March 14: This is Not the Renaissance You Were Looking For
2016/03/14 § Leave a comment
During this month in 1977 Phase One of John Portman’s Renaissance Center in Detroit opened.
The Renaissance Center is a humongous development of seven conjoined skyscrapers financed by Ford to the tune of $500 million. At the center stands a 188-foot diameter round tower of 73 floors surrounded by four 39-story buildings all on a shared base; two more towers (21 floors each) opened four years later. Together they total of over 5.5 million square feet, which sounds like a lot. If you add it up and realize that’s the same square footage as the Burj Khalifa and a couple of Louvres, you realize, that is a crazy lot of space.
The project was conceived as one of those cities-in-a-city schemes that were especially popular in the sixties and seventies, a wacky solution to the problem of cities made scary by unemployment, poverty, riots, racial tension. Wacky in that these hermetically sealed panaceas allowed gobs of people to gather in an ostensibily urban setting without ever setting foot into the actual city. (This quality is only enhanced in Detroit by the RenCen’s connection to the elevated Detroit People Mover, which opened in 1987 and operates at the absurdly high expense of five times the cost of busses and for the benefit of conventioneers and tourists, but not many of them, since it was designed to serve more than seven times as many passengers as it actually attracts. But we digress.) It’s perhaps only slightly less off-putting and insulated than his equally famous Hyatt in Atlanta–a glassy fortress so foreboding that if those plucky survivors of the zombiepocalypse in Walking Dead had taken cover there, they’d be living large, at least until the frozen chicken cordon bleu ran out.
The Renaissance Center’s architect, John Portman (b. 1924), is a miracle of the profession, genetically predisposed to design and build money-making machines. He is the Midas of the Mega-Development with a sixth sense for where business is headed; not only do his buildings rise like great glassy goiters over many of the world’s great cities, he was one of the first guys to open shop in places like Shanghai, back in the late 1980s. Portman’s natural business acumen (Heaven knows they don’t teach you how to do that in architecture school) and willingness to try his hand at real estate development (disdained by the design profession) prompted his invention of the twentieth-century developer-architect. As one of the most successful ones, Poobah Portman is also notable as the Sovereign of the Soaring Atrium, Emperor of the Glass Elevator. As trite and overdone as this kind of interior is, you’ve got to hand it to Portman, he of the unexamined everyman theory of architecture: “A glass elevator lets people’s spirits expand. Architecture should be a symphony,” he proclaimed in one interview. How you get from an Aramis-drenched atrium full of ferns and lucite tables to a symphony is a mystery, but someone is eating these things up, keeping these hotels in business, and making Portman one happy rich dude.
image: the Renaissance Center nearing the end of construction (from this source)