↑ top

Telling a Neighborhood’s Story

Through her design studio, Akoaki, Assistant Professor Anya Sirota is restoring a sense of place to Detroit’s North End

By Eric Gallippo

ANYA SIROTA HAS SPENT the last several years using architecture and design as a tool for urban renewal and cultural preservation in Detroit.

From sustainable urban farms to Funkadelic-inspired motherships and nomadic arts councils to glittering “party palaces,” Sirota; her partner, Jean Louis Farges; and their design studio, Akoaki; have worked to restore a narrative of place and historical continuity in the city’s historic North End.

The once-thriving entertainment district was frequented by musical giants like Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, George Clinton, and John Coltrane. But there are few markers pointing to any of that today. For Sirota, who recalls how Jewish cemeteries were paved over in her native Ukraine, it was heartbreaking to see this important part of African-American history vanishing when she moved to the area 10 years ago.

“How do you tell a story if you remove all of the markers associated with that story?” asks Sirota, an associate professor of architecture. But she and Farges (a French-born designer who jokes, “We preserve every piece of stone in Europe”) haven’t tried to turn the neighborhood into a museum. Rather, they try to reintroduce the right signifiers to keep that history alive and help spark a new story told from the voice of the people who live there.

Akoaki’s work — for which Sirota was awarded a 2018 Architectural League Prize — addresses the wreckage left behind by systemic racism, poor planning, and aggressive blight remediation in an area where resources are scarce. For example, finding a meeting space with a good roof, running water, and heat is a challenge in itself. But Sirota says design always is front and center.

“We care about the way things look,” she says. “Perhaps it’s connected to something my grandfather always advised: ‘If you only have one pair of pants, be sure the crease you iron into them is really precise.’ I think that has something to do with our philosophy of design: How to take whatever assets or resources are at your disposal and maximize their impact — visually, spatially, socially, and environmentally — and think critically about all the consequences of your design actions.”

Informed by their own backgrounds, the couple set out to apply the European idea of culture as a catalyst for change and economic development in a post-industrial world, but with one major difference — in the United States, public funding for this kind of work isn’t easy to come by. “We’ve looked for ways to design without the typical capital influx that permits architecture,” Sirota says. “So we’ve unintentionally addressed the perennial criticism of architecture, namely, its contingency on power and capital.”

To that end, many of Akoaki’s structures have focused on inexpensive, temporary, portable installations that combine design with cultural programming, often tapping into Detroit’s rich musical and artistic history, with a flair for spectacle and celebration. Since the North End is where famed funk musician George Clinton assumed his Dr. Funkenstein persona in the 1970s, Akoaki designed a traveling “mothership” that houses a DJ, sound system, and light show and can “land” anywhere in the neighborhood, converting unused buildings or open lots into a pop-up nightclub.

Built with aluminum and steel, the structure quotes from Detroit’s auto manufacturing history. Its pieces were designed to be assembled with hand tools (like IKEA furniture) and fit into the back of a pickup truck, allowing easy access for anyone who wants to participate. For the inaugural “landing,” original members of Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic band performed for a crowd of 700.

For a stage set for the Detroit Afrikan Funkestra, Akoaki worked with the Detroit Sound Conservancy to reference the original performance spaces and decor of historic neighborhood nightclubs, including the Blue Bird Inn and Phelps Lounge, to incorporate the spirit of those venues into a modern, portable backdrop that offers something more than a faithful recreation could. “The project taps into a hauntological sensibility, where for the audience there’s a fuzzy, dislocated sentiment that these are the appropriate colors, that there’s enough glitter, that it’s the right shape,” Sirota says. “Then we insert the construct into unlikely situations, and suddenly we have a hybrid citational mashup of stages activating an otherwise innocuous open space, and somehow it all seems natural. In this scenario, the musicians occupy center stage, suggesting that carefully calibrated programming is what gives these artifacts meaning.”

Through efforts like its O.N.E. Mile project to revitalize a single mile of Oakland Avenue, as well its partnership with the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm (OAUF), Akoaki also has helped build a network of local residents, artists, musicians, and activists — not to mention business and legal experts, nonprofits, and donors — who have become integral to the work and shared in its successes. For example, when UNESCO invited Akoaki to install a 10,000-square-foot exhibition at the 2017 Saint-Étienne Design Biennale, the principals brought with them to France a team of more than 30 neighborhood collaborators. “We’re reimagining the role of the architect as a negotiator — as an enabler and a galvanizer of networks of people,” Sirota says.

Sirota estimates about 80 percent of Akoaki’s work happens before anything ever gets designed. It can make for a long, slow process, as with the current Detroit Cultivator project with OAUF. Akoaki has been working with the farm for nearly four years to develop a vision and “guiding plan” to make the farm self-sufficient and sustainable. Founded on vacant land with little value in 2008, the six-acre farm has been a community center and anchor for the North End, but until recently, the land it inhabited and infrastructure it built still was on the market for cheap, even as Detroit’s real estate market surges. Today, much of that land has been purchased on the farm’s behalf, thanks to impact investors and grants from the Kresge Foundation and ArtsPlace America, secured with the help of Akoaki. 

Now in the design stage, the architecture of the farm is central to its future, with plans for an experimental store and visitors’ hostel to help generate revenue, rooftop rain collectors to irrigate crops, new build materials that absorb heat for longer hoop house growing seasons, and conscientious landscaping to keep neighbors happy.

OAUF founder and manager Jerry Hebron says seeing the physical plans for the farm’s future laid out in front of her gave her a new appreciation for the value of her own work. “From an architectural and design perspective, they helped us realize the actual cultural impact we have made in this community and, in our plans for the future, how important that is,” Hebron says.

Sirota’s work with Akoaki also has received plenty of attention outside of the North End. Besides the Architectural League Prize, her national recognition includes the ACSA Faculty Design Award (2016), the SXSW Eco Place by Design Award (2015), and the R+D Award from Architect Magazine (2013). She also speaks regularly on socially driven architecture at international lectures, panels, workshops, and expositions. In addition, Akoaki is one of three groups of finalists in an international competition to design a new cultural district in Midtown Detroit. Sirota and Farges have added two top-notch architects from Europe as collaborators, as well as Assistant Professor Harley Etienne, Cezanne Charles, and John Marshall, associate professor of architecture and associate professor of art and design at the Stamps School of Art & Design. Charles and Marshall are co-founders of Detroit’s rootoftwo design studio. 

“It’s exciting to take this research that started on a large institutional scale and then dispersed into a community environment, and then learn from that community work in neighborhoods and plug it back into an urban-scale project at the institutional level,” Sirota says. 

Sirota translates that excitement into the classroom, says M.Arch student Jordan Laurila. He first met Sirota as her student and has worked for Akoaki since May, helping with the OAUF project, as well as travel logistics, exhibits, and post-processing work. “She is infectiously charming and possesses an intellect and sensibility that produces unique work, all without being pretentious about it,” he says. 

One major lesson Laurila says he’s learned from Sirota is that architecture is not only spatial but also systemic — that by expanding architecture to a spatial definition that is broader than a single building or structure while also thinking systemically, architecture can address a wider set of interests and problems.

“The commitment to her practice’s ethos of community and neighborhood engagement through tactical and ephemeral projects make believers out of us all.”