In a shady park along the Grand Canal in the dazzling city of Venice, an arts journalist from Turkey stood in a neo-classical brick building and studied a rack of postcards about Detroit.
The cards capture Detroit’s grandeur and desolation, from the magnificence of the Fisher Building to an abandoned house afire.
But around her were 12 fantastical, space-age models reimagining four Detroit neighborhoods — miniature tabletop marvels created for the world’s most prestigious architectural exhibition, the Venice Architectural Biennale.
“My friend told me Detroit is emerging from its ashes,” said Yasemin Bay, the Istanbul writer, during the Biennale’s opening this past May. “My friend told me to come and see this exhibit.”
For the last six months in jewel-like Venice, the architectural world has debated the merits of a dozen speculative, futuristic designs to reinvent dreary stretches of Detroit.
And come February, Detroiters themselves will get to weigh in when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit hosts the exhibit and community panels.
The show has generated praise and criticism. A Detroit activist group created a web link for a “digital occupation” of the Venice show, protesting that it ignores the needs and ingenuity of city residents.
The Venice exhibit adds another dimension to Detroit’s evolving image across the globe, and the city of Detroit’s Planning Director Maurice Cox welcomes the controversy and conversation. “It is wonderful to be put in the international spotlight,” says Cox. “Detroit is a laboratory for a 21st-century city. That’s where we want to be.
“We are in the process of a pivot from where everybody comes to visit our ruins to a city where people come to see where new trends take place.”
The exhibit, officially called “The Architectural Imagination,’’ will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the civil unrest in Detroit during the summer of 1967.
Metro Detroiters’ reactions to the Venice exhibit will likely range from captivated, curious, and bemused to bothered, angry, and inspired. There may also be some cursing and arguing.
Hello World, Meet Detroit
The Venice Biennale, pronounced “bee-yen-ah-lay” in Italian, is a World’s Fair of architectural achievements and innovation.
Some 60-plus countries have showcases in the exposition, which ends Nov. 27. The U.S. State Department maintains a pavilion at the Venice site and selects a theme for America
Detroit was chosen through a bid by the University of Michigan’s then architecture school dean Monica Ponce de Leon, along with her co-curator Cynthia Davidson, who edits the international architectural journal Log.
The pair reviewed more than 250 entries by architects and selected 12. The teams met with city officials and community groups in developing designs for four sites.
“Our main goal is to encourage wide-ranging discussion about reinventing post-industrial cities like Detroit, which can have far-reaching impact around the world,” says Ponce de Leon, who left U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning earlier this year.
The four sites are:
- The Packard Plant, an international symbol of Detroit’s ruin porn.
- Open land near the Dequindre Cut at the edge of Eastern Market.
- A decrepit public works yard near Livernois Avenue and West Vernor Highway in southwest Detroit.
- The area around the U.S. Post Office mail-sorting facility on West Fort Street at Trumbull Avenue in Corktown.
At the exhibit’s opening reception in Venice, U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips said Detroit’s emergence from municipal bankruptcy provides “real challenges and real opportunities.”
The project was chosen, Phillips said, because Detroit became “synonymous with a failed city,” and is now on the rebound.
Detroit Planning Director Cox says the ambassador’s “failed city” comment was an “inartful way” of saying Detroit represents “a prototypical city that’s been managing population decline for decades.”
Detroit boasted nearly 2 million people 65 years ago, but the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city’s 143 square miles contains 677,000 people.
“Detroit is at a pivot point,” says Cox. “For the first time in a half century, the question isn’t how we manage decline, but how Detroit retains those who have stuck it out and how we manage the growth.”
What a Concept(s)
The fantastical concepts illustrated by several architectural teams imagine new housing and new communities to change Detroit’s appearance and fortunes. And while some of the designs may seem whimsical and far-fetched, the models address practical issues pertaining to education, the environment, and preservation. There is also a desire to create beauty through innovation.
Architect Marshall Brown of Chicago designed the Dequindre Civic Academy — a tower taller than the GM Renaissance Center — for families, students, and instructors to live in a kindergarten-through-college community near Eastern Market.
“The children of Detroit could live and learn in Detroit’s tallest monument — a monumental village,” says Brown. It may seem unachievable, he said, but “everything real was once a dream.”
The Ann Arbor office of T+E+A+M architects reimagined the Packard Plant. The architects, who also teach at U-M, used rubble from the site and mixed it with recycled plastic to make a unique building material to resurface the plant’s façade. The interior could house factories devoted to material technologies, such as reinventing rubble.
Detroit’s crumbled plants and infrastructure, said T+E+A+M architect Meredith Miller, “can be a positive thing in a new representation. Instead of bringing in something foreign, we used what was there for a brand-new use.”
Now working in L.A., Detroit native Andrew Zago designed a trio of colorful, bold buildings near Eastern Market to house and educate as many as 65,000 refugees escaping Syria’s civil war.
“As much as I really appreciate the very small endeavors and struggles in Detroit,” says Zago, “at some point, you need larger-scale projects to pull the city back together.”
As part of the exhibit, Zago — himself the son of Italian immigrants — penned an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking for federal dollars and commitment to helping rebuild Detroit by welcoming refugees.
At the Corktown/U.S. Post Office site, architects Albert Pope and Jesús Vassallo out of Houston’s Rice School of Architecture created modernist housing from locally grown trees.
At the desolate old public works yard in southwest Detroit’s Mexicantown, imagine a bandshell and Mexican-like marketplace, with features that pay homage to the neighborhood’s artistic expression through both graffiti and murals.
That’s what L.A.-based architect team Florencia Pita and Jackilin Hah Bloom designed.
