MAde Studio is not your ordinary architecture practice, if there even is such a thing. Founded by a Spain-born urbanist and a former biologist, the Michigan-based interdisciplinary studio has made waves recently by adding a layer of water to the way planners and politicians have been attempting to solve the crises of post-industrial Rust Belt cities like Detroit. Principals María Arquero de Alarcón and Jen Maigret met in 2009 at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, both arriving in time for the fall semester. MAde Studio was born less than twelve months later.
The studio’s calling card is the rich use of data to foster imagination about public space in communities plagued by blight and disinvestment, an ambition present in projects like Playful Horizons and Liquid Planning Detroit. When we asked Jen and María to help guide our Ideas Issue, they turned us onto Liz Ogbu, selected our Editor’s Picks, and gamely participated in a wild search for the “next big idea in urban design”. In our conversation, we discuss everything from memory to imagination to “checklist” sustainability.
PART 1 ‘FANCY DESIGN RESPONSES’
gb&d: You knew one another for less than a year before you began collaborating formally.
Jen Maigret: The first submission we did was a way to see how we were going to collaborate. We entered into the project, which was called Water + Sheds and was a larger look at regional watersheds in the Great Lakes and their potential to reread urbanism, and it went really well. So at that point, we knew it was a productive collaboration, and we started pursuing other opportunities more aggressively.
gb&d: I recently read an incredible essay about two women who take photographs together. They use an old-time camera and stand under the cover together, and take turns looking through the viewfinder. It’s a really interesting collaboration in what is typically a solitary role. What does collaboration look like for the two of you? Are you a yin and a yang? Or similar?
Maigret: I think we share a lot in terms of the things we get excited about and are working toward, which is a commitment to public space and to linking systems of environment and culture, and really advocating for design as an incredibly important tool within all these broader conversations. I think we approach problems differently, though. I think more commonly from the small scale out, and María is fantastic at looking at and analyzing really large systems through mapping and representation and kind of working her way in.
María Arquero de Alarcón: It’s fantastic to be able to work with Jen and learn to see through her eyes. Working together across scales keeps the conversation open and fluid. Jen can read systems relationships that are at times hidden for me. I also enjoy when I can contribute at smaller scales with projects that are more grounded in material aspirations and assemblies. [MAde Studio] is starting to materialize some of these interests and ways of working in built projects, and at the same time, we are bringing those interests to our teaching. It’s a fascinating moment for both of us.
gb&d: Your work is concerned with equitable communities and inclusiveness. Can you point to an experience in your lives that helped form that posture and understanding?
Arquero de Alarcón: Practicing as an architect in Spain, I was collaborating in the design of different “social housing” projects—which here, to make anyone understand, has to be labeled as “public” or “affordable” housing. I like to keep the term “social housing” because, at least in my mind, it implies much more than just housing for lower incomes. It’s about creating a nurturing environment that brings people together. Design excellence in urban social housing is key because it is a very important part of the civic infrastructure that reaches groups in society who routinely get excluded when we talk about fancy design responses.
Maigret: I studied biology before I got into architecture. I was in a Ph.D. program and it was clearly not a good fit, and I ended up working in restoration ecology for a little while. That’s where these interests started because it was clear that isolated or individual pieces of projects were not adding up to make larger connections. Part of the challenge of restoration is building empathy, or building inclusion in terms of appreciation and love for these sorts of things, and that’s really the power of public spaces.
PART 2 THE ROLE OF MEMORY
gb&d: You talk about this idea of “urban stewardship” in our feature. Thinking about that idea—and just the word “stewardship”—makes me think of Wendell Berry and people who are very connected to place and who have thought a lot about it. It seems very different from some of the respected real estate development practices today, including adaptive reuse and the restoration of existing infrastructure, which definitely are to be applauded, but at the same time can be very opportunistic and fleeting. How is urban stewardship different?
Maigret: I think you can design places that build an appreciation for place and build bridges with people who are maybe like Wendell Berry, who have been in a place long enough to have powerful memory and to have that memory shape their experience of what it has been and what it might become.
