Two of the most remarkable sources of architectural imagination in Detroit are Augustus B. Woodward’s plan, drafted in response to the 1805 fire that destroyed virtually the entire city, and the Michigan Theatre, now repurposed as a parking garage in a sublime testament to the postwar economic and architectural decline of the city. The Woodward Plan, which was only partially realized, proposed a baroque-style system of streets radiating from a series of circular parks centered in hexagonal blocks, with rectangular plazas forming the vertices. The Michigan Theatre, a 4,000-seat Italianate concert hall, designed in 1926 by Cornelius and George Rapp inside their Michigan Building, was to have been replaced with a garage in the 1970s, but the theater could not be demolished because it was structurally integrated with, and thus inseparable from the office block. Parking decks were then brutally installed inside the ornate auditorium and the lobbies, creating one of the most extreme expressions of crisis in American architecture. These projects, emblematic of the city’s rise and fall, are both syntheses of conflicting systems of urban and architectural organization: the Woodward Plan, which is simultaneously centralized and nonhierarchically repetitive, and the Michigan Theatre, a processional, theatrical space overridden by a grid.

Sited between the US Postal Service Sorting Facility and the Detroit River, Revolving Detroit represents a unique convergence of concepts inherent to these two precedents. The idea is to introduce a great passage to the water through a helically ascending courtyard in the middle of a garage structure that will transform, over time, into a building of great importance to the city; it is the very inverse of decline.

Coincidental to, and thereby inhabiting the center of, one of the Woodward Plan circles, the postal building cuts off the city from the river. Revolving Detroit proposes to revive and reinvent this unrealized and occupied circle of Woodward’s plan by displacing it toward the river. Trumbull Avenue is extended directly through the postal building and continues on through an opening in an undulating roof surface that defines the new circle. This new passage serves as a monumental portal to the river and, implicitly, as a symbolic gateway to the border between the United States and Canada.

In essence, the proposed structure is a void, the absence of a building. But unlike the thousands of unintended absences elsewhere in the city, this void is a purposeful consequence, filled with eventful spiraling ramps that geometrically transform from orthogonal to hexagonal to elliptical and back again. The Trumbull Avenue promenade leads to a landing below the undulating roof and proceeds to bypass a courtyard via a pair of ramps, culminating at a lower landing that coincides with the top surface of the roof.

The roof is composed of convergent and nonconvergent segments of hyperboloids of revolution. These hyperboloids extend to nearly catenary curves, producing a series of thin-shell structural arches. The generators of each hyperboloid coincide with the neighboring hyperboloids, constituting a piecewise method for generating absolute surface continuity. By their mathematical nature, hyperboloids twist until they turn back on themselves. In this instance, each hyperboloid turns up to a reasonable height according to structural and programmatic criteria, and at that point is attached to an adjacent downward turning hyperboloid.

The geometric and architectural systems are at once autonomous and codependent. The ramp landings coincide with significant points in the rise and fall of the roof surface: while the northern side of the hyperboloidal roof ascends just enough to surmount the existing plinth of the postal facility, the southern side tilts down and thus permits the ramps to pass through and over the roof in order to reach the water. Columns conform at once to the parking layout and to the straight lines that generate the hyperboloids. The 10-story building that rises out of the roof surface defines both the beginning and the end of the loop. The entire surface appears as a coherent geometrical figure being manipulated and torqued by its context, and thus represents a new relationship between what are usually autonomous urban and architectural figures.

Revolving Detroit welcomes back the automobile and invites visitors to the redeveloping city waterfront. The process that infamously transformed an iconic theater into a parking garage – a poetic manifestation of Detroit’s relationship with the automotive industry – is reversed. As the city rejuvenates, the parking decks installed in the upper hyperboloidal spaces of Revolving Detroit will be redeveloped as a series of performance spaces, cinemas, educational facilities, athletic spaces, and community centers. In direct conceptual and formal contrast to their up-river counterpoints (the private and introverted cylinders that form the Renaissance Center), the geometry of this project acts as an instrument for producing connections between otherwise disassociated public spaces. In this way, the “hyperboloids of revolution” will effectively participate in turning Detroit around.

Location: US Post Office, Detroit, Michigan

Client: U.S. Department of State; Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (Curators: Cynthia Davidson, Monica Ponce de Leon)

Schedule: Design 2016; Venice Biennale American Pavilion May 2016-October 2016

Program: Garage, theater, educational facilities, athletic spaces, and community center

Team: Preston Scott Cohen, Carl Dworkin (design); Carl Dworkin, Mark Eichler (model); David Pilz, Michael Piscitello (model assistants)