Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The entrepreneur is almost single-handedly reviving downtown Detroit, but his design choices are under fire.
Downtown Detroit, despite all the talk of renaissance, is still a hard sell for the less adventurous. So as uber-developer/entrepreneur Dan Gilbert seeks out new tenants for his ambitious projects, an aggressive re-branding is to be expected.
But what's resulted so far is a design aesthetic that some Detroit-based architecture critics say crosses the line from contemporary quirkiness to trying way, way too hard. But perhaps subtleties shouldn't be expected from a man who is famously unafraid to write in comic sans or all caps.
Gilbert-owned Quicken Loans recently moved into downtown's Chase Tower and renamed it The Qube. It's an unquestioned real estate coup for downtown, but its new look is raising Midwestern eyebrows:
Curbed Detroit's architecture critic, Kelly Ellsworth, has already compared the interior design motif employed in the Qube, done by Gilbert's wife, Jennifer, to the "look at me" style of Nicki Minaj. She writes of a recent visit to the building:
Dumpsters full of dark wood paneling were torn out of the former banking offices and they were replaced with, well, how do you describe this? Hi-tech blech? It's a visual cacophony that I suppose is supposed to inspire, but I can't imagine it does anything but distract.
Originally named the Chase Tower, Quicken Loans' new space was built in 1959, arguably at the peak of restrained, high-end corporate modernism. It was designed by Albert Kahn Associates, a firm that posthumously continued the architectural vision of adopted native son Kahn. Kahn was known for his serious and rational buildings. The new interior of The Qube, it seems safe to say, rejects that approach.
At first glance, The Qube's look resembles dot-com-era interiors that went out of their way to demonstrate a total lack of seriousness. You can also draw comparisons to the psychedelic and modernist-rebelling design that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s. But whereas that movement was rooted in counter-culturalism, the Qube's is rooted in manufactured hipness.
A Quicken promotional video (below) solidifies the company's attempts at over-the-top marketing, prominently featuring the space's inexplicable Pac-Man theme. Workers are more likely to be showcased if they have a tattoo above their breast, are sporting pink shirts or speak on their headset in a way that resembles a freestyle.
Another recently completed Gilbert-led downtown project (and also designed by his wife), The M@dison, serves as an entrepreneurial tech hub. This space (as seen in the video below) is slightly more post-industrial chic. But the quirky interior design quickly veers into overkill with a seemingly countless collection of different styles, clearly unable to make up its mind on what statement it wants to make. Its equal dispersion of progressive and vintage-influenced design pieces leave the impression that it wants to be everything to everyone.
And then there's the name. Using the '@' symbol in lieu of an 'a' is a trend that can't die soon enough. Further displaying his tastes in branding, Gilbert hopes that as The M@dison takes off and creates more tech-related economic activity around it, Woodward Avenue will instead be referred to as "WEBward" Avenue.
Dan Gilbert's investments in downtown Detroit are enthusiastically welcomed by locals. But his marketing and design choices are starting to make some onlookers a little squeamish.