Community Impact: A Q+A with HKS Detroit’s Robert Piatek

By Matt Brown on September 12, 2017



AIA Detroit recently announced that Robert (Bob) Piatek, HKS Detroit’s office director, is the recipient of this year’s prestigious Charles Blessing Award, recognizing architects “who show leadership in planning and civic issues and exemplify the vision, commitment and the accomplishments of Charles A. Blessing.” We sat down with Bob to discuss community activism in the Motor City, and how our Detroit office is evolving with its community.

How has Detroit changed since you arrived?

I have seen and felt the decline over the decades, and now I get to enjoy the excitement and energy of rebuilding this great city. I arrived in Detroit by virtue of birth when the city was still well populated. During the decline, the city went from close to two million people to under a million. People who chose to stay came together and formed neighborhood and business associations to preserve their communities.

It’s recent that private businesses, developers and foundations have begun to see that it’s in their best interest to support the neighborhoods and the development of the downtown core. Neighborhoods can gather together to maintain what they have, but you can’t make it better until you’ve got the interest and participation of those organizations and businesses. Then, we elected a mayor who finally gets it, and all the sudden this equation is being filled out and solutions are being put into action.

How did you get involved in your community?

It started in the late 1970s, when I had a young family living in a Detroit neighborhood, and white flight was reaching a fevered pitch. You see that happening and then you realize it’s not just your block, it’s the entire neighborhood. You look for support, and back in the day, there wasn’t a lot. There were no grants, so you did it on your own, and that’s where the community activism started. You join or create a community or business association, and you group together with other like-minded neighbors.

What kind of work have you been doing to improve your community?

Architects can be the catalyst for bringing design professionals and interested people together. For me, it’s been using my architectural connections to get people excited to contribute their expertise after work. One of the things that I’ve been involved in, with a small group of architects, is creating a national dialogue by inviting people from across the country. People came to Detroit from all over the country to talk about what succeeded and what didn’t. Not just architects and planners, but community activists, mayors and other folks who had success in revitalizing their urban areas.

How has your background as an architect shaped your community activism?

I began to realize that we can contribute something to this and that we have a moral and professional responsibility to do so. As architects, we bring the ability to see the big picture and how the design or restoration of buildings and places can create change. We can help a neighborhood or community in terms of how they organize themselves and we can be their support by listening to what their needs are. Architects have a role here, and it can be as small as helping communities update facades or create little pocket parks and pop ups.

How does your community activism inform your work as an architect with HKS?

Firms are starting to look beyond fee dollars and are using their expertise to help on another level. You help the client think beyond their own campus by thinking about how it can benefit them. We don’t just let them think of their own little block. Metro Health is one of those clients. You’ve got a billion-dollar expansion right at the heart of the community. If we’re collaborative and we’re all engaged, we can be successful. It’s the HKS philosophy.

What does the future look like for Detroit?

There needs to be more involvement of the neighborhood stakeholders in creating the vision for what the city will become. If that happens, Detroit will grow organically by the unique things that are needed for this city and its communities. We can be facilitators, orchestrators, advisers and partners with the broader group of people that includes civic leaders, business leaders, community activists, architects and planners. You’ve got to have all these important perspectives, and hopefully, you get the best solution when you put them together.

This month marks the 10-year anniversary for the Northville office in the Detroit suburbs. Why is it important for HKS to have a footprint in the city?

We searched for an office 10 years ago, and even at that time, it included looking in Detroit. But 10 years ago, there was still a lot of fear. Now, we’re bringing in younger staff who want to be involved. They want to have an impact, not only in their work, but in society and their communities. Everybody’s asking when we’re moving to Detroit. Our CEO recognizes what’s happening and believes HKS should be involved. The mindset, the attitude and the excitement are palpable, it’s incredible.

What does winning the AIA Detroit Charles Blessing award mean to you?

I see this award not just as a recognition of what I’m doing, but as recognition of what my team, my collaborators and our neighborhoods are doing and the importance of our work together. If you look street by street and block by block, there are thousands of people doing what I’ve done all my life. I thank the AIA for honoring my commitment as an individual, an architect and a member, but I’m going to accept it for myself and the thousands of people who do this every day.

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