The Mexicantown designs reflect the desires of southwest Detroit residents who met with the architects last fall, says Kathy Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association.
The 7-acre site has room for lots of dreams, as well as big problems with water runoff and contamination. Residents wanted a festival-like gathering space and places to shop.
The Biennale designs for the neighborhood, says Wendler, “were fun, colorful, and interesting.”
Residents knew the architects’ designs were pie-in-the-sky proposals, “but you can’t stop appreciating aesthetics because you have to deal with a water issue,” says Wendler. “You have to do it all together.”
Dissent and Debate
A Detroit grass-roots group protests that the Venice designs are an elitist, impractical diversion to real issues facing Detroiters such as water shutoffs and unfair evictions.
Musical artist and community activist Bryce Detroit is the face of “Detroit Resists,” which was formed to protest the concept behind the designs even before they were revealed.
“What’s happening here represents the conventional design process and since the times of urban renewal, that’s been a force of destruction for African-Americans and indigenous people,” Bryce Detroit said while in Venice.
“Detroit is not a blank slate.”
Bryce Detroit collaborated on the protest with U-M professor Andrew Herscher, an architect and architectural historian.
In Venice, they unveiled a “digital occupation” of the Detroit exhibit.
Clicking on a web link revealed the drawing of a water tower superimposed on the exhibit’s entrance, proclaiming “Free the Water” to highlight the city’s water shutoff crisis.
Another overlaid message: “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.”
Herscher, the author of The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit, a 2012 book that analyzed how Detroiters reuse vacant land and abandoned buildings, declined an interview.
The criticism hasn’t come just from Detroit activists. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne commended the exhibit as “beautifully designed,” but said the architects’ projects represent “top-down and slickly rendered solutions shot through with disdain for the kind of expertise required to get architecture at this vast scale approved, financed and built.”
Some of the criticism could censor creativity and “do a disservice to the people of Detroit,” says Detroit architect V. Mitch McEwen.
McEwen’s design for the Mexicantown neighborhood envisions honeycomb-like housing, an air purification network to lessen neighborhood air pollution, and swooping pneumatic channels to ferry both waste and freight.
Her U-M colleague and Detroit Resists organizer Herscher never spoke to her about her design or Biennale concerns, says McEwen.
The criticism assumes that Detroiters aren’t entitled to think big, she adds.
“There’s an assumption that (because) Detroit is a majority black city and not a high-income city, that Detroiters want to see now-familiar architecture,” says McEwen. “There’s an assumption … that the typical Detroiter cannot relate to contemporary architecture. That assumption is completely racist and classist and shows a problem on many levels.”
McEwen hopes her designs and others in the exhibit encourage today’s architects and urban planners to throw out assumptions. “Detroiters are ready for something that is only in Detroit, that is specifically Detroit,” says McEwen, “and looks like nothing that has ever happened before.”
The debate will only enhance any future Detroit architecture, says critic Janelle Zara.
The Detroit Resists protest, Zara wrote on curbed.com, is a “contrast to the slickness of the architectural models … it reads as refreshingly authentic, passionate, real.
“Despite its direct opposition to the message of the curators’ mission, the Detroit Resists occupation amplifies it,” said Zara, adding that it is “expanding the conversation about the city, and furthering the possibility for change.”
Steering the Conversation
When the exhibit comes to MOCAD, co-curator Cynthia Davidson says organizers are aiming to host the architects for discussions with Detroiters about each of the four neighborhoods.
“We’d love to talk with anyone about what we’ve done,” says Davidson. “Architecture is often criticized by being kind of a mystery, regardless of economic or education background.”
With the Detroit design models in front of them, Davidson hopes to ask: “Is there one you would want to see in your community? What would it mean in your community if it were built? Or do you want to throw it out and start over?”
MOCAD Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder says the exhibit’s concepts are evocative of monumental “civic projects that make great cities, and to stay relevant, Detroit needs them.
“If we can contribute and steer the conversation to civic cornerstones,” she says, “that’s an amazing and positive role that architecture and design can play.”
The exhibit is “making the world see Detroit differently” and will do the same for Detroiters once it opens at MOCAD, says Cox, the city’s planning director. “It’s quite extraordinary for a community to stop and reflect on what’s possible, and Detroit is a place that hasn’t had that opportunity as much as it deserves.”
Cox maintains that Detroit is already promoting innovative design, even without the impetus of a Venice Biennale. “Wrestling fantastical visions into shovel-ready reality “is kind of my daily bread,” he says. “The difference between the Biennale and the grounded visionary work that is underway is working with the complexity of communities, politics, and finance.”
Detroit is attracting world-famous architects now, Cox adds. Renowned landscape architect Michel Desvigne is part of a project led by Skidmore Owings & Merrill to do comprehensive planning for the east riverfront.
Cox notes that Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate revitalizations in Brush Park — mixing in new housing with surviving Victorian-era turreted mansions — will be “the largest collection of forward-looking contemporary architecture in the city.”
Plans call for transforming a few hundred vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood near Marygrove College into “low-maintenance, high visual impact” landscapes.
“There’s no place in the country that has attempted to do this,” says Cox.
But Cox relishes the debate to come about the Biennale’s designs and the architectural imagination unleashed.
Indeed, it’s already given him an idea. “We don’t have to wait for another invitation to be the focus of the Venice Biennale,” says Cox.
“Every two years, let’s get together and reflect on what Detroit represents and designs. Detroit should have its own architecture Biennale.”
“The Architectural Imagination” will be on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit from Feb. 10-April 23. Visit mocadetroit.org for more information.