As we edge closer to the Venice Biennale opening and the opening of the Detroit-centric U.S. Pavilion, titled “The Architectural Imagination,” not everyone is convinced that the project is addressing the issues that are actually important to Detroit. In a statement released online February 20, an anonymous group identifying themselves as Detroit Resists wondered “who and what benefits from an idealization of ‘The Architectural Imagination’ in Detroit at a time when architecture is being violently reimagined by austerity politics.” In the statement, links are drawn between the architectural establishment and the systemic racism, classism, and political dealings that have resulted in some of Detroit’s most pressing issues.
AN caught up with Detroit Resists to get a better sense of its agenda and to get some clarification on its strong statement.
The question that is perhaps on most people’s minds is, who are you? If not specifically who are you, why the anonymity?
Detroit Resists is a coalition of activists, artists, architects, and community members working on behalf of an inclusive, equitable, and democratic city. Our Open Statement is anonymous because it’s not about us; it’s about the way in which the U.S. Pavilion uses Detroit and how this use of Detroit might relate to other processes of value extraction and dispossession currently underway in the city. We think that who we are does not bear upon the accuracy of our critique; we hope that our critique speaks for itself.
Of the hundreds of cities and towns in the Rust Belt that are facing similar situations as Detroit, why do you think Detroit is so often singled out as a space for architectural conjecture?
The recent interview in The Architect’s Newspaper with the two curators of the U.S. Pavilion provides a very revealing answer to the question of “Why Detroit?” In response to the thesis of the U.S. Pavilion, one curator said that “Detroit is a city that is rethinking what it means to be a postindustrial city in the 21st century,” and then the other curator said, “The project is not about Detroit.…We wanted to commission original work by architects to think about the 21st century.” From our perspective, they are both right; in other words, we also understand their project to be both about Detroit and not about Detroit. The U.S. Pavilion is about Detroit to the extent that it will exhibit architectural interventions in the city, but it’s not about Detroit to the extent that those interventions will explore “the architectural imagination” instead of respond to the city’s particular conditions.
We think that Detroit might solicit this sort of architectural conjecture because it’s so often framed as a “blank slate”: an urban topography defined by abandonment, vacancy, and emptiness. Where better to speculate on architecture than in a city where so much architecture seems to be uninhabited, unused, missing, or ruined? And here we approach an issue that is very important to us because the blank slate is not only a rhetorical term. It’s also an on-the-ground reality—a reality produced by foreclosures, evictions, water shutoffs, blight removal, and other processes that displace people, demolish buildings, and prepare the ground for speculative development. To the degree that the projects of the U.S. Pavilion apprehend Detroit as a blank slate, then, those projects are marching in lockstep with the processes of displacement and dispossession that are currently wiping Detroit’s urban slate blank.
Do you believe architecture is equipped to address the structural problems you have outlined in your statement and your Detroit 102 reading list? What should architects and designers be doing (or not doing) for a city like Detroit?
These are great questions. In announcing their project, the curators of the U.S. Pavilion wrote that they selected “12 visionary American architectural practices to produce new work that demonstrates the creativity and resourcefulness of architecture to address the social and environmental issues of the 21st century.” In fact, Detroit is really challenged by social and environmental issues: poverty, austerity urbanism, gentrification, lack of affordable housing, school closings, and the enormously uneven impact of each of the preceding on the city’s low-income black communities.
When the curators presented the U.S. Pavilion at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit a few weeks ago, however, we saw that the issues addressed by the visionary architects might be quite different. To be fair, we didn’t see projects—we saw programs for projects. But those programs concerned us. Based on what we saw, we are wondering if what we will find in the U.S. Pavilion is a passionate embrace of issues that admit—or, to be precise, seem to admit—technical solutions, along with a corresponding dismissal of issues that solicit political solutions—an embrace and dismissal that, of course, have long structured the imagination of architecture.
What you refer to in your question as “structural problems,” we see as political issues—issues that are profoundly playing out in architectural and urban form in Detroit. Think of the single-family house: at once a work of architecture, the predominant repository of wealth for many of Detroit’s residents, and the target of foreclosures, water shutoffs, blight removal, and so many other practices of austerity urbanism. Along with many others, architects can and are addressing these practices, sometimes in their professional capacity as architects and sometimes in their capacity as concerned citizens. So austerity urbanism, gentrification, and environmental injustice are not just conditions of possibility for speculative architecture; they are also the targets of architectural resistance.
If not through architecture, by what means does Detroit Resists envision positive change coming about? How might Detroit Resists define positive change?
More great questions. We see positive change as change that leads to an inclusive, equitable, and democratic city. Of course, this doesn’t seem to be what the U.S. Pavilion is focused on, and we recognize that. At the same time, though, we wonder if investments in architectural imagination, at least in certain formulations, and investments in a just city might not only be different but also mutually exclusive—this because some versions of architectural imagination require sites cleansed of politics to manifest themselves. For us, no politics equals no possibility of positive change.
Who do you see as your audience? Are you hoping to directly engage with the organizers of the U.S. Pavilion, or is there another public you want to inform?
Our sense is that many people in Detroit might have other concerns than how their city is represented in the U.S. Pavilion in the Venice Biennale. But one audience of the U.S. Pavilion is certainly the architecture world. The community in that world we’re most interested in addressing is the community of architecture students. Our concern is that the U.S. Pavilion might be poised to teach architecture students that austerity, gentrification, and the legacy and reality of racial injustice are not included among the relevant “social and environmental issues of the 21st century,” but are rather mere background noise behind the supposedly real business of architecture. We think otherwise and we hope that our engagement with the U.S. Pavilion might allow us to frame architecture differently.
At the same time, we are also interested in how the U.S. Pavilion itself might be reframed. The projects that will be exhibited in the pavilion are authored by “visionary architects,” which is to say by architects who have been selected on the basis of their architectural visions rather than their knowledge of and experiences in Detroit. But we believe that there are important architectural visions coming out of Detroit from engagements with the specific challenges facing the city. We think, then, that the U.S. Pavilion also solicits a presentation of Detroit’s architectural imagination—the presentation that the U.S. Pavilion is foregoing—to any and all audiences interested in the U.S. Pavilion’s declared topic.
What upcoming plans does Detroit Resists have for the coming months? Will we be seeing you in Venice?
Detroit Resists identifies with the title of the 2016 Venice Biennale—“Reporting From the Front”—though we are also, of course, not sure if and how the biennale will keep faith with the ambitions that this title gestures to. The frontlines of the battles that most of us are occupied with are in Detroit, but the U.S. Pavilion has waded into some of those battles in its attempt to stage Detroit as a space to reimagine architecture and the city. Precisely as a means of “reporting from the front,” then, we are planning to augment the exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion.