Matthew Northcott knew early in high school that he wanted to study architecture in college. Thanks to the Loranger Nautilus Endowed Scholarship, he was able to achieve his dream at University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture.
The Loranger Nautilus Endowed Scholarship is funded by School of Architecture alumnus Warren Loranger, ’51, and awarded to an incoming School of Architecture freshman. Northcott was the first recipient of the scholarship, and said without it he would not have been able to attend Detroit Mercy. With the scholarship backing his education, he focused on developing himself and discovered a passion for developing the Detroit community.
Establishing a foundation
As a student at Lutheran High School Norwest in Rochester Hills, Northcott participated in an art class where students designed a house and built a model. He was hooked.
“I really liked that project and that is what pushed me in the direction of architecture,” said Northcott. He looked for nearby schools that could offer him a solid education and plenty of experience in the field. When he decided on Detroit Mercy, he had no idea it would lead to an interest in Detroit and a desire to be part of the city’s revitalization.
Northcott said he didn’t have much experience with Detroit before becoming a Detroit Mercy student. His exposure to the city through work experience within the architecture program led to his master’s thesis and research and ideas that might one day be used to connect and stimulate an underused area of Detroit.
“I worked at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center as an intern two summers ago. They are a nonprofit, community-centric design firm. They do architecture work, but they also do small scale interventions, like painting a mural in a local park. I definitely think that working there helped foster my love of the City of Detroit,” said Northcott.
In his third year, Northcott said he worked on one of this favorite projects — West Riverfront Park in Detroit. He said the students helped transform a large public space into something people would want to use.
“That project helped lead to me my thesis. I realized Detroit isn’t currently using its assets of the riverfront. We don’t have a lot of connection to our waterfront as other cities do,” Northcott said, so he set out to find an area that could reclaim the waterfront and make it a part of the community.
Research and discovery
Northcott began researching the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, located along the Detroit River between Grosse Pointe and Belle Isle. It’s a section the city wants to revitalize and Northcott put his effort into coming up with a plan for the four parks in the area by listening to the residents and creating a plan that would not only enhance the parks, but connect the community.
“The project was one full year of work, starting last summer,” Northcott said. “I specifically wanted to find out what the community that lives there wanted to do with the parks. I conducted a survey that helped me determine what types of programs they wanted to happen in the parks.”
Northcott said the first half of the thesis year was all research —collecting previous feedback from other projects and conducting his own. He said he combined that with information from the city’s ongoing data collection about community engagement and feedback he learned from attending meetings of the neighborhood, which he still does today.
“It guided me toward designing a community center. For the past decade, they haven’t had a community center in that area,” Northcott said. “The residents have been telling the city they want a community center. Part of my project was designing the community center on the riverfront in one of the parks for small-scale gatherings and community programs.”
Through the research process, Northcott found another aspect of his thesis that needed to be addressed.
“There is a lot of disconnectivity in the neighborhood. It’s divided up by dead-end streets and canals. I was looking for ways to connect the community together. I designed a network of pedestrians paths that emanate out of the community center building. I wanted to connect the parks into the neighborhood. This turned into a large, neighborhood-wide project and addressed several issues,” said Northcott.
Northcott said the thesis experience was an independent process and he drew a lot on his previous coursework and experiences to create a meaningful project. He said the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood was really receptive to the process and while he explained to them this was a thought experiment, they still helped out and with ideas and feedback.
“It’s all self-directed,” Northcott said. “There is a thesis adviser and you can ask them questions, but it’s a very independent process. That’s definitely a good thing. Knowing what to do was tough, but I learned a lot.”
Working on this thesis project has helped Northcott develop a sense of what he wants to do in the future.
“It’s definitely a goal in my career — to help make community engagement a big part of the design process. We could definitely do more to listen to the people we are designing for. In the future, I definitely plan on staying in the Detroit area and designing to take part in Detroit’s revitalization.”
By Rebecca Wyatt Thomas