The work of Anne [Whiston] Spirn was influential for us early on, when she was working on the Mill Creek project. By showing local children historic photos and taking them out to those places in the landscape, the children were able to see their hometown in a whole new light. [They saw] that it wasn’t always the way it is now, which means that it could change in the future. Which is also tied to our experiences in the Midwest. A lot of what we’re doing is responding to cities and their legacies of different kinds of memory. There’s a lot of negative legacy tied to industrialization and what we’re left with now. So in some cases, memory allows us to bring back things that have been historically really important and celebrated, and in other cases, it allows us to see past what the contemporary moment is.
Arquero de Alarcón: We’ve also been looking at all the work that is happening in Latin America, where there is always a scarcity of resources, but still there is great imagination. Looking at the work that is happening in cities like Medellín or Bogotá, we discover many good examples of how designers operate in the city grounds as spaces for opportunity and inclusion. In addition, much of the work happening in parts of Germany is inventive at dealing with similar dynamics to what we have here in the region, and how to do a lot with very little.
PART 3 A LAYER OF WATER
gb&d: You’ve worked a lot in Detroit, which continues to get a lot of attention, but your approach to the city is rather unique. Can you explain Liquid Planning Detroit for us?
Maigret: The namesake was picking up on a seminar that we had already started teaching called Liquid Planning, so we saw this as a way of playing those ideas out. And “liquid planning” is literally just that: what if we look at boundaries and the way that we understand divisions or connections in the landscape differently, through the lens of water, not through property or other kinds of political inscriptions that are more common? [This was] a way to reposition some of the conversation at the time and how, if we add a layer of water, we could add some knowledge in terms of how it would make sense to reconsolidate or reorganize—both to help the larger infrastructural system, as well as a way to look at densification.
Then, on the other side, thinking about water as a chance to restructure the conduit system: all the railways that were already being discussed as possible greenways but really without any discussion of environmental systems. What if water comes in, and not only gets handled by these systems, but in the handling, you can layer in public spaces to reconnect everything back together again? Those were the Dequindre Cut sites that we were working on.
gb&d: Which is a great public space. The few times I’ve been to Detroit, it seems heavily used with bikers and pedestrians—well, “heavily” is a relative term.
Arquero de Alarcón: But what you could not see was how stormwater is managed. Because it went into a pipe underground. So we see [Dequindre Cut] as a great public space but also as something that hasn’t been designed to its full capacity.
gb&d: We’re talking on Election Day, so it seems like a good opportunity to ask: is architecture inherently political?
Arquero de Alarcón: Oh, yeah. (Laughs)
Maigret: It is, and it happens in a lot of different ways. Every community meeting that we’ve ever gone to has been political in terms of the discussion of desires and different opinions on how to express those desires even if you reach a consensus about what the desires are. When we did the Eastside Recreation Center, with PLY Architecture, we literally staged a series of community events that ramped up to a vote to gauge which of the two alternate ideas that we had developed were gaining traction.
Arquero de Alarcón: We are also teaching the next generation of professionals who are going to be out there transforming the built environment. We need to engage in the conversation about how decisions get made and how we contribute to what our cities are going to be in years to come. How we craft discourse in the school embraces those conversations: We’re in charge of training the students to have a series of competencies, but at the same time, we bring different ideologies, so yes, architecture is political, and that makes conversation and education a really productive and fascinating endeavor.
PART 4 THE IMAGINATION-DATA PROBLEM
gb&d: The Taubman College is very well regarded for its architecture program, specifically its graduate program, which is consistently ranked one of the top 10 in the country, and it’s sat at number one for several years. How has having your own practice influenced your teaching?
Arquero de Alarcón: We’ve been really fortunate to have the opportunity to develop courses that are specifically built on our research. We are not only teaching architecture; I also teach in the urban planning and urban design programs so the opportunity to be grounded in between programs and have an audience composed of students in those different programs has been fantastic. Liquid Planning, for instance, has been offered for the past three years, and for the first time this year, we are bringing a different city to the equation because we’re [starting] to work in Cleveland.
