Detroit, America’s poster child for the post-industrial shrinking city, may suffer from a paucity of residents and resources, but it’s a boomtown of urban theory. There is no shortage of clever schemes aimed at repopulating vacant houses and vacant land. Jen Maigret, AIA, and María Arquero de Alarcón, co-founders of Ann Arbor, Mich.–based MAde Studio, have a slightly different perspective: What if you look at Detroit not in isolation, but as a regional system defined by its watershed? How would that change planning? “We are interested in different scales,” Arquero says. “And we are not interested in only focusing on the metropolitan area.”
Maigret, 41, a trained biologist, and Arquero, 41, who’s licensed in Spain, began a detailed analysis of the region’s water systems in 2011 through a grant from the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. Their award-winning project, Liquid Planning Detroit, considered how watershed data might inform the future planning of the city, looking at ground cover, stormwater, and imperviousness, among other things. Forget existing grids and boundaries; the watershed should serve as a lens through which future planning decisions can be made. “This was an amazing opportunity to work on our analytic techniques,” Maigret says. “But the thing we’re always the most motivated by is how that data plays out in the built environment, in material, and in habitable, experiential space.”
By 2013, the firm’s research had culminated in plans for several sites around the city, including a design for an ecological and pedestrian infrastructure linking the popular Eastern Market to the Dequindre Cut, an abandoned railway that’s slowly being turned into a public greenway. In June, when Liquid Planning Detroit earned a 2014 AIA Michigan Design Award in the unbuilt category, the jury said that they were impressed by the “fine-grained analysis that underlies the urban designs.”
Maigret and Arquero are masters of marrying analysis with transformative urban architecture. The two met at the University of Michigan, where they are both assistant professors at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Their shared penchant for data mining compelled them to start their firm in 2010. Though their research-heavy approach could keep their design work cloistered in the realm of academic theory, it is their ability to visualize and communicate complex ideas, and to work with both their students and Detroit residents and organizations, that has given their young firm so much traction. Four years in and MAde Studio has developed a transdisciplinary practice working in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and urban planning.
John Callewaert is the integrated assessment program director for the Graham Sustainability Institute. He remembers how impressed people were when Maigret and Arquero presented their findings and designs for the Liquid Planning Detroit project. “There’s a real depth of analysis behind their work,” he says. “A lot of people can make a pretty map, but their ability to visualize regional data has a level of sophistication that is rare. People are always wowed by their graphics, and the integrity of their process is impressive.”
Callewaert says people are also impressed by the architects’ ability to collaborate with community. “They invest time into individual meetings and to showing their partners the different possibilities that exist, instead of coming in and saying: ‘Here it is! We’re done!’ ”
MAde Studio received a second Graham Sustainability Institute grant in 2012 to work with the Hope Village Initiative, a project supporting an area of Detroit suffering from violence, poverty, and a deteriorating housing stock. As part of the grant, Maigret and Arquero designed a playful open space on a vacant and fenced-off parking lot near the community’s library. Last fall, the firm tore down the fence and hosted Dream Up!, turning the lot into a temporary pumpkin patch and inviting residents to discuss making it into a permanent open space for the community.
Now under construction, the Hope Village open space considers both the ecology of the site and residents’ desires. The space makes visible the flow of rainwater through clever interactive water surfaces. There are “rooms” defined by trees and sunken gardens, as well as a jungle gym resembling an abstract sculpture.
With Hope Village, MAde Studio employed yet another lens through which community rebuilding might happen: play. “Detroit had a history of linking playgrounds to the way that neighborhoods developed,” Maigret says. “Today, in a city strapped for cash, Detroit is always looking to do more with less, and playgrounds are an excellent opportunity to look at issues of water, but also to explore solutions for public space. Playgrounds allow us to think about a material process and an optimistic approach to open space.”
In the firm’s projects, you can see the influence of pioneers like Aldo van Eyck, the Dutch architect who used playground design to help rebuild Amsterdam after World War II, and Isamu Noguchi, who designed sculptural playscapes. For MAde’s Playful Horizons project, which is now under construction for the First Congregational Church of Battle Creek in Michigan, Maigret and Arquero designed a massive jungle gym for a daycare center out of bright orange bars. Unlike a proscriptive environment with single-minded items (think of the ubiquity of flip-able, oversized Tic Tac Toe boards, for example), Playful Horizons hopes to engage the curiosity and creativity of children through more abstract structures. “We really wanted pared-down elements that allow for open-ended play,” Maigret says. “This is why we use the word ‘horizons.’ ”
Here, a maze of tall and short bright orange bars invites children to climb, to hang, to invent. The architects designed the variant sections of the jungle gym at different heights to accommodate toddlers as well as older children, and engineered the ground underneath to be soft enough for safe climbing. The whole structure is meant to look of-a-piece. “We wanted the different sections to feel uniform, so that the younger kids don’t feel relegated to the kid’s table, so to speak, when they climb on the lower-height bars,” Maigret says.
MAde Studio may champion new planning tools in thinking about Detroit’s future, but it certainly doesn’t ignore the city’s past. History and place play an important role in the firm’s design process. In the next five years, as the studio plans on moving into more projects outside of Michigan, the history and specificity of place—coupled with the rigors of research—will continue to inform its work. “Our practice engages in places where we can dig in deep and understand the history, the people, and why the physical expression of the place is what it is,” Maigret says. “History is a tool for helping people to understand that a place has always undergone change. It’s never static. It’s in yet another moment of transformation.”