Visiting Detroit

A few weeks ago I visited Detroit for the first time while in the area for a friend's wedding.  We hear so much about Detroit these days, as the poster-child for urban decay, that I must admit I was pretty interested in seeing it for myself, and wondered what I would find there.

My impression is that it's a fairly small city, with a small, well-developed core but extensive, decaying suburbs.  We drove a short ways out to visit the Heidelberg Project, and saw some of the crazy inner-ring suburban emptiness near there (countless vacant lots, overgrown fields that used to be houses, etc), but most of what we saw in the downtown area wasn't too shabby.  We missed getting to experience the Eastern Market by arriving about an hour too late, which was disappointing, but instead got some very tasty ice cream at Neveria la Michoacana.  That was definitely an adventure for us and really fun!

All around the downtown area we saw signs of new buildings, construction, and city pride, so I don't think anyone should count out Detroit in the long run.  For now, though, it's a good place to buy tons of land/buildings for cheap.  It's hard to say exactly what the city will look like when it's done with all this upheaval, and I personally would not want to live there - too far from "real" urban centers, too cold, and too, well, Midwestern.  But not a bad place to visit!  And we didn't even get over to Ann Arbor, or to the Henry Ford Museum (Dymaxion car, anyone?), or to the Ford plant (where you can see them make trucks!  live!), or to a variety of other cool-sounding things.  Next time!

I really enjoyed getting to take the Detroit People Mover (began operation in 1987) on its 20-minute loop around downtown; architects notoriously like seeing buildings from a bird's-eye view, and I'm no exception.  I was especially intrigued to see the station signs were in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

Architectural highlights of our tour were the GM Renaissance Center (1977) by John Portman, One Woodward Avenue (1962) by Minoru Yamasaki, and the Lafayette Park Apartments (1956) by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  Detroit is a great place to see examples of International Style and late Modern architecture.  The Renaissance Center was one of the craziest buildings I've ever been in; in 2004 they installed a new walkway around the interior that helps visitors understand where they are, but before that it must have been very disorienting to visit.  It's a ring of round towers, all alike, with floating round "pods" hanging from the walls and a multitude of levels.  Amazing concrete work, though.

Renaissance Center, with the added Wintergarden (by SOM, 2004) in the lower left.
Inside the Renaissance Center

One Woodward Avenue

an "Aztec"-styled skyscraper

Lafayette Park

I hope I'll be back sometime in the future, to see how things change and to see more of the city!

Postscript July 11th:  Here's a nice NYTimes piece on how things are going in Detroit today.


ARE We Done Yet?

Thanks, NCARB.

The lateral forces of destiny have continued to make my free time shear torture, as today I took the Structural Systems portion of the Architect Registration Exam (ARE).  Let me get a few allowable loads off my chest.  I had planned to write a witty review of my time studying for this massive and inflexible exam, a review that would have been full of puns about mental strain and bending over backwards to learn this stuff, but I'm just too stressed.  (See what I did there.)  The tension of waiting for my results is practically unbearable.  (The compression isn't great, either.) When I couple the forces of failure with those of success, the net outcome seems... indeterminate, like a beam fixed at both ends.  It's like there's an overturning moment with roughly 1.5 times the dead weight of my emotions, and I can't decide if I'm more angry or more depressed at how it went.

Anyway, as I've been telling myself, Structures is over now for at least the next six months!  (At which point I can take it again if I failed.)  If I passed, it must have been by some miracle, since there were a lot of questions I wasn't sure about.  I'll find out in a week or two.

If I've learned anything from this experience, it's that this process is long, hard, and a serious drag strut.  And those "fatal errors" on the vignettes that everyone likes to talk about?  They're real.  See Exhibit A, below.  I was pretty confident that I passed Site Planning, and it turns out, I basically did pass - except that I must have done something stupid in one of the two vignettes, which I failed, and which caused me to fail the entire exam, even though I passed all the other sections.

Fatal errors: They're dead serious.
What's frustrating about this exam process is that the report, above, is all you get if you fail, and you get no feedback at all if you pass.  What did I do wrong?  I don't know, and all I can do is take the entire test over again and hope for a different result.  There's really no way to know exactly what I did wrong.  I have a few guesses, but the only way to confirm them is re-taking the exam.  And if I fail multiple-choice sections, it's hard to know how much better I need to get, since there is no official standard for how many right answers you need to pass (I've heard theories range from 50% correct to 70-80%).

For anyone else out there studying, resources I used for Structural Systems were Kaplan's Structural Systems book, Ballast's ARE Review Manual (better than Kaplan, I think), and the PPI Sample Questions book.  I also had the Kaplan Questions & Answers book on hand but didn't have time go through the 400+ questions in it.  I also read the "Buildings at Risk" guides from the AIA on seismic and wind design, plus other stuff online about seismic and codes.  Everything I used was available from my office.  I thought the PPI books were easier to understand.  I'll let you know when I get my results back whether this was sufficient prep or not.  I took roughly 2 months to study for this exam, but with dedicated daily studying only for the last two to three weeks (approx 2-3 hours per night plus all day weekends).  I felt fairly well prepared going in, but the actual exam was more challenging than I expected, and I am not confident in how well I did.  I don't think I had any trouble with the vignette, though.

My current inertia is pushing me to finish out the tests with as much velocity as possible, but at the moment, I'm thinking of deflecting the next ones until a later date.  It's not worth the stress/strain (=E).  In any event, I've got a lot more exams to go.  At least this one is over for now.  Better enjoy my weekend while I can, before it's time to start studying for the next one!

Note: I received my score report this week, and amazingly, I passed the exam!  No idea how that happened.  So I guess the moral of this story is, you can feel terrible about the outcome, and still pass.  Good luck.