Below is the first in a series of photo-essays culled from Tom's recent trip to the motor city. This one documents Detroit's shiniest offices, John Portman's 5.5 million square foot Renaissance Center on the downtown waterfront (completed, 1977). The "RenCen" is, of course, the headquarters of General Motors, which became the largest industrial corporation ever to file for bankruptcy last Monday. Once the home-base of Ford, The RenCen has now witnessed two of the "Big Three" move in and move out. GM committed $500 million to its renovation after acquiring it in 1996. What does the future hold for this relic, and its surrounding context?
GM's bankruptcy last week came as no surprise: the American auto industry has been criticized for years on the basis of its resistance to innovation and change, as well as its autocratic, vertically integrated corporate culture. Nothing, perhaps, serves as a better metaphor for this posture than its corporate headquarters, Detroit's Renaissance Center. The RenCen is just so completely other, so intent on establishing a quantum leap from its surrounding context. Of course, it hardly differs in this regard from the gigantism/brutalism that characterized many of its contemporaries: The original World Trade Center, Boston City Hall, LA's bunker hill, every other John Portman building ever constructed. Indeed, the RenCen differs little from every other suburban office park constructed from the 1970's onward, with the significant exception that it was forced--as the result of its downtown siting--to physically separate its milieu from the city.
No, the RenCen is not unique, nor is it even the most notable "Portman." The Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta is its architectural twin (sans the 6 flanking office towers) and LA's downtown Westin Bonaventure has enjoyed far greater infamy, thanks to theorists like Frederic Jameson and the business of filmmaking. GM committed half a billion dollars to renovate (humanize) the RenCen formerly impenetrable podium by adding a giant SOM-designed wintergarden on the waterfront, and a glassy street-level lobby vestibule on Jefferson Blvd., among other improvements. Like GM's late-in-the-game attempts to decentralize production and establish lifestyle brands, the RenCen make-over is lipstick on the pig. The elevated "people mover" stop points up this folly: as the city's only rail transit line, the mile-long loop functions primarily to shuttle tourists and auto-commuting white-collar workers between offices, car parks and casinos. (the people mover will be the subject of a future Detroit photo-essay)
Will the GM RenCen suffer the fate of so many other pieces of Detroit's crumbling downtown heritage? It may be inhumane, but it is part of Detroit's history, after all. We have a retroactive proposal: instead of tacking on expensive but ultimately superficial architectural features, couldn't GM have simply gouged out covered, public routes between the city and the river, in place of the ground-level concrete walls? It might not have saved GM, but the RenCen would be a lot more interesting ...