The Michigan in 1925ish The old foyer
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You can certainly find some profoundly wierd urban experiences in Downtown Detroit. Here is perhaps the wierdest - surrounded by a sea of vacant lots a beautiful historic theatre survives ...... as a car park.
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This single building, more than any other, encapsulates the tale of Detroit during the 20th century. The tale begins, naturally enough, with Henry Ford, who opened his first workshop on this site in 1892. This single storey workshop was the birthplace of the Ford Motor company. Thirty-four years later Ford had all but conquered the world, and Detroit was riding high on the back of this success. The bourgeoning downtown theatre district was catering for the growing population's desire for escape.

In 1926 the Michigan Theatre opened on the site and at seven storeys and 4,000 seats was the biggest in the city. It was built as an addition to the thirteen storey office tower already on the site, and offered an extraordinarily luxurious environment for its movie-going audience. However, after twenty years of sucessful service, audiences had dropped significantly due to the arrival of the television in people's living rooms and the massive migration to the suburbs. Eventually, in 1967, the grand Michigan Theatre closed and was slated for demolition.

Various attempts were made to salvage the theatre; it had brief reincarnations as a porn cinema, a supper club and a rock concert hall, but none of these could be sustained. Yet another victim of the now desperate rush to the suburbs, the theatre was finally abandoned in 1975. By the late seventies there was clearly very little demand for entertainment facilities downtown, but there was still some demand for parking space. Consequently, in 1977, a proposal was made to demolish the building to provide parking space. However this plan was frustrated by the discovery that the adjoining tower was structurally interdependant with the theatre, and the proposal had to be reworked. The consulting engineer then recommended that the shell of the building be retained to provide a secure indoor parking garage. This seems to have been a highly logical solution. The main entry was easily wide enough for the entry and exit of vehicles, whilst the grand staircase was adapted to fit in the curving parking ramp. A simple three-level steel and concrete parking structure was inserted into the 45m by 65m auditorium to provide the required 160 spaces.

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"I lingered outside the old hulk of the theatre for a few moments, wondering where the pedestrian entrance was. All I could see was a big blank wall of dirty yellow brick with two steel roller shutters at one corner. I entered the foyer of the adjoing office building and passed through its faded sepia enclosure to a small door leading to a short, dark passage. At the other end of the corridor I could see the entry barriers of the cark park. Nothing so extraordinary here, I thought. Until I looked up. Above me was the four storey height of the old theatre's grand entrance, it's ornate and highly textured ceiling still clinging there precariously after five decades of decay. I moved on, slowly, quietly, beginning to realise that here was something special. Dusty light from the punctured openings on the far wall broke the darkness of the lower level, which contained perhaps a dozen vehicles. I started up the curving ramp to the concrete parking decks supported on a rough steel frame. Then, on the third level, a huge cavernous space unfolded as I came to the top of the ramp. The shell of the curved ceiling rose high above, it's carcass exposed at the edges at the point of dissection. It seemed to hang there, precariously, threatening to descend in a cloud of dust, on the cars below.

It is easy to wistful in a place like this. Here, a few metres below my feet a little over a century ago, a man tinkered over a motorised horse cart. The experiment spawned an industrial empire attracting hundreds of thousands of workers from across the world to MotorCity, Detroit. To cater for these workers, a grand movie palace was erected on the old workshop to provide relief from the monotony of the production line. In turn these workers grew rich, found they could afford the cars they were building, and took the opportunity offered by their new mobility to move along the new highways to a fresh new life in the suburbs. Thus they now had no desire to drive all the way downtown for their entertainment - there were plenty of movie theatres by the freeway with ample parking for all. Besides, they had televisions now. So the grand old movie theatre, on the site where it all began, slowly fell into disuse. It's ornate plasterwork began to crumble, it's painstaking paintwork flaking. What could be done? Well the answer is obvious if you understand the attitude on which Detroit is built - simply move on to the next economic imperitive. Parking, naturally.

It struck me that this wouldn't happen in Europe. There would be a preservationist outcry, a community effort, perhaps a council subsidy. But here, in the wildwest of capitalism, nostalgia has no place. The capital has served it purpose. Next please. Here, in built form, is unfettered economic logic. And the space created by it is more visceral, more astounding, more nerve tinglingly unique, than many a carefully conceited play of space and light by the hand of an architect."
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8 Mile movie poster On returning from Detroit I heard a rumour that the Michigan is to experience yet another twist of fate. A movie called '8 mile' directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) has recently been filmed in Detroit. The people of Detroit know 8 Mile as the city limit - a physical and psychological dividing line that separates the decaying downtown from the prosperous suburbs. The drama features the hip hop culture of the city in 1995 and is a semi-autobiographical account of Detroit's most famous son, and lead actor in the movie, Eminem. There is a scene in the movie which shows a rave taking place against the backdrop of an otherworldly disused theatre which seems to have been converted into a car park....

So, the Michigan has it's final fling with Hollywood, as a menacing backdrop in a movie about urban decay. If you go and see the movie, look out for it.

(8 Mile is released in the US on 8 November 2002)

Images, from top left: 1. Michigan Theatre in the 1930s 2. Entrance foyer 3. The theatres transformation 4. Upper floor view 5. Historic plaque - the only sign of any concession to nostalgia.

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