Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Christian Unverzagt, Assoc. AIA: Adapting Detroit for the Creative-Class Economy
By Angie Schmitt
Christian Unverzagt, Assoc. AIA, likes to design tangible things: books (more than 40), furniture, buildings, and interiors. He calls his firm M1/DTW a design studio rather than an architecture firm. In that sense, he’s right at home in Detroit, with its storied history of manufacturing—tinkering, innovating, inventing. What M1/DTW has been doing, project by project, has been adding sort of a 21st-century spin to industrial spaces and processes, rebranding and revitalizing them for a new audience of creative professionals.
It was a big moment for the Motor City last summer when Richard Florida swooped in for an Atlantic Cities video series titled “Detroit Rising.” Unverzagt was one of the series’ featured innovators, a beacon of promise helping reshape the public image of this humbled city by drawing on its iconic history of industrial design. It was just two years ago that Florida was taking heat for allegedly implying in his book The Great Reset that trying to save cities like Detroit was a lost cause. Apparently Unverzagt is one of the things turning Florida’s head. The relationship between these two men—one of the world’s leading urban theorists and an exciting new designer in a troubled city—goes beyond interviewer and interviewee, however. Unverzagt’s M1/DTW performed the most recent renovation on the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Business, where Florida and his collaborators ponder the preferences of the “creative class” and the shifting geographic and demographic sands of the American economy.
Florida isn’t even Unverzagt’s biggest star client. That distinction belongs to the most iconic Detroit musician since the Motown era: Eminem. One of M1/DTW’s first projects was redesigning a recording studio on the banks of the Detroit River for this renowned Detroiter.
Perhaps already you’ve noticed a theme winding through the work of M1/DTW. Unverzagt, who also teaches at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, has developed a specialty in “creative class” infrastructure. M1/DTW recently turned an old warehouse into a print and letterpress studio. The space– called Signal-Return -- allows artists and designers to use traditional printing practices to produce products for retail clients. It’s an adaptive-reuse concept that would be right at home in the hipster elite enclaves of Vancouver, Brooklyn, or Los Angeles. “Moving here and doing the work here, anything I wanted to get made I could get made,” says Unverzagt. “L.A. didn’t need me in the way that Detroit needed me."
Designing mostly for entrepreneurs—especially creative ones—as well as arts and educational institutions, M1/DTW and its young founder are redefining Detroit’s spaces for a new type of economy, one where contemporary style sensibilities are met with a respect and reverence for the city’s venerated culture of design and craft.
LESSON ONE: Let Your Work Define You
“I’ve had a bit of a nontraditional career path. I’ve never really worked for anyone. I started doing lots of sort of small collaborations with friends, colleagues, or professors. It set me up for sort of a project-based practice.
Before grad school [at SCI-Arc] and during grad school, I started designing books on architects. Those became projects that allowed me to study other people’s work. Anywhere I had a computer, I could design a book. I could be in San Francisco while I was on summer break. I was a bit of a vagabond freelance designer, doing all kinds of different projects with different people.
When I was living in L.A., I figured I’d left Michigan for good. It was an interesting time in that things were really, really good [economically]. I finished in ’99; the [architecture] firms were really, really busy. They wouldn’t even look at your portfolio [before hiring you]; they just needed bodies.
I started my firm a year after finishing grad school as a little design-build practice, and it’s really kind of grown organically. For me, the distinction between school and working independently and working on projects has always been a little blurry. Because of how things were going, I thought maybe I could continue working independently. I still had a studio space. I kept showing up and I had independent work. Then I was offered a teaching position at Michigan and I thought, ‘Let’s take this for a year.’
We didn’t start a practice to start a practice; we started working together because we had work. [Former M1/DTW partner Chris Benfield] was actually a printmaker that did welding. He was an artist. We thought we were kind of in different camps. He approached me because he said he was tired of designing objects for other people’s space. We had a series of projects that were all word of mouth. We went from [designing] a table, to a recording studio, to a hair salon, to a house in, like, five moves.
For us, our work was our calling card. We put a lot of effort into that first project and it set a tone.”
LESSON 2: Adding Another Layer to History
Detroit Adaptive Reuse
“Given [Detroit’s] building stock, almost all of our work is adaptive reuse. It’s kind of rejuvenating working within a former space.
We’re never working within a kind of blank slate or empty canvas. There [are] all these analogies about the Wild West and blank canvases. To me, there are just tremendous opportunities [with adaptive reuse]: the industriousness of manufacturers, the knowledge base of fabricators, the general spirit of the place, mixed with low overhead and a lower cost of living. [Detroit’s] ripe with 100 years of building stock. And I think the quality of buildings in the urban core speak to the potential of adaptive reuse.
We’re always just adding another layer. There’s something that came before us and something that came after. Sometimes we’re playing with the legibility of those layers, trying to tell a story. Sometimes we’re trying to be more forceful. Sometimes we’re trying to be almost invisible. It’s never a blank slate. In some other cities that are more densely populated, where capitalism is more or less working as one would hope, there’s more of a market to respond in that way.
[M1/DTW is] a ‘recession practice,’ essentially doing all of our work during a period of general economic decline and yet working for clients who are looking to double down on their own ideas and business. Jane Jacobs put it quite simply that "new ideas must use old buildings.” Fortunately Detroit has plenty of both, and we've worked hard to find a way to do something new without always erasing what's there.
Sometimes we get lucky, like with the patina on the brick walls at the Signal-Return studio, where we didn't touch the walls at all. Ten years prior to this, we worked on another project in a similar space (which coincidentally has a similar nickname—Signal/To/Noise), which was a large reception area in a former loading dock where we had to scrub the walls to reveal the patina. But for the most part, that project was about adding another layer to the history of the place. Even with more comprehensive renovations, like the Mills Pharmacy + Apothecary, we're always constricted by unique existing conditions, even if they are seemingly buried beyond view. It may be an opaque layer in this case, but we really work to make it work. Or, perhaps to put it another way, it really makes us work so that it can do the work.
The thing I like most is designing something I’ve never designed. And then the thing I like next [most] is designing something I’ve designed before, because you get to try again. To me, that’s just design. How can you be curious? How can you study something and act on it?
LESSON 3: Never Stop Learning
Teaching at the University of Michigan Taubman College
“Participating in that discourse at the university level keeps me engaged and spirited, thinking about things that maybe I can’t take up in my own practice. It’s also a way to work at another scale and think out things, and then roll them into our own work.
I’m not quite an academic, I’m not quite a practitioner—I’m caught somewhere in between those two. They definitely complement each other and keep me honest.