The variety of buildings in Detroit is awe-inspiring: majestic Art Deco skyscrapers, ornate Gothic structures and serene modern buildings

Which of the city’s buildings inspire people who design these spaces, the architects? We spoke with four architects in Detroit to learn more about their favorite buildings and why they feel the way they do. 

Prominent buildings like the Guardian Building, Fisher Building or Fox Theatre were missing from everyone’s list. (Though several gave nods of appreciation.)

The architects we spoke to instead chose their favorite buildings, from a brand new child care center to a long-abandoned restaurant, based on personal connection. 

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

This feature has been updated with the correct title for Dan Pitera, who is the dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and Community Development.

Long gray building with repeating arches leading to a tall rectangular steeple at a corner. There are no windows, and the grass is unmowed.
Stanley Hong’s Mannia Café is one of the only Googie-style buildings in Detroit. Photo credit: John D’Angelo

Elise DeChard, owner of END Studio:

Stanley Hong’s Mannia Café

Favorite building: Stanley Hong’s Mannia Café, designed by Nathan Johnson

Personal connection: DeChard’s studio is the lead architect on the building’s redevelopment

“I’m an architect who really values playfulness in design and creating designs that are inspiring. This is a piece of architecture that tries to do that and I appreciate it immensely.”

What makes it a special design?

Elise DeChard: Detroit has so many massive Art Deco buildings. The café is really modest. But also really elegant and exuberant at the same time. It’s a Googie-style building, a kind of space age architecture that’s very popular in Los Angeles. But I believe it’s the only building in Detroit in that style, which makes it incredibly unique.

What is your favorite feature?

The structure of the building is really simple: It’s a single arch repeated over and over. But it culminates at the corner in a tall tower, much like a church steeple, for the whole neighborhood to see. 

I love the story behind it. Stanley Hong, who owned restaurants in Detroit, decided to rebuild here after urban renewal took his previous restaurant. He wanted to make his restaurant part of the cultural landscape and hired Nathan Johnson, who was this amazing, trailblazing Black architect who was all about authenticity. Not adding ornament for its own sake, but adding it for function. 

That tower is designed to call attention to the restaurant and to bring people there.

How has it influenced you as an architect?

There’s a real space age optimism to it. The flier that has the original sketch on it feels like it’s from “The Jetsons.” I’m an architect who really values playfulness in design and creating designs that are inspiring. This is a piece of architecture that really tries to do that. 

Long two-story black building with repeating rectangular windows. Several tall trees and a row of bushes with green leaves are in the foreground.
There are 186 town houses designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Lafayette Park. Photo credit: John D’Angelo

David Iannuzzi, principal, Iannuzzi Studio:

Lafayette Park townhomes

Favorite building: Lafayette Park townhomes, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Personal connection: Iannuzzi lived in one of these townhomes for seven years

“You’ve got these modern buildings sitting within what almost feels like a dense forest. It’s just a special place and community.”

What makes it a special design?

David Iannuzzi: I definitely can appreciate all the different styles and time periods of buildings of the city, but there was really something special and unique about those buildings. Where else can you find buildings designed by Mies for what was under $100,000 at the time? To have learned about Mies for all of my architectural education and then find out that these buildings were just sitting down on the road. 

But it’s not just the buildings. It’s such a desirable place to live because the integration of the architecture, the landscape and the planning is done so well. We fell in love with the place because it’s great to live there day-to-day. The lack of car traffic. The fact that all your neighbors are right outside your door. You’ve got these modern buildings sitting within what almost feels like a dense forest. It’s just a special place and community.

What is your favorite feature?

One of the genius concepts is the floor plan. The homes have an odd number of rooms so there’s going to be asymmetry. To solve this, Mies designed the upstairs floor like a Z shape so they lock together. But the ground level is just a simple rectangle. When I first walked the building with a Realtor, I didn’t pick up on it because it looks symmetrical from the outside. 

How has it influenced you as an architect?

I was getting an education every single day I lived there. I was constantly learning something new or recognizing some smart design feature that I still apply today. 

