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How OMA is transforming a cinderblock eyesore into a gorgeous facade

A Detroit project has a unique solution for cinderblock: drill holes in it.

Cinderblock walls are as ubiquitous as they are forgettable. The go-to utilitarian element of low-budget buildings around the world, the cinderblock, or concrete masonry unit, gets the job done without flair or panache. Whether in liquor stores, auto repair shops, or even low-cost homes, cinderblocks make up the featureless rectangular walls of everyday urbanity—the blank faces of anonymous buildings that surround us and fade into the background.

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A new project being announced today offers an inventive way to give life to these empty facades—by drilling right through them.

[Image: OMA/Luxigon]
The project is an adaptation of a vacant and partly crumbling commercial bakery complex on the east side of Detroit, with a sizable fortress of cinderblocks attached. Designed by the global architecture firm OMA, founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas, the project will renovate two historic industrial buildings into studios and galleries for two local nonprofit arts organizations, Signal Return and Progressive Arts Studio Collective. Built in the early 1900s, the two-story brick buildings retained some of the charm of their era, with large windows that will be restored to flood the art spaces with light. Some will even be converted into street-facing display cases to show the work being created by artists inside.

The site also includes a third building—an L-shaped annex made of solid cinderblock walls—which presented more of a design challenge.

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“We first looked at just trying to add some big openings, but [there was] no composition of windows that we could think of that looked correct or didn’t compete with the simplicity of the historic industrial structures,” says Jason Long, a partner in OMA’s New York office who led the project. Instead, the architects decided to “respect the blankness of it, and treat it almost like a surface that we could perforate.”

About 1,500 holes will be drilled through the cinderblocks and filled with cylinders of glass, turning the blank wall into a semi-transparent hole-punched façade that, when seen at night, will glow from within. The once-windowless building will become the project’s iconic face, to be used as retail space for either a green grocer or restaurant when the project opens in spring 2023.

The complex of buildings is the latest development of the Library Street Collective, a Detroit-based art gallery that has launched a campaign of cultural development centered in this part of the city. A nearby project called the Shepherd was just announced in October and will convert a vacant church, rectory and surrounding grounds into a gallery, surrounded by a cultural arts complex, community center, and skatepark designed by Tony Hawk and McArthur Binion.

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This latest project, just a few blocks away, aims to revive a much more modest site, bordering a vacant lot that will become like an extended public space for the complex. “Unfortunately, there have been so many buildings and houses that have been demolished and removed over the past 50, 60 years,” says Library Street Collective cofounder Anthony Curis. “Our intent in the neighborhood is to save and preserve as much as we can.”

[Images: OMA/Luxigon]
Part of the complex of buildings includes a central chunk where only remnants of a roof remain. OMA is converting this seemingly derelict area into an outdoor courtyard. “This new courtyard becomes the front door in a way of the whole project, and a place that all the different programs in the building can connect to,” says Long.

The standout part of the design, though, is the perforated cinderblock building, which offers a new model for rethinking countless blank cinderblock walls around the world. It’s even inspired the project’s name, the Lantern.

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“Our hope is that, in many ways, the building becomes a beacon in the neighborhood, I guess you could say literally and figuratively,” says Curis.

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