Detroit and Paris: Demolition vs. Conservation


Jana Cephas, PHD '12, presents a slide of the implosion of Hudsons Department store in Downtown Detroit.

Mapping Ethnicity in Detroit. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people. Based on 2008 Census. Credit: Eric Fischer

With an unemployment rate of 33 percent as of 2010, and with 36.4 percent of its population living below the U.S. established poverty line, Detroit is the poorest large city in the U.S. “It’s comparable to a third world city,”says Instructor, Jana Cephas, in the “Case Studies in Critical Conservation course.” earlier this semester. Currently a PhD candidate in History and Theory of Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism at Harvard University, Cephas comes to Harvard from the University of Michigan and the University of Detroit Mercy and is now well on her way to completing her dissertation this year. Her studies are focused on the urbanization of Detroit in the early twentieth-century through examining the metaphors associated with working (class) bodies, modern buildings, and efficient machines.


In a talk entitled “Critical Preservation By Elimination: Commemorating Detroit One Demolition At a Time,” Cephas overviews the historic and current role of conservation in shaping the discourse around the considerations for urban redevelopment in Detroit. She introduces the projections that are being considered in the coming years to address the issues of low occupancy rates and the debate between conserving neighborhoods and their structures versus demolition; a debate that she notes is often divided by race lines.


J.L Hudsons prior to its demolition in 1998.

Cephas raised the example of the Woodward Avenue J.L. Hudson Store implosion in 1998. Hudsons was constructed as a piecemeal consolidation of independent structures between 1911 and 1946 and had become, disputably, the second largest department store in the U.S., behind Macy’s. By the time of its closing in 1983, Hudsons had been attributed to the closure of a number of small mom and pop businesses in the Downtown Detroit area and garnered a social memory of discrimination against blacks throughout its history.


Exclusively white hiring practices in the flagship location which catered, by and large, to middle class white patrons sets up a dynamic of exclusion that, by the time the Northland Center comes along in 1954 and starts hiring minority employees, has built a narrative of a city divided.



It is easy to see how the question of whether or not to preserve Hudsons would be a contentious issue given that 83 percent of the population in Detroit is African American. The memory of the undemocratic nature of the store might galvanize this majority population against the minority

conservationists that happen to be predominantly white.

Victor Gruen's Northland Mall for J.L. Hudsons

Cephas also makes reference to the Michigan Central Station; another defunct landmark building loaded with social memory that brings its conservation into question. Opened in 1913 and closed in 1984, a week after Hudsons first closed, it was notoriously known to African Americans entering the city through this station for its routine strip checks. Looking for scars for TB vaccinations, the procedures were preformed in the basement of the building.


Instances like these really make the case for why multiple perspectives of history become important in conservation. Professor Michael Hays, who is also an instructor in this course, is always making reference to this concept of “counter heritage” an emergent term in which Andrew Herscher, associate professor at the University of Michigan, posits is a “despised history…traces of non-modernity that are not valued, but condemned.” My interpretation of that is that counter heritage is the action against historical entities that are not representative of the current cultural heritage of a group.


The planning department of Detroit is making strides in defining this counter heritage with the production of certain strategies they are undertaking to cap the problems of unabated housing vacancy and tax collection. Cephas showed this really provocative image of plans to “black out” certain neighborhoods with high vacancy rates, effectively demolishing vacant buildings and removing entire pockets of the city from services and utilities like bus routes, electricity and water.

Mapping vacancy and planned neighborhood demolitions.


She also elucidates the importance that urban agriculture—the product of a largely informal industry in Detroit as of late—will have on the development of a new paradigm for urbanization. Two very radical and equally plausible schemes, it really shows the extent to which the prevalence of extreme poverty and a lack of means introduces new landscapes for urban innovation.


I am reminded of my studies last semester in the Paris Studio abroad with Anne Lacaton. Detroit and Paris are very similar in that they both have large geographic footprints in which suburban sprawl has led to the destabilizing of the urban core. Much like the center of Detroit, Paris suffers from an outward flight; an evacuation from the urban center to the suburbs that surround the city. In stark contrast, however, the Parisian problem stems from the expensive housing market and incapacity to accommodate large families at low costs due to strict preservation and zoning laws that limit the cities ability to grow internally. Subsequently, this has led to a population replacement in which Parisians secede the metropolitan region, giving way to the influx of short-term leisurely travelers. The Paris studio was charged with the task of addressing these issues of conserving existing buildings and the densification of the Porte de La Chapelle site.


Adaptive Reuse of the old Michigan Theater as parking lot.

