2016 Architecture Biennial
American Pavilion: The Architectural Imagination
26. July 2016 | Words and Video: Bettina Schürkamp, Photography: Salam Rida
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds
Detroit is looking back to the future. Three years after financial bankruptcy in June 2013 the shrunken metropolis is reordering itself by tapping into its past as a pacemaker for modernity. The US Pavilion presents twelve architectural “speculations” for discussion on four illustrative locations in downtown Detroit.
Detroit’s image is currently coloured by a high crime rate, huge industrial wastelands and frequent arson in derelict buildings. In the 1920s she was the hub of the US automotive industry and the country’s fourth largest city, but the demise of car making had drastic consequences, the population falling from 1.8 million in 1950 to around 688,000 in July 2013. The “Architectural Imagination” exhibition in the American Pavilion operates with twelve architectural speculations to plead for a new beginning at four locations in downtown Detroit. Schemes embodying bold visions for revitalising run-down areas in the city were inspired by a manifesto issued in 1977 entitled The City in the City: Berlin: A Green Archipelago. Once the Architecture Biennial in Venice has come to a close, the twelve architectural scenarios will them move on to Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art in February 2017 and are set to culminate in a public consultation process.
A nationwide call for competition to which 250 American applicants responded led to firms of architects from all over America and the metropolitan region of Detroit being selected for the exhibition in July 2015. Mónica Ponce de León and Cynthia Davidson, the American Pavilion’s curatrices, react to the city’s tarnished image with an ambitious architectural contest geared less towards pinpointing viable projects than towards sounding out architecture’s capacity for “fuelling” urban regeneration. Imagination and inventiveness are to be the spark that flashes over from speculative architectural ventures to the surrounding neighbourhoods. Despite the exhibition not including lectures and discussions from a concomitant urban-planning process, postcard motifs from a photography competition on show in the foyer nevertheless indicate a growing interest in the city on the part of her population.
A jury of eleven selected four locations that, whilst pointing up the future potential for neighbourhoods such as Mexicantown, also cite Detroit’s eventful past with heritage buildings such as the former Packard car works. At the heart of the two curatrices’ “back to the future” strategy, along with the city’s history, are architectural schemes such as the “Potteries Thinkbelt” by Cedric Price (1964-66) and the urban-planning manifesto The City in the City: Berlin: A Green Archipelago (1977) by Oswald Mathias Ungers and Rem Koolhaas. With her post-war brownfield sites bounded by the Wall, Seventies’ West Berlin was an inspirational case-study for the restructuring of Detroit, says Cynthia Davidson in the exhibition catalogue cataLog. The concept, she continues, is exemplary in identifying places with potential, individually developing them as “islands of density”.
Maurice Cox, Head of Urban Planning in Detroit since February 2015, likewise sees this approach as offering a means of stabilising urban districts at strategic points, points that in the years to come are to be further densified with the aid of four to seven-storey housing. Cox points out that, under Mike Duggan, the city’s current mayor, urban renewal is being focused on neighbourhoods in which people are faced with the stark choice of either staying or leaving. The aim with the exhibition “The Architectural Imagination” is, he goes on, to investigate the impact architecture can make on this process of renewal. Good design imbues everyday things with an element of unusualness and significance, Cox argues. People either like or dislike it – it does not remain invisible at any rate.
Attention seems certain to be drawn to the three architectural speculations developed for an industrial area in Mexicantown in the south-west of Detroit. Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects give precedence in their urban-planning analysis to the neighbourhood’s physical, spiritual and cultural diversity. Spectators don 3D glasses to view a rhythmic composition that visualises the city’s collective memory as history in flux. Envisaged in the abstract entity are functions such as research and service-provision centres enclosing leisure features such as a roof garden, a grotto and a curiosity cabinet. A more concrete set of plans than this conceptually-driven speculation is provided by A(n)Office from Detroit with their “Promised Land Air” entry, which addresses itself with great intensity to the issue of environmental pollution caused by traffic routes in the locality. Their scenario foresees the Canadian consulate locating to the site, but also low-emission industries and homes for migrants. The Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River will have been completed within a few years, a cross-border link with Canada that will inject fresh impetus into the district.
The extensive mass of structure and area built upon implicit in these speculations triggers the question as to how realistic such wide-ranging measures actually are in a city as economically hard-hit as Detroit. Robert Fishman points out in a paper entitled “Detroit and the Acceleration of History” that, whereas the central city has shrunk disastrously, the population of the metropolitan region of Detroit has, since 1970, remained stable at around five million. Structural change led to many flourishing enterprises leaving life-expired sites in downtown Detroit and erecting up-to-the-minute production facilities in the region, thus inducing skilled operatives on high wages to settle there too. Per capita income, Fishman says, is thus continuously higher here than in major growth centres such as Los Angeles, Portland or Texas. Fishman concludes from this that the resources for a new beginning are in place and that a better ethnic mix is likewise close at hand.
Finding solutions for sprawling vacant properties such as the former Packard car works is nevertheless a daunting task for the city both financially and programmatically. SAA/Stan Allen Architect uses the original reinforced-concrete structure as an overarching frame within which smaller building units and areas of greenery are laid out as a vertical botanical garden. Urban Planning Director Maurice Cox specifically sees the yoking of countryside and urbanity as providing a unique opportunity to create a forward-looking identity on a reasonable scale for Detroit. As such, the drafts for the US Post Office on the Detroit River highlight both the opportunities and risks inherent in large-scale architectural speculations. As well as transforming the post-office building, the architects additionally envisage building onto West Riverfront Park, a popular venue for concerts. Given the many brownfield sites in downtown Detroit, this open area poignantly underlines the crucial case for embedding such speculations in an urban-development framework plan and overarching green-area concept. The exhibition at the US Pavilion will culminate in a public process in the spring of 2017. “The Architectural Imagination” unfurls plentiful scope for close interaction between architecture and urban planning in the coming consultation processes that may further the revitalisation of industrial locations other than Detroit too.