The Renaissance Center is one of the most bizarre architectural creations of the 20th Century.  It was built in the late 70s to symbolize hope for Detroit’s rebirth, following the 1967 riot/rebellion and the subsequent disinvestment and flight from the city.  GM purchased it and made it their headquarters in 1996.  Walking through it tonight, totally quiet except for a handful of restaurant-goers and security guards, as GM stands on the brink of collapse, it felt like a symbol for all the stupidity and emptiness of capitalism, but also some of the thrill and magic.

I remember running around there as a kid, and wanting to ride up and down the glass elevators, looking out at the city.  Later as a teenager, trying to sneak into the rotating restaurant on the top, and stay long enough to make one full rotation before getting kicked out.

Upon entering the building you feel transported into a late 70s vision of the future. Tubular concrete structures form a “rosette” of buildings that seem designed specifically to disorient the visitor.  There is no main ground floor.  Level 1 at one side of the building will be level 3 at another side.  To get to the place we needed to be tonight we had to take 3 separate elevators and 2 escalators.  The businesses housed in it are chains, overpriced novelty shops, offices that seem like front operations and a rotating restaurant on the top that no longer rotates.  As difficult as it may be to reach your destination inside the Ren Cen, nothing compares to the task of finding your way out.  Somehow, when trying to retrace ones steps, nothing is as you remember it.  Doors and passageways seem to have shifted, signs point in different directions.  It’s similar to the panic of being trapped in a bad dream.

But despite everything, the Ren Cen has its charm.  Like the People Mover.  If you think of it as a ride or a game, and not a form of public transportation, it changes from depressing to endearing.  If you think of the Ren Cen as a maze, with magical tubular rides that can shoot you up to the highest vantage point in the state of Michigan, giving you a completely new lens through which to view your city, then plunge you back down into a haunted house of tunnels and showcars, from which you have to escape, then it’s awesome.  Plus you can re-enact Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video on the backlit glass pathways and pretend you are in a Doctor Seuss book, where trees grow from concrete platforms suspended in air.


Still, walking through there today, I couldn’t help but imagine a day, in the not-so-distant future when kids cut holes in barbed wire fences to go explore this abandoned place, with it’s blown-out windows that let you look straight through it.  There’s something both hopeful and heartbreaking about that.  How many more abandoned structures can this city hold?

As we work towards a different kind of economy for Detroit’s future, with different ideas of wealth and progress and power,  I wonder what symbols will capture our imaginations, what kinds of playscapes they will offer kids in future centuries, and whether they will have to die and become abandoned before we understand what they mean.


6 Responses to “Renaissance”

  1. 1 nosnowhere December 17, 2008 at 6:53 am

    great post. i used to work in the marriot in the rencen (so i’ve seen it’s creepy underbelly!) but i still can’t find my way around it.

    the architecht who made the rencen considers it his biggest professional failure, and he doesn’t list it on his website. i know because i did a report on the rencen in an art history class, but i can’t remember his name.

  2. 2 Dominic December 18, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Good post. The Ren Cen is indeed weird. I feel that if they would’ve spread the complex out it would’ve been much better. It’s sister tower, the Westin Peachtree in Atlanta, definitely gets more recognition.

    I remember going there when I was younger for a couple of Karate tourneys and our instructor would always rent out rooms for us in the hotel and in our free time we would head down and explore and just get lost.

    Nonetheless it has become Detroit’s icon.

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