In Detroit, demolition is one of the tools being utilized as a primary means of mitigating the vacancy issue whereas in Paris, a coupled conservation and densification are being employed. Interestingly, the most successful projects from the Paris studio came about through the adaptive reuse and reclamation of negligible structures and space. As Cephas notes, Detroit has its struggles on the front of reuse of existing structures, calling to mind the Michigan Theater; a 1926 theater that has been adaptively—and agressively—transformed into a parking lot. As a methodology for addressing some of the major issues that face Detroit today, the Paris studio exercise is really crucial in framing the important social role of architecture and planning. It also helps to prepare a generation of designers for tackling some of the design needs of an increasingly stagnant western developed world.


The products of the studio are currently on exhibition in the Loeb Design Library in Gund Hall through to the end of the semester.

Shall We Dare Disturb the Multiverse, Part I: Oh, Get a Room

Through no fault of its own, the MDesS concentration in Art, Design and the Public Domain remains among the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s best-kept secrets. Despite its merely two years of existence and modest size, the program has already built itself into a sort of genius loci for Gund Hall: nary a week passes without some ADPD machination taking—and frequently jogging—the pulse of the school.

It may thus come as a surprise that the program’s main dilemma passes through its not having a room in which to ground its operations. Though a provisional space has been granted to its members on 40 Kirkland Street, ADPD is mature enough to want to settle down. And for good reason! If history has taught us anything, its that the revolution starts at home (because the lab was conceived in the kitchen).

So it is was that, aided and abetted by the not-too-invisible hand of MetaLab, ADPD students Dan Borelli (‘12), Jutta Friedrichs (‘12), Lizzie MacWillie (‘12) and Sara Hendren (‘13) decided to spearhead a transitional space known as “The 40K Studio.”

If an artist must choose his constraints, then this quartet is doing as much by expanding their own. As of last week, they have been hosting a series of thematic “propositions,” propped to serve as trampolines for the hands-on engagement of projects that are stoked and interwoven; incorporated, rather than abandoned. Two editions of the event have already taken place, with the the first orbiting around food and this week’s dwelling on the imperial legacy of tea.

The 40K Curatorial Studio Space is separate and distinct from the programmed exhibition spaces at Gund Hall, fostering a practice that is both concurrent with and alternative to that of the mothership.

Eppur si muove!

Meetings are held every Monday at 12:00 sharp on 40 Kirkland Street, feral lunch included. And yes, there’s more: in a spirit of complete and reckless spontaneity, a google doc form and email account ( have been set up for submissions of all stripes.

Mónica Belevan (MDesS ‘13) is a Peruvian writer and a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s MDesS in the History and Philosophy of Design.

Harvard Students Play in the Mud to Promote Earth Construction

According to, half of the world’s population lives in mud structures. A major building material for 10,000 years, it has long been associated with low-income housing typologies in underdeveloped regions of the world.

It is only fitting, then, that last fall over 25 students partook in an all day charrette to design an installation that would exhibit the versatility of rammed earth construction. Together with the rest of the 2012 Loeb Fellows, Anna Heringer—a German architect that has been heavily invested in teaching and practicing earth construction in developing nations—embarked upon an exciting collaborative opportunity to engage students and to open minds about the use and reputation of earth as a viable building material.

The Mudworks installation has taken form at the prominent Cambrigde and Quincy Street corner of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Since the charrete—in which GSD faculty Mark Mulligan, Jane Hutton and several others were design critics—over 140 people have contributed in giving momentum to the life of this project, including a contractor, Garnett Construction, students from RISD, MIT, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Boston Architectural College as well as local architects.


What is Mudworks?

Referred as the “Goldilocks scheme,” on the Mudworks blog, the installation is a composition of three discreet elements: a tall nautical sailboat-like structure that straddles the east facing facade of the building, and two additional wall elements that seemingly emerge from the ground, contributing to a performance that gives fluidity to the ground plane through their perceptual continuity through the red-brick surface. The space afforded by the interaction between these three elements gives enclosure to this very exposed site and greatly reduces the traffic noise from Quincy street; an attestation of the innate material properties.


In total, approximately 45 tons of material and a weeks worth of man-labor went into the production of this installation. Student volunteers had the opportunity to assemble formwork, manually shovel, transport, and compact buckets of dirt, operate pneumatic earth ramming equipment and mud plaster. Speaking as a participant, it was perhaps the most physical exercise I have had at the GSD to date.


The Actors

Anna became involved in working with mud after spending time in India and participating in a workshop with Martin Rauch, an Austrian ceramic artist and founder of Lehm Ton Erde and UNESCO Honarary Professor of in the Chair of Earthen Architecture. Brought on as a consultant for the Mudworks project, Rauch has years of experience building with and teaching workshops on rammed earth and clay construction. His subsequent mud acumen, Heringer explains, allows him the ability to be very efficient with his use of material, using concrete and other carbon-intensive building materials only when needed.


