Architecture that makes a difference

The Clay Office and Conference Center

In 1981, Sharon McWhorter acquired the former Clay School building, located at 453 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd in Detroit, and converted it into the Clay Office and Conference.  Designed by J. B. Tarleton, it is the oldest school building in the city of Detroit, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Michigan State Historic Site.  The building maintains much of the character of its 1888 construction, and has served at various times as an elementary school, a center for boys with discipline problems, as headquarters for vocational study, and as administrative offices for the Practical Nursing Center.   As a longtime resident and believer in the city, it is Ms. McWhorter’s desire for the building and site to become a beacon for the area; a place resonating warmth, energy and a sense of community and belonging.  Student Roan Isaku was one of a group of students who generated development proposals intended to realize Sharon’s dream.

Roan and his colleagues met with Ms. McWhorter and a group of local activists including Jim Ross, Paul Betts, and Monica Manes, to develop a program for the Clay Building project.  After a number of iterations, it was determined that the program would feature three major components: gathering, greenhouse, and energy / support.   In Roan’s proposal, three platforms would satisfy the needs of the program, with each of these platforms based upon the approximate size of a mobile home (12′ x 50′).

Site perspective

Roan quickly realized that he needed to balance the needs of site security, circulation, and parking, with Sharon’s desire for an environment which was inviting and promoted community interaction.  “The program was laid out along the site’s perimeter”, he states, “thus also becoming a security fence, allowing for sufficient parking, and not crowding the historic Clay School building.”  This L-shaped configuration also allowed for the most effective use of space on the site, as well as the best visibility between components.  To further address the need for security without the oppressive aesthetic often associated with security fence, Roan proposed that disassembled shipping pallets be painted and mounted to the fence.  These members would continue to wrap around the structures, spreading the language throughout the site boundary.

Parking garden

Railroad ties are proposed instead of traditional pavement.  Their permeability drastically reduces or eliminates the Clay Site’s burden on the Detroit sewer system.  Various native plants like wintercreepers, daisies, and alvar would be allowed to grow between the railroad ties; and would be encouraged to grow in the middle of each parking space (the area that is covered by the car).  Parked cars block light to the plant and slow its growth.  One could tell the most popular spaces from the least by observing the size of the plants.

Throughout the process, Roan attempted to make use of available reclaimed materials for the proposed construction of the project.  He state: “ The material list was composed of mobile home platforms (to be purchased), and typical residential building materials (found in Paul Betts’ warehouses) like wood studs, shingles, glass, batt insulation, etc… .  The paving of the entire site was to be done with railroad ties, of which Paul Betts had an endless amount.  The construction process was very simple, so that the future users of this development could also participate in erecting it.”

Greenhouse interior

“The fact that this project might have a significant positive effect on its surrounding community is what was most important to me”, says Roan.  “Also important was the dedication and enthusiasm of Sharon and all others involved.  The studio experience was second to none.  Besides being eye opening, it further validated the students’ skills by forcing them to connect with real life clients in their community.  The results were some unbelievably creative and unique projects that actually solved problems.”  While Roan has graduated from the studio, the activist ethos is something he continues to carry with him.  “I have recently approached the Balkan American Community Center and have become involved in a substantial renovation and addition project.  It is also community oriented, and will gather and unite nearby residents”.

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