When Marques King delivered MAPP’s commencement address to the winter class of 2020 in December, he also delivered a charge, taking a page from Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, on the pursuit of an equitable, just and sustainable built environment: “accept the brutal facts and succeed in spite of them.”
It is a task, King says, that designers, planners, preservationists and developers are uniquely trained to do. In his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, it is also a mantra that drives King’s community-centered urban design shop, Fabric[K] Design, and his work for organizations like the Incremental Development Alliance, which teaches people how to create local, human-scale development. Through Fabric[K], King takes on projects—from gradual home renovations to large-scale development—that create community-centered equity and wealth, incremental steps to return what he calls Detroit’s “middle class swagger.”
King’s path to urban design began early; as a kid, he remembers poring over the blueprints of fiber optics his father, a manager for a Detroit cable company, would leave on the dining room table, tangled lines begging to be deciphered. “My adolescent pursuit at that time was to figure out what all that spaghetti meant,” he says. The blueprints sparked a journey that would lead him to UMD, around the world and back again, with a mission to give back to Detroit what he has learned along the way. “For me personally, it’s about putting stuff in the world that has beauty to it and is carefully designed, but is also a real asset to the community.”
King returned to campus last fall, albeit virtually, to serve as a MAPP 2020 Kea Professor, creating an original curriculum that challenged students to examine the Black experience in the American built environment. Inspired by a framework developed by his UMD teacher, the late Karl Du Puy, the course is part architecture, part applied history and what King describes as a “deeper dive” into the issues of the built environment and the intricacies of the lived experience. Its popularity has persuaded King to teach the course again this spring.
“I am encouraged by the prospects of a better built environment because I see this persistent attitude in the next wave of professionals,” said King during his commencement address. “I see a passionate generation unafraid to confront the ugly mistakes of the past, address them and set a different path for the future.”
Below, King talks about his return home, his changing city and success, one house at a time:
You were born and raised in Detroit. How have you seen the city change over the years? I can remember really fun experiences growing up as a young kid. My parents were divorced and when I would visit my father, who lived on the west side of town, I had all of these opportunities to play on the block with other kids and it was a real sense of community; that was my first experience of a neighborhood even though I didn’t know it. But as I got older, you could really see the writing on the wall. I would ride the bus and just see the deterioration of the city; there were blocks of abandoned houses and vacant lots. EMS response times were beyond an hour and it wasn’t safe for my friends who would walk to school. It was stuff that I think was happening before I really understood it, but that’s when it became clear to me how bad it was. It was the height of Detroit’s rock bottom.
Do you remember the moment you decided to leave D.C. and return to Detroit? I left D.C. for a couple of reasons. After graduation, I spent 18 months experiencing the world, working on master plans for the west side of Atlanta and in Savannah, and overseas in China for Thadani Architects + Urbanists. I then joined Bonstra | Haresign, where I worked for three-and-a-half years. I learned a lot about the city, about architecture and about the business of architecture through Bill (Bonstra) and David (Haresign); they were fantastic mentors and I am forever indebted to them for preparing me for the profession. But around 2015-2016, I really felt a need to take all that I had learned and give it back to the city where I was raised. Again, my eyes had been opened up to this world of cities that I didn’t know existed until I actually traveled and lived in other places. But, it was this dichotomy between what’s out there in the world and where my city was; Detroit had just gone through bankruptcy at the time and I was feeling this strong pull to help get it back on its feet.
There was an entrepreneurial pull as well. The barrier of entry in Detroit is a lot easier than D.C. And while I love D.C., I saw opportunity in Detroit that I didn’t see in there.
Was there a change between when you left and when you came back? Absolutely. I joke with friends that there are certain places in Detroit that I wouldn’t go near and now they’re the hottest spots in the city! Capital Park, which used to be overrun with homeless folks, is now completely redesigned. The storefronts are filled in and there’s yoga in the park. I think seeing spots that I had negative experiences with as a kid, to see them change, made me realize there’s a different trajectory here.
One of your missions with Fabric[K] is to help Detroit get its middle-class swagger back. What does that look like? Is it yoga in the park or is it something different? That’s a good and fair question and it’s something we haven’t solved yet. Demographically, we’re 80 percent black and our medium household income hovers around $30,000. You could assume that they’re not spending residual income on yoga classes. I think there’s this conversation that the city is trying to have about who Detroit is for—it should be for everyone, and how do we achieve that?
To that point, the work I involve myself in is conditioned to try and answer that question. I saw a need for design services for average, everyday people who want to do something in their neighborhood but don’t know where to begin. And many of those people come from the African American community. They are projects that require a little more patience but it’s really rewarding. And it’s the culture of this place; we’ve been “left to our own devices for so long, let’s just do it ourselves” kind-of-mentality, which is what a lot of Detroiters have been doing for decades. People are buying up lots and turning them into farms for their community because there are no nearby grocery stores. It’s about having the humility to work at a scale where you’ll have to put in more time and it’s going to be at lower fees, but in the long term, these projects will be more valuable. There’s a lot of people like me here and it’s been a joy to work with other designers. And there’s no shortage of work.
You have been coming back to Maryland and teaching for years. What is the draw? If there is one thing that students take away from working with you, what do you hope it is? I’ve always loved teaching since I figured out I loved teaching—I taught all four of my semesters at Maryland. I attribute that to two people: Brian Kelly, who has been a real champion of me and Powell Draper, who taught with such passion, it was just infectious. He really enjoyed figuring out different ways to present information to students, and that is something I try to carry in my teaching now. I really try to make these dense abstract concepts relatable to students; hopefully that gives them a body of information that will offer clear direction and, ultimately, make them a better designer when they get into the profession. Teaching is very much a part of my professional and academic career and I love it.
What are you working on right now? I am working on several community-based projects on the east side of Detroit through the East Jefferson Development Corporation, using inclusive development principals. In every project that we are a part of, we try and integrate the community from a social and economic standpoint. We require all of our contractors to hire 50% of their subs from the community and we’ll help with that. If it’s a retail tenant that’s going in on the ground floor, we require that they hire from the surrounding four zip codes. We incentivize tenants to provide a living wage, and we’ll help with that on the lease side to make that possible. So, a dishwasher at a local restaurant is making $15 an hour and can afford to live in the neighborhood where he works.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? Don’t take yourself so seriously.
What is a tool or tech that you could not live without? Nowadays it’s my magnifying glass. I keep one in the office and by the bedside so that I can look at drawings. I don’t like the big sets of drawings, but on the half sheets the stuff is so small!
You are conversational in a few languages. Any advice for someone who wants to learn a new language later in life? I have a couple of systems that works well for me. I use a software called Fluenz that incorporates active learning by taking you to different places so you can practice the language in context. I also force myself to watch TV shows in different languages. I have a couple of Spanish sitcoms and podcasts that I’m listening to right now. There’s a show on Netflix called Gran Hotel- it’s like the Spanish version of Downton Abby, its really good. I just try to find different ways to surround myself with the language as much as possible.