At the Mudworks lecture on March 22 at the GSD about earth architecture, Rauch shared a number of his projects including his personally home, Haus Rauch. His mssion he says “I want to build a house like an African hut but with a European standard.” I asked Rauch about why he enjoy working with earth. Rauch joked that if you were to ask any of the students working on this project when the last time they played in earth was, they would respond “In kindergarten.” He elucidates that it is difficult to think in a sustainable context while sitting behind a computer and not interacting with your material medium. “You have to feel the weight of the mud in your hand. The experience is very important…You are the brick factory on site. You make the brick yourself.”


Why at the GSD?

When talking to Heringer about the motivations for bringing such a project to the GSD, she was very impassioned and expressive in conveying the failure of academia to address the importance of earth construction as a building material and the necessity for a discourse to arise about the means in which the material can be brought into the modern language of architecture through practice. “We always talk about sustainability last.” Heringer explains. “But we need to talk about how we can realize a sustainable future that is accessible to everyone? How not to exclude the world population. Mud is the most important building material [yet] it is hardly taught in university.”


I asked Curator for the Loeb Fellowship, James Stockard, about the selection of the Loeb Fellows this year and the aspirations for the project at the GSD. Stockard says, “One of the fundamental functions of a university is to test ideas and demonstrate alternatives to conventional ways of solving any particular problem. Mudworks is doing all of that.”


He goes on to say “I am very pleased that Dean Mostafavi has encouraged us to undertake this installation. It is giving students a chance to ‘get their hands dirty’ on a construction site and to see what it’s like to build something they have had a hand in designing.”


The Benefits of Playing in the Mud

Despite its lack in popularity amongst contemporary architect, rammed earth construction has shown that it has a number of benefits over other construction methods which include:

  • its affordability and availability as a renewable material
  • the democratizing low-level experience needed to get many people involved
  • its great insulating properties
  • malleability and versatility of form
  • easy end-of-economic-life disposal and
  • natural beauty.

Heringer also stressed the point that there is an authenticity or “layered material consciousness” that earthen projects imbue. She states “It’s simplicity makes it authentic…a uniqueness that I am missing in architecture not linked to place. I’m interested in an architecture that uses local potential.” Tied into this statement is the notion that there needs to be a renewed craftsmanship—something she feels is lost in contemporary architectural discourse. She explains that the trend in contemporary architecture has been to devalue human labor which lends itself to a decreasing prevalence of the craftsman.


Dasha Ortenberg and Caroline James, both MArch I, worked with Anna on research for the exhibition for Mudworks in the Gund Hall lobby. James brought up the point that rammed earth construction is nothing new. Frank Lloyd Wright had been working with rammed earth as a post World War II model for affordable housing. Ortenburg found the technical aspect of the construction really interesting saying “I thought it was really cool that you can build multiple stories with the ring beam technology.” Caroline adds, “Earth is a very important strategic material. It can do just as much as concrete.”


Team leader for the construction, Alexander Meyers, MArch I AP, gave a fervent declaration about the process of the project as a educational tool at the lecture. “This quick learning process engenders confidence in the students and quickly they become leaders and can pass that knowledge, experience and confident on to new people, I find that process really amazing.”


Rammed Earth vs Compressed Stabilized Earth Bricks

Working on the Anam New City Project last summer in Nigeria under the International Community Service Fellowship, I become aware of the Auroville Earth Institute and their compressed stabilized earth brick (CSEB). I was curious as to what Heringer and Rauch thoughts were about the use of cement or lime to stabilize soil, especially considering that the cement industry produces about 5% of global man-made CO2 emissions. They both waved off this idea, so to speak, claiming that once you introduce cement to the earth, it undermines the eco-sustainable potential of using earth as a building material, effectively losing the one to one capacity to recycle the material; a quality that rammed earth lends itself to. Herringer states, “I don’t believe adding cement is good. Cement binds bonding capacity [of earth] so you have to add more bond…It can’t go back to the ground.”


Though partially true, it is not always fact that the quality of local soil permits the rammed earth technique to be used. Such was the case in Anam, where the intense rain and seasonal flooding would destabilize structures, cause rapid wearing, and require excessive maintenance.



Friday, March 30, the Mudworks exhibition opening and reception will be held in the lobby of Gund Hall at Beer and Dogs. The event is free and open to the public. Additionally, later this semester, there will be several other Loeb Fellow led seminars and talks on transportation topics. You can find at more about these and other events on the GSD events calendar.


Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.