Maigret: Certainly, some of what MAde is up to influences anything that I do as a teacher because I’m actively thinking about practice and teaching at the same time. I’m currently teaching an introductory construction course so certainly it’s helpful to be able to bring in site photographs of the footings we just put in last week to talk about the reality of how these things play out one way or the other.
Conversely, when we’re in design studio or other courses that aren’t directly linked, that’s an incredibly productive situation in reverse, in the sense that it also allows us to be thinking about, and learning about, and working on ideas that aren’t directly embedded in our research. And that allows you to come back with somewhat fresh eyes and new ideas. The symbiosis between the two is incredible.
gb&d: One of you wrote in our questionnaire that the topic of your TED Talk, if you were asked to give one, would be “Why imagination is more important than big data.” Which is interesting because the two of you rely on data so much and have been recognized for the critical eye you bring to it. How have you communicated the necessities of both to your students?
Arquero de Alarcón: It’s an everyday conversation, and I would say it’s one of the most important ones. In a way, we are asking the students to do research, to have a thorough understanding of the problem they are trying respond to. And then we are asking them to have enough latitude to be able to respond in ways in which, no matter what it is you are doing in response, you will go beyond problem solving. You need to be able to add something to the equation. That’s what design does.
I have a review in an hour and a half, and the students have been asked to build narratives and design projects out of all the research that they did, so you caught me right in that moment of the semester when we are going through that transition.
Maigret: It has a lot to do with learning how to design questions. The imagination-data interplay—it’s an important part of what we do. It’s a big struggle. There’s definitely a tendency right now to give a heavy priority to things that are somehow validated through data. And while data is certainly important, in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily bring good questions. Data is not inherently infallible. The challenge is finding ways to bring value to things that are not exclusively quantitative.
PART 5 ‘MADE IN DETROIT’
gb&d: What’s your take on sustainability as an industry?
Maigret: I would say it’s a mixed bag. There are some aspects of it that are really positive. In relationship to the current debate surrounding the term, I agree with many of the critiques, but I also don’t think we need to find a single word that somehow encompasses the breadth and complexity of the issues it signifies. I think it’s okay that it doesn’t summarize absolutely everything. I think the bigger challenge is how to put it into practice, and that’s where the discourse and the debate is interesting because, like with many things, it’s really difficult to write good policy or to encourage things that tend toward more synthetic practice as opposed to—and this is the big critique—“checklist practice,” where if you order the right finishes, somehow that is equivalent or as significant as if you deal with broader siting issues or even simple things like orientation.
So there’s a lot of different values that we could give to different approaches and attitudes about it, and anything that moves us toward a more synthetic and broad-based understanding of the potential of these practices is really positive. And, it’s also quite encouraging that there are more and more people talking about the cultural and everyday-experience layer of all this, and issues of affordability so that it’s not just relegated to the corporate realm but integrated into the everyday fabric of how we build our cities.
gb&d: If you had to boil MAde Studio down to a single idea, what would that be?
Maigret: I come back to why we formed the name the way that we did. Our names are embedded within it, but that’s the least important part of the naming. We were trying to be playful with three things, and I guess somehow these three things add up to the idea of our practice. One is the “made” or the “making” or the importance of experimenting and building things and learning from the physical realm. The second is the studio aspect, which was a very intentional choice of words—not to say MAde Architecture but MAde Studio so that it was about broader, interdisciplinary questions.
And the third part comes back to the question you asked earlier about urban stewardship and place. We’d been trying to be playful about this idea of “Made in Detroit” or “Made in Cleveland” or coming from, or tied to, or emanating from a really careful and local—maybe not knowledge, but knowledge through studying and conversation and really careful looking.
Those are the three components of what makes us who we are. I don’t quite know how to boil that down into a single sentence.