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Building The Future: Metro Detroit's Young Architects

Vacant property, closed businesses, and overgrown lots may spell trouble or hopelessness in some minds, but architects like Nicole Eisenmann envision opportunity and potential. Fellow Detroit-area architects, Cory Lavigne and Slobodan "Bob" Varga, share her view.
The trio, three of the region's young, thriving architects, see a landscape of possibilities in Metro Detroit and Michigan even as architecture and the building industry in general ride out an economic slump that's hit the residential and commercial sectors locally and nationally.
"Leaving wasn't an option for me," says Eisenmann, 28, an Ann Arbor resident and architectural designer for NORR, an architectural, engineering, and planning firm in Detroit. She graduated from the University of Michigan in May 2009 with a master's degree in urban planning and architecture.

"I feel like this is an exciting place to be right now because there is so much change that can happen. It's time to rebuild and reinvigorate," she says.
Lavigne also feels the excitement. But he realizes there just aren't enough projects to go round. "It is difficult to get a job, but there are bright spots out there. There are firms that are busy and hiring," says Lavigne, a 38-year-old design director for inFORM Studio in Northville. The office, which he calls "a great place to work", has seven employees bent on harnessing creativity and "pushing the envelope."

Lavigne, who worked on the architecturally intriguing Mexicantown pedestrian bridge that was unveiled on May 5 in Detroit, makes a 25-minute commute from Windsor, Ontario each day to work on projects that are "eclectic, not banal."

His firm also built the award-winning Traverwood Public Library in Ann Arbor, incorporating diseased but beautiful ash trees from the library property into the new building, including its walls and floors. The project was the subject of the PBS documentary Up from Ashes.

Varga, 39, "hardly young," he jokes, lives in Farmington Hills and is design leader at SmithGroup in Detroit, one of Michigan's larger firms. He relishes his job, he says, specifically the teams of talented, generous people he works with. He, like Lavigne and Eisenmann, pride themselves on working on ecologically-minded projects. Varga is proud of having headed up the state's first platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) project when SmithGroup built the headquarters of Christman Company in Lansing.

"We love it here," Varga says. "This is a great community." His family's favorite getaway is a three-hour drive to southwest Michigan, where they spend the day on Lake Michigan beaches and beach towns. It gives his New Jersey-born wife the feeling of going back to her native Jersey Shore - but without the drive. It's things like this that keep a successful architect like Varga in Michigan.

"It's tough not only for graduates but for colleagues, and it's not just Detroit. It's everywhere. Times are tough," Varga says. "But this is a good place to be."

He and Lavigne, both named 2010 Young Architects of the Year by the American Institute of Architects, teach and volunteer for programs that help talented, up-and-coming architects make it, even when making it isn't as easy as it used to be.

"Architecture is a pretty tight knit community," says Varga, who serves as a judge at school and professional juried competitions. "If we see good people, we try to find a place for them, to hang on to them. We have internships, for one thing."
Eisenmann, 28, is just starting out. She lives in Ann Arbor and landed her job with NORR eight months ago. NORR is based in Toronto, while its 50-employee US headquarters is based in Detroit.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in architecture from U-M, she volunteered with AmeriCorps in Detroit and decided she would use her skills and newfound passion to do something meaningful in the city. Her firm has a project called Generation G - stands for Green. Recently she and her colleagues worked with Cass Tech High School architecture students on plans to remake nearby Cass Park.

"I think there are a lot of opportunities for young architects in Detroit and the metro area," says Eisenmann, whose firm's projects include retail centers and disability accessibility projects.

Though Eisenmann, Lavigne, and Varga come from firms small, medium, and large and work on different kinds of projects, they all regard Metro Detroit not only as a place worth staying but as a place where architects and developers could be party to historic change that could transform the region - and people's lives.

Like blank boards awaiting their pen strokes, they see the parts of Metro Detroit as tabula rasa awaiting their imprints. And with three stellar universities turning out topnotch architects - Lawrence Tech in Southfield, University of Detroit Mercy and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor - there is plenty of talent for the region to tap.
"It was important to me to stay here and make some sort of impact," Eisenmann says. "I was willing to tough it out." Besides, she adds, what might seem a tough environment can also be an invigorating one.
"It's pretty exciting, all the talk about the right-sizing plans for Detroit, urban agriculture, light rail along Woodward [Avenue]", she says. "These things get me so excited and I felt if I had moved someplace like Chicago or San Francisco, those cities have already made it."
It's not just wishful thinking that has them seeing opportunity. Big things could be coming architects' way in the near future as several massive projects begin or continue.
"Locally there are signs. There are pockets of potential," Lavigne says.
There is the City of Detroit and its soon-to-be released master plan that could call for radical changes to neighborhoods, business areas, and infrastructure citywide. City leaders are currently looking for a way to make better use of an overbundance of land and a dearth of residents and businesses.
The Detroit Public Schools also have building plans, and the U.S. Government Services Administration is awarding project grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
In addition, Detroit and its surrounding cities are prime for architectural rehabilitation work as well as historic preservation and restoration jobs, the trio points out.
Some might call it the optimism of youth but all three architects are quick to mention where they see growing opportunities. "It seems things are starting to move with Ford and GM, and we're expecting more there," Varga says.

There is the University of Michigan's $250-million plan to establish the North Campus Research Center at the site of the former Pfizer headquarters.
And don't forget the on-again, off-again plan to run a commuter train between Ann Arbor and Detroit - a personal and professional dream of Eisenmann's.

Even the film industry gets mentioned as a destination for architects whose skills can translate to set design.

Eisenmann feels "fortunate to have a job. I know people who went to Chicago for jobs and they're looking for work now." She tells upcoming grads not to despair.
"If you want positive things to happen you have to have a positive attitude," Eisenmann says. "What could happen here is going to take a lot of people and that could be a great thing for all those people."
Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send your comments here.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


United Way for Southeastern Michigan Headquarters - Detroit

Bob Varga, from the Smith Group, incorporated the natural state of Detroit's First National Building into the redesign and renovation.

Cory Lavigne, from the inForm Studio, at the Mexicantown pedestrian Bridge - Southwest Detroit

Bob Varga stands in what he calls the "front room" of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan Headquarters - Detroit

Nicole Eisenmann, from the NORR Group

Staircase at United Way for Southeastern Michigan Headquarters - Detroit- courtesy photo
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