The theme of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale Reporting from the Front—according to its curator Alejandro Aravena—addresses issues like inequality, sustainability, insecurity, and segregation by looking for “creative, innovative projects willing to risk going into such complex fields.” Further, these projects should be “able to integrate more than one dimension at a time, framing old, charged issues in an original way in order to move forward.”
How did it happen that only one American project (from Rural Studio) was included in the main exhibition? In part, one might assume that biennale president Paolo Baratta’s selection indicates a desire to avoid work from the industrialized countries and focus on contributions from the developing global southern hemisphere. This approach mirrors the 2015 art biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor. But an examination of the participants (excluding those in the national pavilions) disproves that notion, as there are 86 participants from Europe, 22 from South America, 18 from India, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as nearly a dozen from Asia.
Perhaps a closer look at the U.S. Pavilion may suggest a partial answer: The Architectural Imagination, curated by Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce De Leon, consists of 12 speculative projects for specific sites in Detroit, Michigan. But does the world have much to learn from these 12 visionary projects? Or is their “Americaness” so specific to our corporate society and culture as to be of little interest or importance to architects in other countries? While focusing on an American city, they make a claim to offer “far-reaching applications for cities around the world.” Furthermore, they assert that the projects are entirely speculative and “offer no serious solutions for a city beset by real problems,” at a time when they believe “problem solving has become the mantra of a new social agenda for architecture.” They feel that “powerful ideas and architectural forms” can “spark the collective imagination.” Might their reliance on the power of the imagination to suggest solutions to profoundly troubling problems come at the expense of a more expansive definition of architecture and a deeper urban analysis? It is important then, to interrogate these forms and proposals in order to understand why they might hold so little appeal to the rest of the architectural world’s “collective imagination.”
The curators made much of their early engagement in the design process with “an 11-member Detroit advisory board” that helped choose the sites and “arrange site visits and community meetings over a four-week period.” The group chose four sites in Detroit and then asked or selected architects to propose projects in them. The sites chosen were: Dequindre Cut/Eastern Market (1923 Division Street), Mexicantown (6370 Vernor Highway), The U.S. Post Office (1401 West Fort Street), and The Packard Plant (East Grand Boulevard and Concord Avenue).
Why were relevant community members such as business improvement districts omitted from the process, giving the illusion of inclusion yet allowing the freeform architectural fantasy to predominate? It is primarily this aspect of the U.S. Pavilion’s projects that is the starting point for the group Detroit Resists’ alternative proposal and virtual occupation of the pavilion in Venice.
By privileging architectural language and practice as exclusive to trained designers, the curators suggest that only architects have the capacity to “imagine” future spaces. This, in turn, encouraged the chosen designers to propose only large, internalized multi-use projects. All of these would be realized only via enormous financial investment—which in the United States doesn’t come through collective democratic action, but via top-down corporate development and profit. It is astonishing that the curators and architects are not more attentive to this reality of urban development in the United States. These projects might all be called the Quicken Loans proposals, as that company’s founder Dan Gilbert has his own vision for downtown Detroit. To that end, he has invested $1 billion in 2.6 million square feet of commercial space; he has big plans to build in the city over three years.
A more serious and collective attempt might produce an alternative to the previous system, one that consciously and systematically destroyed central Detroit to the benefit of the wealthy surrounding suburbs and region. But these architects (and curators) don’t seem to understand that corporate clients don’t often spend money on the sort of architectural added value hinted at in this pavilion; rather they employ commercial firms to crank out projects that bring immediate returns. Sadly, the future Detroit proposed by this pavilion seems not much different than the failed corporate city of the past.
Yet there were hints of a way forward in several of the pavilion’s projects. One can detect traces of alternative design modes in the project Detroit Rock City by Stan Allen, which works off of Detroit’s enormous Packard Plant to propose conditions for the creation of future smaller-scale architectural projects scattered throughout the plant. A Liminal Blur by Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam features a single sculpture that they hoped would embody the poetics of Mexicantown; their project proposes a program that supports the local constituencies while simultaneously addressing the more vital questions of architecture’s relevance to society as a whole. Andrew Zago proposed housing for Middle Eastern refugees displaced by American warfare in the region as an important starting point for a renewed Detroit.
The majority of the proposals are massive in scale and urban footprint. Pita and Bloom Architects’ New Zocolo is an “urban platform” or plinth hovering 16 feet above a street and parking lot that would become the support for six clusters of buildings in working-class Mexicantown. New Corktown (Present Future) and Dequindre CIVIC Academy (Marshall Brown Projects) both propose massive developments. New Corktown takes 250 blocks and reimagines them as a high-density environment with a 40-story complex of retail, office space, and residential flats. The Dequindre CIVIC Academy puts forward a 2.7-million-square-foot concrete mega-facility as a “coordinate unit or a single architectural entity” able to synthesize many diverse programs and spaces.
But the project that best illustrates the egregious defects inherent in the concept behind The Architectural Imagination is the spiraling ramp design Revolving Detroit described by its designer Preston Scott Cohen as a ”void” or a “purposeful consequence.” The massive ramp, undulating roof, or “void” can transform from orthogonal to hexagonal to elliptical and back again. With a nod to pure formalism posing as social planning, Cohen claims that the form is derived from the “historic Woodward Plan circles.” Further, the helically ascending ramp passes through the middle of a garage structure that Cohen claims will transform, over time, into a building of great importance to the city. A proposed 10-story building would rise out of the roof structure and “welcome the automobile.” It absurdly claims that as the city rejuvenates, the parking decks installed in the upper “hyperboloidal” spaces of the project will be redeveloped in a series of “performance” spaces: educational facilities, cinemas, athletic spaces, and community centers. Cohen is convinced the undulating passage will serve as a monumental portal to the river and, implicitly, a symbolic gateway to the border between the U.S. and Canada.
Likewise, Greg Lynn FORM’s proposal has a mix of uses for autonomous vehicles, manufacturing robots, university researchers, and students. A 24-foot-wide, 1.7-mile-long logistics drone super-highway would connect the complex’s original vertical elevator cores. In his catalogue essay, Lynn cites Cedric Price’s Detroit Thinkgrid proposal and emphasizes Price’s plan for a cheap mobile architecture of faculty offices, small mobile libraries, and teaching “booths” that were to be delivered on the backs of trucks and craned into place according to a pre-figured grid. But judging from Lynn’s enormous proposal, he seems to have entirely misunderstood the essence of Price’s. Had he or the curators studied the 1968 project more closely and seen it as a starting point for research, they might have transformed this pavilion into one of distinguished thinking and relevance. In short, Price believed there was absolutely no need to build any fixed architectural monuments in Detroit; for they would simply squander money on unwanted buildings in an attempt to appease white guilt. His project was initiated in the wake of the 1967 riots to find a strategy to deliver workers from their tough, impoverished conditions. As described in the book Architecture and the Special Relationship, Price held extensive meetings with community groups, educational bodies, and local politicians. Far more useful would be a system of social organization that encouraged the education and circumstances of younger members of the community. In theory, this would break the cycle of deprivation and social exclusion which held them back.
Regrettably, neither the curators nor the architects took Price’s thoughtful, reality-based, and radically imaginative project seriously. It, much more than the Architectural Imagination, inspired the profession and residents in Detroit to think of a truly new type of city. Provocative architecture projects that actually try to solve problems rather than remain in the gallery have been, can be, and will be embraced by architects worldwide seeking new ideas from the United States.