Renaissance-Center via failed architecture

Will Detroit Ever Fully Recover From John Portman’s Renaissance Center?

Last week I wrote about the anti-urban legacy of architect and developer John Portman. I think it’s worth going into a bit more detail about these projects, since we seem to have learned so little from their failures.


Let’s start with Detroit. The Renaissance Center was one of his largest and most celebrated projects. But this sprawling complex of seven-interconnected skyscrapers poses some difficult questions for urban planners today: can downtown Detroit ever fully recover from this mammoth and ill considered development? And, more importantly, why haven’t other cities learned from its clear and stark lessons?  


The first phase of the Ren Cen, as it’s known by locals, opened in 1977 and effectively vacuumed out what was left of the shaky but existent commercial life, locking it up inside a massive, internally confusing fortress on the Detroit River. To compound this planning disaster, Detroit built an elevated train from the Ren Cen, with limited destinations, drawing still more people off the street, virtually guaranteeing decades of dead pedestrian life. Why would an entrepreneur open a ground floor shop, when all of their potential customers were whizzing by overhead?


While the clearance frenzy didn’t start with Portman, the Ren Cen certainly opened the floodgates for multiple stadia and assorted schemes, casinos, and acres and acres of parking lots and garages, erasing more of the urban fabric necessary for eventual rebirth. These celebrated venues (each one promising to revive downtown) drew suburbanites back for occasional events, but visitors drive in and out without actually touching the real city. What remained was a chopped up center, nearly impossible to navigate by means other than the car. Pockets of life remained, but they were largely isolated by highways.


After Ren Cen, demolition continued apace. It would take decades for the remaining fabric to begin to come alive again. Today Detroit is being hailed as a “comeback city.” But the seeds of that revival were recognizable on the ground, as early in the 2000’s. And they had nothing to do with the Ren Cen, or other large scale projects designed to spur redevelopment.


Slows Bar BQ helped anchor the revival of the Corktown neighborhood in Detroit.


Smaller initiatives, in fact, sprang up in almost organic opposition to them. A wonderful neighborhood was emerging around Slows Bar BQ at the hard-pressed corner of Michigan Avenue and 14th Street, the nexus of Corktown (Detroit’s oldest neighborhood), Mexican Town (the city’s largest Hispanic area) and downtown. Block by block, a small group of passionate local residents renovated ten, small brick buildings of varying color, age and condition adjacent to Slows Bar BQ. Slows was created by Phillip Cooley, along with his brother and father, and they fashioned the corner eatery out of old timbers and salvaged architectural details, a classic small business catalyst for urban rebirth.


The same group of energetic renovators cleaned up a long-neglected park across the street that connected it to the city’s most visible failure, Michigan Central Station (1913). Now, after less than a decade of neighborhood-based revival around it, this extraordinary 18-story train station and office building, abandoned since 1988—designed by the architects (Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem) that created New York’s Grand Central Terminal—is reportedly in line for renovation.


This is the real uncelebrated story of genuine rebirth in cities across the country—small local projects planting the seeds for authentic revival. The absence of a fundamental understanding of the economic and social intricacies of a city—its urban ecology—cripples most experts and policy makers, who tend to plan from afar and parachute into communities in the name of false progress. The important stories of strength and rebirth are often hidden, overshadowed by blockbuster announcements for the latest over-scaled promise of urban redemption.


Observing and writing about Detroit over the years, I was interested in more than just the high concentration of remarkable pre-war buildings downtown, some of the best in any American city. There entire blocks of buildings remained in the compact urban arrangement that many cities wish they still had. In recent years, developers discovered, restored and converted many of them to residential or mixed use, just as Americans were looking to live in downtowns again.


But Detroit possessed—as most cities do—real neighborhoods, each with a different story, a different catalyst, a different combination of people and buildings. Even a beleaguered city like Detroit, beset by decades of population loss, was rich with them: the Stroh’s Brewery District, Harmonie Park, Mexican Town, Eastern Market, Cork Town. And, of course, Indian Village, a National Historic District of early 20th Century homes built for the Detroit elite. The Cass Corridor, parallel to the venerable Woodward Avenue, began exhibiting as early as twenty years ago small signs of rebirth—a coffee shop, a bakery, and other small endeavors. (Today one of the most contentious issues there is gentrification.) Other areas were showing signs of new life that city officials and planners didn’t recognize until smart developers, young value hunters and artists, started the restoration, conversion and revival process celebrated today.


In recent years many downtowns have been rediscovered. But they did so with a caveat: those downtowns with substantial remaining fabric experienced more robust turn-arounds; those excessively bulldozed struggled to revive because they had more room to park than actual reasons to park.


