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On a World Stage, Architects Imagine Detroit as the City of the Future

At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, 12 designs envision how “the capital of urban ruins” can move forward from crisis.

Architect Greg Lynn's city design includes corporate research centers and movable collaboration spaces. (Courtesy of Greg Lynn/FORM)

This week at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Detroit will represent the United States as a city of the future—one that could provide inspiration to cities around the globe.

At first, the beleaguered city may seem like an odd choice. “Detroit has a very strong image throughout the world as the capital of urban ruins,” says Robert Fishman, an urban historian at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “It's a kind of symbol of what went wrong with the United States during the years of the urban crisis.”

Indeed, a mention of the city that once stood as the heart of America’s lucrative auto industry now evokes bleak images of deteriorating buildings, vacant schools, and destitute neighborhoods. But associating Detroit solely with urban decay is like thinking in the “past tense,” says Maurice Cox, the city’s director of planning and development.

The Biennale, Cox adds, allows urban planners and designers to pivot the conversation toward how architecture can help the city can move forward. And it puts that conversation on a world stage.

The U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale, which runs through November 27, will showcase visions for the city by 12 architects from across the country working with the University of Michigan to transform underused spaces in ways that could help the city bounce back. The exhibit, titled “Architectural Imagination” and curated by architects Monica Ponce de Leon and Cynthia Davidson, focuses on four specific Detroit sites: the culturally rich Mexicantown; an old post office near the riverfront; the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant; and Eastern Market, a popular place to buy locally grown produce.

Stan Allen Architect reimagines the Packard Automotive Plant with an observation tower and conservatory, part of a larger vertical botanical garden. (Courtesy Stan Allen Architect)

In one design, the Packard Plant gets reimagined as a vertical botanical garden by the firm Stan Allen Architect. In another, architect V. Mitch McEwen turns an old industrial yard in Mexicantown into a futuristic neighborhood with housing built to purify the air around and in it.

If the projects look and sound fantastical, that’s because the architects were given the green light to think imaginatively. This has drawn concern that the designs are disconnected with the realities facing Detroit, including the basic infrastructure failures plaguing lower-income residents, the city’s shrinking population, and its deep racial divide.

Detroit Resist, a group made up of local artists, community activists, and architects, is also in Venice this week presenting what member Bryce Detroit, a musician and community activist, says is an “alternative approach to reactivating space and co-designing community in the most culturally and socially astute way possible.”

Fellow member Andrew Herscher, an architectural historian at the University of Michigan, says the group is concerned that the exhibit’s entries aren’t inclusive enough, and might gloss over architecture's political and social significance in excluding underserved communities. “Architecture is not only a profession or discipline, but also a practice carried out whenever a community makes space for itself,” Herscher tells CityLab. “This means architecture [should] not only imagine itself as making spaces for community, but also co-creating spaces with the community.”

The two will stage a “digital occupation” of the U.S. Pavilion, showing projects of “resilience and resistance” from Detroit communities. These include a fence built by community groups to protect a woman from eviction on the city’s east side, as well as a project in which an artist painted “Free the Water” on a water tower to protest massive water shut-offs.

Cox, who is on the advisory board of the Architectural Imagination exhibit, argues that while the individual projects are conceptual, the architects were instructed to address real issues. “One of the things I was looking forward to was a desire to solve real problems and not simply showcase the brilliance of the architects,” he says. “If we could introduce them to real people and real programs, that wouldn’t make their works any less visionary, but it would ground it in the sense of who they were designing for.”

So Cox arranged for the architects to meet with community leaders before they went to the drawing board. For McEwen, that meant understanding that she was designing for residents who may soon be displaced by a bridge-expansion project between the U.S. and Canada. Part of that expansion includes building a customs plaza in Delray, a Detroit neighborhood of about 250 families.

V. Mitch McEwen reimagines an industrial site as a residential area. (Courtesy of A(n) Office)

McEwen and her team focused on an turning an unused maintenance yard near a heavily used highway into a residential area. There was just one problem: “Part of the major issue in the area is environmental quality in terms of air,” she tells CityLab. “This area has the highest asthma rates in the state.”

Her design may look very sci-fi, with tubes running through the site and apartment buildings filled with holes, but each feature serves a purpose. The tubes, she says, are pneumatic and can transport goods in and out of the area while reducing the number of diesel trucks on the nearby highways. And the holes are actually a built-in air purification system. “We looked at this as an opportunity for remediation, not just in terms of the environment but actually remediating a whole neighborhood,” she says.

In Detroit-native Andrew Zago’s project, which reimagines a site near Eastern Market, twisty buildings recall something out of a Dr. Seuss book. But the two issues he’s designing to address are far from whimsical: depopulation and mass migration.

“When we were working on the project last fall, it was about the same time that the Obama administration announced that it was going to increase the number refugees allowed into the U.S. in light of the Syrian refugee crisis,” says Zago. “We realized that Detroit's metropolitan area has the largest Arab-American community in the U.S., with a huge amount of social services [necessary] to deal with incoming people.”

A site near Eastern Market would become a neighborhood for refugees in Andrew Zago’s vision. (Courtesy of Andrew Zago)

So they designed the space as a temporary shelter for incoming refugees to get settled in their new country, and wrote an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to consider accepting more refugees—68,000 over the next five years—and directing them to Detroit, a city that’s gone from a population of 2 million in the 1950s to just 689,000 today. The space would feature a large, federally funded building where refugees could learn job skills, as well as dual live-work spaces.  

“You would do this as a one-time humanitarian-aid effort and as a special project of urban renewal,” Zago adds. “We know where refugee communities resettle, and they end up within a few years making a positive economic impact.”

“No one would say architecture is the solution” to all of Detroit’s problems, Fishman says. “We’re all very much aware that the rebuilding process [requires] transformation in basic infrastructure and investment in the city.”

He adds: “But I think because these are speculative projects—they’re not limited by difficult facts on the ground—they can really open up possibilities that would not otherwise be visible.”

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