“The building was going back to nature. There were trees growing inside of it, the basement was full of water and the concrete was damaged.” This is how architect Nicko Elliott of Civilian describes the undeserved fate of the Book Depository, one of many art deco landmarks that have shaped the city of Detroit. For 35 years, the Albert Kahn building — which first served as a post office branch and mail warehouse, then as a storage facility for the Detroit public school system — sat empty, slated for demolition after falling into disrepair following a devastating fire. That was until Ford Motor Company purchased it as part of a larger civic and urban redevelopment plan.
Completed in April, the ambitious adaptive re-use project is now home to Newlab, an innovation hub for entrepreneurs and inventors pioneering sustainable and equitable mobility solutions. Civilian is the Brooklyn design studio that was tapped to redesign the interiors of the derelict three-storey, 25,000-square-metre structure; Gensler’s Detroit office led the sensitive core-and-shell restoration that sought to enhance the original design while updating it for its new use.
“They approached the building with a sort of reverence,” says Elliott. Civilian, too, conceived of Newlab’s interior fit-out in dialogue with Kahn’s design and his relationship with Fordism. “It was a beautiful thing to learn about the ethos with which he approached building spaces for factories, for people and for production,” he explains.
To that end, the studio leveraged unexpected programmatic adjacencies and visual connections to foster collaboration between production and social areas. Past the reception desk, a gate of stainless-steel and ribbed glass doors gives way to a gallery, and, at the building’s core, a 200-seat event space is wrapped by open studios and state-of-the-art robotics and prototyping facilities. Four massive lift doors roll up to transform the venue from closed-off to porous and open.
The building’s bones — namely, the brick facade, patinated concrete shell and grid of martini-cap columns — informed the key interior moves, but the architects also drew from an unexpected reference: the work of Charlotte Perriand. “Her interior approach was industrially influenced, super clean and unornamented. She was able to bring to bear an interesting mix of natural materials and highly finished materials in a way that is still resonant,” Elliott explains.
In keeping with this inspiration, Newlab’s varied work zones — including desking, lounge vignettes, meeting rooms and classrooms — are furnished with carefully curated American design classics from Michigan-based brand MillerKnoll alongside restored vintage furniture, as well as bespoke contemporary pieces designed by Civilian, including solid ash and laminate tables and storage cabinets. With its contextual approach, the firm has transformed the Book Depository from a symbol of the city’s decline into one of its revival.
In Detroit, Civilian revives an Albert Kahn-designed post office and warehouse as a vibrant innovation hub.