Hexagonal brick building with an extended entryway. A geometrical steeple and cross rise out of the center of the building.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at East Warren Avenue and St. Antoine Street was also designed by Nathan Johnson. Photo credit: John D’Angelo

Karen A.D. Burton, partner, A/E Collaborative; co-founder, Noir Design Parti:

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Favorite building: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Nathan Johnson

Personal connection: Burton researched Johnson and other Black architects as part of her work at Noir Design Parti

“I visited that church quite a bit in my younger years, and I never realized that it was designed by a Black architect. I just knew it was different from other churches.”

What makes it a special design?

Karen A.D. Burton: There’s a lot going on with the design — it’s working on multiple levels. It’s both midcentury and Afrofuturist. The shape resembles an African hut, but it’s also very modern and contemporary. 

The sanctuary has many features that nod towards more traditional, neoclassical churches, each with their own distinct character. The windows appear to be stained glass but aren’t. The pipe organ isn’t traditional either. 

What is your favorite feature?

I love the modern, semi-circular sanctuary. It has a space-age feel to it. 

How has it influenced you as an architect?

I don’t know that it’s influenced my architecture, but I definitely have a deep appreciation for it. I think it has helped me look at architecture differently. I visited that church quite a bit in my younger years, and I never realized that it was designed by a Black architect. I just knew it was different from other churches. 

It probably also had an impact in launching Noir Design Parti. That’s a project where Saundra Little, another architect, and I document and highlight the work of Black architects in Detroit. 

Nathan Johnson was the last living member of that trailblazing generation. We had the opportunity to interview him before he died. (Johnson died in 2021 at the age of 96.) He’s designed buildings in every district in the city, has had a huge impact here, but was very humble. He talked about Bethel church quite a bit. He had a particular love for designing churches — he said it was his way of honoring God.

Long building with narrow red, black, brown, white and yellow panels in a semi-random pattern. The entrance is all-glass. Gray and white clouds are in front of a blue sky above the building.
The Marygrove Early Education Center was completed in September 2021. Photo credit: John D’Angelo

Dan Pitera, dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and Community Development:

Marygrove Early Education Center

Favorite building: Marygrove Early Education Center, Marlon Blackwell Architects

Personal connection: Pitera is part of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, which was an engagement consultant on the education center

“The building brings dignity to kids. Child care centers should be places where kids can be kids and shouldn’t ask them to be an adult too soon.”

What makes it a special design?

Dan Pitera: A great building is one that has a clear and symbiotic relationship with humans. And this one certainly does. It heightens everyone’s experience, whether it’s students, parents or teachers. 

There has to be a lot of security in any early education center anywhere in the United States to make sure a child doesn’t just walk out of the building. The Marygrove center does a great job being both very open and very secure, and it’s done that in a way that you don’t even notice.

The building brings dignity to kids. Childcare centers should be places where kids can be kids and shouldn’t ask them to be an adult too soon. A lot of schools feel like institutional, oppressive buildings. Others have a nondescript identity because they’re a storefront in a strip mall. But kids come to the Marygrove center and see something colorful and inviting to play with. 

What is your favorite feature?

Everything about the building is highly intentional. It’s obviously a modern building but the color palette and even the materials match the Gothic, 100-year-old terra cotta buildings on campus. 

The section of colored panels faces the campus. The side facing the community is dark glass and dark panels. And there’s a grove of trees between the building and the houses across the street, so you almost don’t even see the building from the street. Instead you see a playground that’s more prominent than the building itself. I thought it was a brilliant move.

How has it influenced you as an architect?

There was an extensive civic engagement process for the transformation of Marygrove’s campus across many things, not just the early childhood center. 

Architects generally have two kinds of civic engagement: one they do to validate what they’ve already thought and another to be inspiration. These architects didn’t come with a series of ideas. When they would present back to the community, they could literally show how the ideas they heard relate specifically to the building that was designed.

That was an authentic process. The community loved it. And it was really validating to the great work that architects can do. 

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.