Towers of Power

Renaissance Center is to Detroit’s skyline what the World Trade Center was to New York,” Gensler’s William Hartman says of GM’s headquarters, whose centerpiece is a 73-story cylindrical Marriott hotel. “It is the most recognizable tower in the city.” The seven-building complex was meant to mark the rebirth of Detroit after the 1967 riots. Today, with Detroit on the road to renewal and its biggest carmaker back in the game, GM wanted to shift the conversation toward the future.

Light can send a powerful message, so Gensler, Hines, and brand agency Jack Morton set out to turn GM’s five towers into a signpost for a revived Detroit. RenCen, as it’s known locally, was essentially a blank canvas, the old fluorescent GM logos casting a dull blue glow.

The new lighting scheme refreshes the hotel tower, replacing the previous logos with a trio of two-story, high-resolution LED screens. Most of the time, the new screens display a sharp blue GM logo, set off by LED bands that ring the hotel tower and cap the four 39-story office buildings around it. The façades are subtly updated with thin LED bands that wrap the stairwells at each floor. LED projectors wash the slots below the stairwells in blue light.

Every few minutes, the lighting scheme changes—to yellow Chevrolet logos set off by purple bands, for instance, or to a civic message. A pink ribbon might appear for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month or, during baseball season, the orange Tigers logo. If the Tigers win, the LEDs can “chase” each other around the towers, like a scoreboard going wild after a play.

“The new lighting makes RenCen a more integral part of the daily life of the city,” Hartman says. It heralds a new GM, whose comeback inspires Detroit. This being Motor City, the LEDs’ strong visibility is a plus, too. “It can be seen from far, far away,” he adds. “GM’s rivals may regret that they didn’t buy RenCen in the 1990s.”