New jail city

The new jail is brilliant, architecturally full of wit, a complete – and fortunate – failure. And not, strictly speaking, a jail.

"It’s a great time in Detroit," as the city’s comeback slogan advises. And this is where "it" – the great time – starts to roll, at least for a lot of commuters who will be arriving here, at the Lafayette exit from I-375, where the jail is located, to attend one of the events that invite our once-upon-a-time citizenry back to their erstwhile metropolis. When it comes to comebacks, the jail is where "it" is at.

Start with the facts. The jail is, technically speaking, the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Center, intended to house about 130 inmates, aged 13-17. The new facilities are described as "state of the art," including residences, classrooms, electronic systems, gymnasiums, library. The whole package was built at a cost of $46 million. Admittedly, most of us won’t be going inside. But still, it’s good to know that we’re keeping up with the state of the art of locking people – very young people – up.

It’s an American thing – detention. In comparison with other democracies, we’re the world leaders when it comes to putting one another behind bars. Soon, the total number of incarcerated Americans will reach 2 million, almost double what it was only 10 years ago. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI, a U. S. citizen born this year has a 1 in 20 chance of doing time. For an African-American, the chance is 1 in 4. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? The longest bull stock market in American history, plummeting welfare rolls, an urban comeback that seems genuinely at hand. And all those people in jail. What – if anything – could these disparate facts have to do with each other?

The question, in terms of architecture, is this. How does our new jail help us deal with such contradictions? As a kind of building, jails are a virtual sleight-of-hand undertaking: sober volumes for containing huge quantities of space that become all but invisible – culturally – like the populations they house. When’s the last time anyone thought about jails as civic architecture? For that matter, who even knows what they look like inside – except for inmates, of course? They’re the place that has to be here, that taxpayers clamor for ever more of, that politicians get elected for building, that we spare no amount of expense in fitting out, but that nobody wants to see, or see into.

By that reckoning, our new jail is a complete flop. And brilliantly so. Consider the structure from its three relevant points of view. From a car, exiting I-375 at 30 or 40 miles per hour, the jail is barely a flash of funny-colored brick. But that’s all it takes, particularly along this stretch of roadway, not noted for its architectural enlightenment. What was that? Did you see a sign? The jail turns institutional invisibility back into a question.

On foot, the failure is even more profound. Not least because the jail is such a handsome building. The brickwork is an unexpectedly rich, dark color, and variegated in visually striking ways. The proportions are well-managed. But it is the building’s irregularities that are its best – most failed – feature. There are odd openings, unfunctional-seeming elements – anachronistic towers, alleyways, open galleries, setbacks – that don’t normally have a role in the poured-concrete vernacular of big-box, institutional architecture. The design makes you want to see into this culturally forbidden zone.

What kind of place is this? That’s the inappropriate question the jail is raising – inappropriate, at least, for a group of people (us) whose "great time" is founded on the invisibility of certain questions, mostly having to do with the warehouse function of cities, and the things and people that are supposed to disappear here.

But it’s from the air that the jail’s failure becomes most beautifully obvious. The roof is punctuated with four gleaming glass pyramids that serve as skylights. In the daytime, they’re attractive, but at night their glow is spectacular, literally. They turn into spectacle the better-forgotten-about fact of locking people up. They’ll make a brilliant conversation piece for guests at the Ren Cen, who’ll want to know what that remarkable building is down there. As a target for brainless, "eye-in-the-sky" TV reports, this is a photo-op to die for.

Makes you wonder how the architects (BEI Associates, Detroit) got away with it, rendering visible and curious and inviting – beautiful even – this institution for unremembering. A total failure, if you ask me – one might even say downright criminally brilliant.

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