Reflecting on Detroit’s “City within a City”

Last Updated by Zosette Guir on

Reflecting on Detroit’s “City within a City”
By: Zosette Guir, Detroit Public TV's One Detroit

In late December 2017, Atlanta-based John C. Portman, Jr., the architect behind the Renaissance Center, passed away at the age of 93. Portman was once dubbed ‘a one-man urban renewal program’, by trade magazine Architectural Record.

According to the Guardian, Henry Ford II sought out Portman based on his work on Atlanta’s Peachtree Center, “a high-rise district of offices, hotels, convention spaces and shopping galleries all connected by skybridges.” Ford hoped Portman would bring that same multipurpose design to the Detroit riverfront, helping bring about the city’s rebirth.

The Renaissance Center (usually referred to the RenCen in Detroit), was completed in 1977. At 73 stories high, it was the first Detroit skyscraper more than 40 floors high built in the half century following the Great Depression. Since the RenCen went up, only One Detroit Center, built downtown in 1993, has more than 40 floors.  Although both will be topped as last month marked the groundbreaking on what will be the tallest skyscraper in Detroit, occupying the site of the old Hudson’s department store building. When it’s finished, it will be 800 feet tall, 70 feet more than the Renaissance Center. The new structure will be a mixed use facility like the RenCen.

As Detroit’s skyline welcomes the new addition, it seems natural to reflect on the RenCen, which for better or worse, has become synonymous with Detroit since its completion in 1977. The project was announced in 1971, and was touted by local leaders, including Henry Ford II, as a way to stop Detroit’s downward spiral. Soon after Coleman Young became mayor in 1974, he enthusiastically joined the project. Upon the completion of the first building in 1975, Mayor Young called the RenCen “…a catalyst. It symbolizes a dramatic flight of imagination and a quality of serious recommitments to Detroit.” The RenCen, he hoped, would be the anchor that centralized commercial activity downtown.

Renaissance Center (c. 1976)
Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society

Dave-Warner-cropped.pngDave Warner The year the RenCen opened, David Warner (an ad man at that time, now a Detroit area author) was struck by inspiration for an Oldsmobile Cutlass spot after he saw a camera crew filming a Ford dealer commercial in the RenCen’s basement. To Warner, using the basement as a filming location seemed like a missed opportunity. He saw potential in using another part.

“[The] Cutlass was the largest selling car in Detroit at the time,” Warner said.  “I thought, ‘This was the tallest building in Detroit. It's brand new, and they're filming a commercial in the basement. Why don't they put the car right up on the roof?’ And that's what we did.” For the spot, a helicopter lifted the car all the way to the top of the central Detroit Marriott tower. Warner remembers the Cutlass campaign as being one of the most successful the Detroit Area Oldsmobile Dealer Association ever had.

Courtesy of: David Warner

Tiffany-Brown-cropped-2.jpgTiffany Brown “As a kid, it just felt futuristic,” remembered Detroit architectural designer and Urban Arts Collective co-founder Tiffany Brown. "It felt a little like the Jetsons with all those paths of movement from one tower to the next and the elevators and the escalators.” However, its massive scale made her feel minute as she went through the building. “The connection to human scale inside these towers is lost.”

At a time when the suburbs saw the city as increasingly inessential for commercial activity, then Mayor Coleman Young hoped that it would be a catalyst for pedestrian traffic downtown. However, the early 80s saw a lack of customers for the designer stores that had secured space inside its walls. From an urban planning design perspective, critics felt the RenCen didn’t accomplish a central tenet of good design—relating to what was around it.

stephen vogel.jpgStephen Vogel “Commuters from the suburbs could easily travel in by freeway, park their cars under the building and step on an elevator up to their offices, ”Stephen Vogel, a professor with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture said. “They could eat lunch in the building, shop in the building and never have to engage the city or create a pedestrian street life--by design the building was not part of the city.”

“Buildings were turning inwards towards atria or other central spaces in a response to the violence in cities such as the 1967 ‘Riots’ in Detroit,” Vogel said.

The coming decades would bring about change to the building’s ownership--it served as Ford headquarters at the onset, but GM bought it in 1996—as well as exterior and interior renovations. Perhaps one of the most notable changes from the outside was the removal of the concrete berms that seemed to isolate it from its surroundings.  “Removing the berms and creating a new glass entry helps orientate the building to the downtown, but crossing Jefferson is still an obstacle,” said Vogel. “Maybe MDOT's possible plan to turn I-375 (back into a city street) will help significantly with joining the river front and the RenCen with the rest of the city.”

“Some people love it, some people hate it,” said Brown. “I remember one of my architect friends said that they [the towers] reminded him of a bunch of oil cans.” Brown said maybe the oil cans stand for the Motor City. “It represents us,” Brown said, “but I don't think he meant that as a compliment.”

Despite the critics, the RenCen’s place as a Detroit icon isn’t going away any time soon. “It is a fortress-like building, but it’s still a staple of Downtown Detroit.”

Had the old Hudson’s site been available around that time, Vogel suggested that would have been a better, more central location.

Nearly 40 years after the RenCen’s completion, the development that will occupy the Hudson site will consist of two structures, a 58-story skyscraper containing hundreds of residential units and a 12 story building with a market and space for exhibitions.  

“I have only seen renderings of the buildings,” said Vogel, “but unlike the RenCen, these new proposals seem more part of the street and pedestrian network of the city and are part of it, not an isolated piece.  They are seemingly very different from the RenCen, which is a good thing!”

Using the RenCen as a case study, Brown notes that amidst all of the residential and commercial development Downtown—both now and in the future—it’s the user that needs to be given consideration. “It goes back to understanding what people need in the building they're going to build.”

Vogel said, “The lessons learned from this building for architects is a series of what not to do--don't ignore the context of the city or build an "object" building that is a monument in itself. Embrace the city and embrace the river!”

When it comes to architects building place-defining structures in the future, Brown also cites the importance of tapping into home-grown talent. “There are a lot of Detroit-bred architects who live here, who still work here,” Brown said. “With all the new construction happening in the city, these are the people who have made our city's culture so attractive to the world.”

Brown adds,“It all goes back to the human experience, the people who use it, the people who made Detroit what it is.”

Related Content: WDET | Detroit’s Skyline Will Soon Change—Is That A Good Thing?

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