American sprawl, with its detached single-family homes, is a way of life that "consumes a lot of territory," he says. "Maybe the existing industry could be a new social infrastructure. And it could free land, which can be used to reintroduce more [to the] local economy."

The winning entry is, he insists, not avant-garde architecture, but a pragmatic and realistic attempt to grapple with our postindustrial landscape. "It's a very simple idea," he says. "It's not about form, it's not about shape; it's about clear urban principles and sustainable ideas—it is simply about what has to be done with the Packard plant, and more generally with Detroit."


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