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Top U.S. architect association awards Marygrove Early Education Center a prize


The Marygrove Early Education Center, an integral part of the Kresge-supported P-20 Partnership on the Marygrove campus, has received a prestigious 2023 Architecture Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

These top awards for 16 built projects announced today celebrate “the best contemporary architecture regardless of budget, size, style, or type” and  “show the world the range of outstanding work architects create and highlight the many ways buildings and spaces can improve our lives,” the AIA said.

The $22 million Marygrove Early Education Center is the creation of Marlon Blackwell Architects of Fayetteville, Arkansas. The center opened in 2020 and complements The School at Marygrove, which began a year earlier and now operates Kindergarten through Grade 2, and Grades 9-12. The missing grades will be added year-by-year until a full K-12 school comes into being.

The School at Marygrove is operated by Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Marygrove Early Education Center by Starfish Family Services, both in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Education on the site for the former Marygrove College in northwest Detroit.

Here is some of what the AIA has to say about the first new building on the Marygrove campus in decades:

  • A beacon of education and a vibrant reminder of the ongoing efforts to revitalize Detroit, the Marygrove Early Education Center is a state-of-the-art facility serving children up to age 5 from surrounding neighborhoods. … With its low-slung form and colorful exterior, it reflects the area’s newfound optimism and a pervasive spirit of new life and recovery.

    Two adults, presumably parents, holding the hands of a small child each on the walkway leading to the terra cotta clad Marygrove Early Education Center.
    The new Marygrove Early Education center seems to harmonize with surrounding buildings, some dating back to the 1920s. (Photo copyright Tim Hursley)
  • The new building is both resonant of and deferential to the surrounding campus structures, referring to the heft of their materials and Detroit’s legacy of historic masonry structures. Clad in terra cotta, the center’s facade is a progressive application of a traditional building material. Interspersed colorful highlights, inspired by the celebrated quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, give the building a second layer of articulation that reflects the energy of the children it serves and the diversity of its community.
  • Spreading across the site, the center’s organization forms a natural progression from the parking area at the north to a grove of existing trees to the south, where a natural play area is situated. The space between the grove and the building’s southern edge contains a garden, irrigated with water collected on-site, where fresh vegetables are grown for student meals.
  • Three courtyards support the center, drawing in natural light and highlighting the students’ journey from the building’s entrance to its classrooms. Resources for families and the broader community of caregivers are adjacent to the entrance. An informal gathering space for school performances, meetings, and other events sits at its core, alongside the central courtyard.
  • Comfortable and highly functional classrooms, designed through close collaborations with parents and teachers, run along the outside edges of the building, ensuring access to ample daylight and opportunities for outdoor play. They are color-coded by age, feature durable and sustainable materials, and boast views of the landscape. The classroom strategies support the center’s innovative curriculum in an area that has previously suffered from poor educational options.
  • Since its completion, the center has become an important part of the neighborhood’s transformation, helping it become a place where people want to live and stay. The early childhood education center empowers the 150 children it serves to embrace their imaginations and learn through play and creativity.

The AIA also cites Marlon Blackwell Architects’ partners in the creation of the center:

  • Landscape Architect: Margie Ruddick Landscape
  • On-site Project Representation: Intoto Studio
  • Engineer – Civil: Giffels Webster
  • Engineer – MEP: Peter Basso Associates
  • Engineer – Structural: SDI Structures
  • Lighting Design: TM Light
  • Early Childhood Education Planning: Heirdun Hoppe Associates
  • AV/IT Consultant: Commtech Design
  • Envelope Consultant: Studio NYL
  • Accessibility Review: McIntosh Group
  • Specifications: Amy Baker Architect
  • Food Service: Stephens-Bangs Associates
  • General Contractor: Barton Malow Builders

Last year The Kresge Foundation received an international Dedalo Minosse prize — awarded biennially by the ALA-Assoarchitetti, Italian association for professional Architects — for commissioning Blackwell Architects to design the 28,000-square-foot center. Last year, the Blackwell firm also received an Honor Award from AIA Detroit, the metro-area chapter.

And in 2019, after being commissioned for the Marygrove project, Marlon Blackwell won the AIA’s Gold Medal Award, the organization’s highest annual award, whose previous winners include architecture luminaries Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.