New U-M architecture dean sees Detroit as case study

March 8, 2018 GMT

As a high-schooler, Jonathan Massey wasn’t so sure about this architecture thing.

“I knew it had requirements like calculus, which terrified me,” said Massey, 48, the new dean of U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “So I didn’t think of it as a path to pursue.”

Still, even as a youngster, Massey was unusually responsive to the way interior and exterior spaces made him feel. On a lark, he signed up for Arch. 101 as an undergrad at Princeton.

“It was a history and theory course that was humanities-based, and asked questions about meaning,” he said. “That told me this might be my path after all.”

Massey landed in Ann Arbor late last summer from California, and has since been dizzied by the possibilities unfolding in Detroit. His particular interests deal with the social consequences of architecture, and the city presents a unique opportunity to see these issues play out in real time.

But first, back to that fearsome calculus course — did he make it through?

“I passed with a D — the only D I ever got,” said Massey, dressed this chilly morning in black slacks, black sport jacket and neon-yellow sneakers. He grins. “I’ve never been happier with a grade.”

Since getting his master’s in architecture, Massey’s worked with several storied firms, including Frank Gehry’s studio when the iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was being designed.

But much as he enjoys designing, Massey was drawn to “the teaching and generating-knowledge game.” That first took him to Syracuse University, and then to the California College of the Arts in Oakland, where he was dean until coming to Michigan.

But spectacular as the Bay Area is — and Massey says he adored not having to own a car — the chance to get a first-hand peek at what’s happening in Detroit was too great a temptation when the position in Ann Arbor opened up.

“Taubman College is an amazing place,” Massey said, “but part of that is the way it’s engaged in this drama of Detroit’s urban transformation that people all around the world are studying.”

His previous acquaintance with the city was scant. Before they were married, Massey and his husband, U-M urban-planning professor Marc Norman, drove through Detroit on a cross-country trip in 1995.

Somehow they ended up in Brush Park, at the time the poster child for Detroit collapse and decay.

“We have video footage of us walking around falling-apart Edwardian mansions with trees growing up through them,” Massey said. “That was jaw-dropping for us.”

Massey acknowledges fears about gentrification, but thinks they’re a bit misplaced, since there hasn’t yet been anything like the residential displacement in Detroit that scoured San Francisco or New York neighborhoods when those cities turned around.

″ ‘Gentrification’ is a marker for whether we can make Detroit a place of shared prosperity,” he said, “where the benefits of real-estate development and changes in capitalism can be more equitably shared.”

This, Massey adds, is something people at Taubman are very excited about. Students are now working with the city’s Planning and Development Department to flesh out policy strategies.

“Last semester we had 140 students designing housing in a variety of ways,” all of which adhere to city guidelines, he said.

He’s especially concerned with those residents who hung on during the city’s long descent, who might well regard new development as ominous.

“The dream,” Massey said, “is for Detroit to become a 21st-century city of a type we haven’t seen before, one that could support life and community that don’t exist in other post-industrial cities.”

But as dazzling as the city’s possibilities are, Massey still knocks the metro area for being way too auto-dependent.

“I won’t lie,” Massey said, “Selden Standard is an extraordinary place to eat. But as fabulous as these new venues are,” he added, “you still have to drive and drive from one little hot spot to the next.”

He shakes his head and smiles. “Ultimately, that’s not my dream of the urban condition.”


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Jonathan Massey

Age: 48

Position: Dean, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan. previously Dean of Architecture, California College of the Arts

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Princeton University; Master of Architecture, UCLA; Ph.D., Princeton University