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Young Architects Buy Detroit Home for $500, Turn It into Design Lab

The Motor City has 33,529 vacant houses. To most of the country, that’s33,529 reasons to wring its hands over What To Do About Detroit. Toarchitects, it’s a gold mine.

Detroit design lab home

The Motor City has 33,529 vacant houses. To most of the country, that’s33,529 reasons to wring its hands over What To Do About Detroit. Toarchitects, it’s a gold mine.

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Five researchfellows from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architectureand Urban Planning transformed an abandoned house in Hamtramck (whichis basically Detroit)into their very own lab rat. The recent architecture grads gave it new stairs, walls, glazing, rooms — the works. But it wasn’t some heroic attempt tobuild shelter for down and outs, which a lot of architecture schools are into these days. It was a pure design exercise — one aimed atrethinking the conventions of a single-family home — and it shows howmuch creativity you can draw from the great arsenal of Detroit’s ruins.

Detroit design lab house

The fellows bought the house at a foreclosureauction for a whopping $500. It was literally a shell — no doors, nowindows, no electricity, no plumbing, no stairs. There she is. What a beaut!

This is Thomas Moran’s Tables and Chairs. They’re actually meant to double as a display case and stairs:

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Meredith Miller gave the building a fancy new door. You can adjust it depending on how much privacy you want. Here’s the indoor view:

And the outdoor view:

EllieAbrons manipulated basic construction materials to turn the most boringparts of a house — floors, walls, ceilings — into a work of art.

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In About-Face, RosalyneShieh cut a huge diagonal swath through the house, insertedfabric-wrapped stairs, and topped it off with a bubble skylight. There’sa blighted property next door, but once it’s torn down, the staircase will afford pleasant new views of the neighborhood.

Catie Newell stuck almost a thousand glass tubes (which look a lot like crack pipes) in the house’s garage for herproject Weatherization(top and below). According to U of M’s Web site, it”utilizes the typical mediator of glass in an unusual configurationallowing for an altered understanding of volume and exchange.” That’s architecture-speak for “It does cool thingswith light.”

The house has been passed on to a Hamtramck design collective, which will take on further architectural “interventions.” It’s refreshing to see this sort of thing in acity practically defined by its failures (cars, crime,RoboCop 3). We’ve all heard the phrase “design loves a depression.” Bythat logic, Detroit should be a design utopia. And it’s had itsmoments. See examples here and here.

But the city’s hemorrhaging people. The population has skinnieddown from 1.85 million residents in 1950 to 951,270 in 2000 (a figureexpected to slip further in the 2010 Census). So even though the landscape’sperfectly suited to a creative surge, the talent pool would rather create elsewhere. Who can blame them? Detroit, as we all know toowell, doesn’t do utopia.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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