Fortunately, not every city fell under the spell of Portman gigantism. In 1978, Washington, D.C., resoundingly defeated an insane plan of his that involved tearing down the National Theater (1835), the oldest continuously operating legitimate theater in the country, where virtually every major theatrical star in American history appeared. Not long before the demolition proposal, the theater underwent a $1 million refurbishing. Portman sought to replace it and almost an entire block of assorted structures with two 16-story atrium hotel/office/retail buildings. He argued against saving the National or creating a new theater inside, saying it would interfere with the design and economics of the new project.


At around the same time, Boston also resisted the Portman allure. Warning against a proposed project there, Boston Globe columnist Ian Menzies wrote: “The trouble is that Portman is selling an architectural package that can be dropped on any city…it could be disaster for Boston. There has to come a time when architects, planners and developers will distinguish between American cities, recognize their differing personalities and characteristics, and not place or superimpose the newest plasticized high-rise package in every American city as they would a box of nationally distributed cereal…Boston doesn’t need Portman even if Atlanta does; it needs a truly new and distinguished architect who can blend the future with the past and maintain a scale of values where buildings serve to complement man, not overwhelm him.”


Sadly, this could have been written about virtually all of the cities with major Portman projects. In New York, supposedly a wellspring of creative design, the city embraced Portman as the potential savior of Times Square. Lavishing his development group with huge public subsidies, the state and city allowed Portman to demolish two irreplaceable Broadway theaters—The Morosco and Helen Hayes—along with a diverse urban block that included smaller theaters, and a successful, recently refurbished, mid-size hotel. In their place, Portman built a 56-story monstrosity, a hulking bunker, with a cavernous theater absent all of the qualities of the destroyed historic ones. (In the 1970s, New York gave a zoning bonus to new buildings that contained a new theater but no bonus for preserving the older gems already standing.)


The demolition of the Helen Hayes and Morosco Theatres – called the Great Theatre Massacre of 1982 – made way for the John Portman-designed Marriott Marquis Hotel. In his review of the building, Paul Goldberger, in the New York Times, wrote, “it is to architecture as the Edsel was a automobiles: awkward, gangly and out of touch.”


This disastrous development should be used as a textbook case for what no city should ever do. They ignored the loud and very public protests staged by theater luminaires (led by Joseph Papp) and enthusiasts from all over the world. The city was unwilling to force Portman, in exchange for large public benefits, to move the project across Broadway to an available alternative site of equal size and with nothing of much value on it. They even refused to consider a well-crafted alternative design that would have built the hotel over the historic theaters, utilizing the under-used lower floors. The Portman lobby is on the seventh floor and could have easily accommodated the two historic theatres beneath it.


One outrage after another occurred—all for an inexcusably ill-conceived project. “Mr. Portman’s buildings are exciting without being interesting,” wrote Michael Sorkin in the Wall Street Journal. “Paradoxically, his buildings, which practically scream their aspirations to urbanism, are virtually without a sense of urbanism…like giant spaceships, offering close encounters with the city but not too close.” All of the arguments against the build-over alternative (too time consuming, too costly, too late in the process), rang hollow then, and still do. Today only remnants of the old Times Square remain.


Called public-private partnerships, they were in fact publicly subsidized private developments. The Portman projects, no doubt, made for dramatic photos (some still look dazzling today on blogs), but often were dreadful urban places.


These projects also set dangerous precedents, providing a formula for both developers and city officials, desperate to revive their sagging downtowns. Called public-private partnerships, they were in fact publicly subsidized private developments. The Portman projects, no doubt, made for dramatic photos (some still look dazzling today on architecture blogs), but often were dreadful urban places.


Worse still, rather than revive their intended downtowns, they were often impediments to it. And for good reason: excessive demolition of declining urban fabric, and its large-scale replacement with a single-use never regenerates a city. It simply replaces a multitude of uses with a single, often sterile, one. The same is true for so-called “shrinking cities,” where far too many perfectly viable buildings were demolished. Massive demolitions have never stemmed the shrinking; in fact, they exacerbated the problem. The wiser and far cheaper strategy would have been to invest on the neighborhood level in stemming the shrinkage.


Over and over, the Portman promise was a mirage, never living up to its promise, its architectural splash obliterating its urban damage. In virtually every project, voices raised pointing out the deceptions were drowned out by a combination of public officials and real estate developers who were ultimately the real winners. A common thread runs through all of this. “For every complex problem,” H.L. Mencken once said, “there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”


Featured image of the Renaissance Center, via Failed Architecture; Slow’s Bar BQ image, via RantNow; and historic Morosco Theatre image, by Clarence Davis, New York Daily News. 


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.