How Neumann/Smith Architecture is Redesigning Detroit, One Building at a Time

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With 90+ categories and 300+ jurors, the Architizer A+Awards is the world’s definitive architectural awards program. We are pleased to showcase some of the 100+ winners. In partnership with Cadillac, this series of profiles offers an exclusive look at several firms that push the boundaries of the profession and truly dare greatly.

If you ever needed evidence that the best architectural solutions for a city can be provided by local firms, you needn’t look much further than Detroit, where Neumann/Smith Architects boasts nearly half a century of experience working throughout Michigan’s Motor City.

The Southfield-based firm scooped the 2015 A+Award, Popular Choice, for the Parking Structures category with the Z, a multistory garage that challenges the conventions associated with this traditionally utilitarian building typology. The parking lot was designed to accompany 33,000 square feet of new retail space aimed at revitalizing the area.

The main aim for the architects was to lift the project out of the ordinary confines of its genre and produce something bolder and more dynamic than is typically expected from such a functional structure. “The client challenged us to think outside of the box.

They wanted something that was unique, that was bold,” explains Neumann/Smith’s Design Director Scott Bonney. “You think about a parking garage; it’s normally a relatively mundane piece of architecture. They wanted it to be something spectacular.”

In order to achieve the spectacular, Neumann/Smith first looked at how they could introduce a modern aesthetic to the building while respecting the materiality and massing of the existing context. Faceted precast concrete panels mediate the visual scale of the exterior, while murals by local artists transformed the interior from a pragmatic one-liner into a veritable treasure trove of urban culture and civic pride for Detroit. The addition of these bespoke elements brought a unique identity to a typically unremarkable structure, proving that great public architecture need not be confined to the realms of museums, galleries, concert halls, and theaters.

This approach runs to the heart of what Neumann/Smith Architecture stands for, typified by the firm’s mission statement: “We look beyond the ordinary to create extraordinary architecture.” This desire to push boundaries in design is illustrated by the Detroit Institute of Music Education, a major renovation completed last year that forms another exemplar in urban regeneration for the city. An eclectic material palette was utilized to provide a stylish yet relaxed environment for students, showcasing Neumann Smith’s penchant for an “urban chic” aesthetic that fuses modern design with Detroit’s industrial backstory.

This strategy was also adopted for the slick remodeling of Grand Circus Detroit, a design training institute within the historic Broderick Tower at the heart of the city’s evolving downtown district. Timber cladding, textured render, and a diverse range of contemporary furnishings (including Thomas Heatherwick’s Spun Chair in the reception area) create a cool yet comfortable interior, typical of Neumann/Smith’s desire to merge functionality with aesthetic panache.

It is this combination of practicality and contemporary style that culminated in an A+Award for the firm’s preeminent parking garage: The Z marks another milestone on Detroit’s road to economic recovery. The structure also encapsulates the longstanding philosophy of Neumann/Smith Architects, which constantly seeks to explore new ideas in modern design and wider urban regeneration.

“I think it’s easy to fall back on your skills, [things] that you’ve done before,” explains Bonney. “We don’t like to do that — we want to bring a fresh approach to every project and push the envelope whenever we can.”

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