Reporting from the Front: The Architectural Imagination of Detroit

Last week, co-curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) on the evolving designs for the U.S. pavilion at Venice’s 2016 Architecture Biennale.  Despite being held on a snowy weekday evening in downtown Detroit, the large space was standing-room only, and if the lively conversation before and questions following the talk were any indication, nearly everyone in the room was actively engaged in learning about the process.

davidson and ponce de leon

The Venice Architecture Biennale features national pavilions for dozens of countries from all over the world.  Conceived of as a cross between architecture’s Academy Awards and a platform to workshop ideas at the vanguard of architectural thinking at an unmatched scale, the exhibitions stay up for nearly six months and are referenced by architects, journalists, and students for months or even years afterwards.  Each Biennale has a theme; this year’s is Reporting from the Front.

What makes this jet-set event feel unusually close to home is that this year’s theme is located, well, close to home.  In addition to the overarching theme, each country’s curators are responsible for providing an additional framework; Davidson and Ponce de Leon have chosen to develop the idea of “The Architectural Imagination” by intensely working on four sites, located exclusively within Detroit.  From hundreds of applications, they have chosen 12 architecture firms from all over the country, including some from Michigan, to develop proposals for what each one could be, meaning that 3 unique proposals are being developed for each one of the sites.  Albert Kahn’s Packard Plant, a neighborhood in Mexicantown, an entire block surrounding the Dequindre Cut, and the U.S. Post Office on Detroit’s waterfront will be at the center of unique design proposals imagining architecture as a solution to issues that are painfully local, but also representative globally of larger issues and problems with which postindustrial cities and regions are grappling.  Turin, Italy; Havana, Cuba; Chelyabinsk, Russia; Monrovia, Liberia; Busan, South Korea; Lodz, Poland: these are just a few of the cities around the world that aren’t exactly dying, but which are far from thriving, and they are looking hungrily to Detroit for answers.  They’re looking to Detroit, frankly, for hope.

Some individuals and the anonymous group Detroit Resists are uncertain about the significance of this exercise.  They question whether architects are glossing over Detroit’s troubled history (racism, redlining, systematic disenfranchisement, and “austerity urbanism”) in favor of pornographic picturesqueness and whether the designers are attempting any meaningful engagement with actual members of the community.  While these are valid questions, it’s important to remember that the purpose of the Biennale is less about developing well-defined solutions to well-defined problems and more about enriching our common understanding of complex systems and to bring more order, justice, sustainability, and beauty to the world through architectural thinking.

Once the work goes up in Venice, it will be up to Detroit to bring it home.  I’m looking at you, Hamilton Anderson, Neumann/Smith, Albert Kahn Associates, Rosetti, SmithGroup JJR, Ghafari, Harley Ellis Devereaux – and you, too, Biddison Architecture, Integrated Design Solutions, Thomas Roberts, inFORM studio, McIntosh Poris, Archive Design – and you, all you designers and architects proliferating out into the city: you are the true experts.  You know your city, your neighbors, your craft, and your future better than anyone else.  You are the front from which architecture is reporting.  It is up to you to scrutinize “The Architectural Imagination,” both in Venice this year and in 2017 when it returns as an exhibition to MOCAD, for lessons in architectural thinking and solutions that you can take home and make work for you.  For them.  For us.

There is no one else to do it; there is no where else it could be done.  Detroit’s future will be imported from Detroit.  Be a part of it.

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