Architectural Firm Keeps The Faith

The new, mixed-use Woodward Garden Apartments anchors the renewal of a block once known as “the worst on Woodward.” Photo: Justin Maconochie The new, mixed-use Woodward Garden Apartments anchors the renewal of a block once known as “the worst on Woodward.” Photo: Justin Maconochie

When it was unfashionable to do so, two Detroit architects believed in the city and saw potential.

Michael Poris and Douglas McIntosh grew up in Detroit and each earned architecture degrees at the Univ. of Michigan. Poris went on to Los Angeles to earn his Masters of Architecture at Southern California Institute of Architecture. There, he worked with national architects and designers, including Cesar Pelli, Thom Mayne, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, and Frank Israel. McIntosh pursued a similar career path on the East Coast after getting his Masters at Yale.

The pair decided to return to Michigan in 1994, where they started McIntosh Poris Associates that same year. “We thought we could make a difference in our hometown and community,” Poris said. “We felt Detroit was like Berlin after the war—full of opportunity. Returning after being away for 15 years, we saw possibilities here and decided this was where young architects should be. New York and LA didn’t need us. There was a great legacy [in Detroit] of modern architecture and design by Albert Kahn, Minoru Yamaskai, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Gunnar Birkerts, and Harley Earl. Legendary art and design school Cranbrook was right up the street.”

The Townhouse restaurant, designed by McIntosh Poris Associates, occupies the ground floor of a 43-story skyscraper in downtown Detroit’s financial district. Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard The Townhouse restaurant, designed by McIntosh Poris Associates, occupies the ground floor of a 43-story skyscraper in downtown Detroit’s financial district. Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard

Poris faced his greatest challenge in 2006, when Douglas McIntosh passed away unexpectedly at age 44. “For 12 years, we built the practice together. At once, I had to deal with mourning my lifelong friend, figuring out how to have a practice without my partner, and reassuring clients that the practice would not only continue into the future, but that we would also be able to handle their needs at that moment,” he said.

Poris credits fellow architects with the best advice he’s received. “Cesar Pelli told us that the schools will always be there, so get your practice going before thinking about teaching,” he related. “Similarly, Frank Gehry said young architects need to learn to work in the marketplace. That made me focus on learning how to get things built on budget and on time—things that are expected of us as professionals, but that can take years to master.”

Two cherry-wood, slatted screens create multiple intimate dining areas at Prism restaurant. Photo: Justin Maconochie Two cherry-wood, slatted screens create multiple intimate dining areas at Prism restaurant. Photo: Justin Maconochie

Offering some advice of his own, Poris noted the importance of understanding a client’s vision and advised that can only be accomplished by listening. “Success is achieved through continual dialogue and attention to details, including budget. I consider myself successful when my clients love their space—when their home is an extension of their personality, when their business accomplishes their goals.”

The recently completed Woodward Garden Theater Block stands as a pinnacle of the firm’s practice, Michael Poris feels. “It encompasses one of our core principles of respecting Detroit’s urban past while making it wonderfully usable and new for today. The entire block was rejuvenated by renovating the historic theater and building a newly designed mixed-use residential project adjacent. There were many different public-private partners in the project, and we were instrumental in coordinating multiple funding sources to make the project a reality.” (See CBP, July/August 2014, pp. 8 to 14)

Poris is excited about the growth of mixed-use, adaptive re-use, and multi-family projects in the near term, but he added he’s concerned that the rising costs of construction and builder overbooking could slow future development.

Working in Detroit for 21 years and finally seeing the momentum of development that is now occurring has been rewarding. “I’m looking forward to seeing it continue,” Poris said. CA

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