In his review of The Architectural Imagination, the exhibition we curated for the U.S. Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Biennale, William Menking raises important questions about architecture that the entire profession needs to address. Alas, he also makes blatant errors that grossly misrepresent the work that we and the 12 U.S. architecture teams developed to expand the discussion of architecture in Detroit.
The Architectural Imagination was conceived in late 2014, more than six months before Alejandro Aravena was named director of the biennale. That the exhibition begins a dialogue with Aravena’s theme is fortuitous. Menking suggests that the work in the U.S. Pavilion does not address Aravena’s concerns about “inequality, sustainability, insecurity, and segregation,” and then cherry-picks phrases from our press releases and exhibition catalogue to frame his argument. His egregious word substitution in one phrase must be corrected here.
Menking writes: “They [the curators] assert that the projects are entirely speculative and ‘offer no serious solutions for a city beset by real problems.’” His insertion of the word “serious” where we wrote “concrete” completely changes the meaning of our
catalogue statement. These projects are serious; they are not fixed buildings—that is, not concrete solutions. They represent multiple programs and design opportunities for a postindustrial city that is seeking unique ways to stabilize its population and neighborhoods. By putting architectural ideas and forms on the table for Detroit, The Architectural Imagination gives the city’s residents access to a high level of architectural design and language. This access empowers citizens to engage in discussions about the city’s future direction before that direction is decided by existing power structures.
From the beginning of this project we laid out a process that enabled the architects to meet with a number of diverse community groups. These organizations included members of business improvement districts that Menking erroneously claims were excluded from the process: the Southwest Detroit Business Association, the Eastern Market Corporation, Detroit Future City, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and others too numerous to list here. From these community meetings, the architects developed programs that recognized neighborhood aspirations and then they began to work on architectural designs. The projects will be shown in Detroit in early 2017, where we are organizing a series of public conversations about the projects and re-engaging the neighborhoods that worked with us last year.
It is also important to note that we worked with an advisory board of community activists (see thearchitecturalimagination.org) who were instrumental in the selection of the sites—sites that they considered key for the future of the city and that would benefit from speculative architectural thinking. Menking complains that the projects are large, but overlooks the fact that the four real sites, three of which are owned by the city, are even larger, due to job and population loss and abandoned buildings. To reduce them to small parcels is to return to a postwar model that failed in Detroit. Most importantly, if civic architecture is not to be subsumed by the large scale of corporate development in America today, then size matters in the construction of the public realm. All of the projects call for public investment—not developer-driven privatization. They follow the models already surfacing in Detroit through grass-roots organizations responsible for the success of the riverfront, Dequindre Cut, and Eastern Market. These recent projects, which have transformed Detroit, are not small, and at the time of their implementation, funding was
cited as the impediment to their realization.
The problems in Detroit are myriad; we, and the architects in The Architectural Imagination, would never claim to be able to solve them in the context of an exhibition. But by providing three options for each of the four sites, the projects put forth alternatives to the status quo and provide a framework for conversations about what the public realm could be. In doing so, they address inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation, and much, much more.
Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León
Co-curators, The Architectural ImaginationJuly 1, 2016
The theme of the 2016 Venice Architecture BiennaleReporting 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.
Dequindre CIVIC Academy references the idea of a coordinate unit that was developed by John Portman in his massive, fortress-like development Renaissance Center, “a total environment where all of a person’s needs are met.” Like so many other projects in the exhibition, its programming includes a multitude of uses such as cultural spaces, a community college, workshops and apartments for faculty, dining halls, and an 865-foot-tall bronze-clad tower housing a shopping center and an observatory. It’s really unfathomable that anyone would use the Renaissance Center as a model for a “new Detroit.” They would be operating on the premise that imagination alone, without reference to practicality or community involvement, can spin out benefits to the blocks lucky enough to be across the street. Clearly, this strategy did not work with the Renaissance Center, which in fact sucked the financial blood from the surrounding shops that gave the city it’s life.
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.
As a part of Detroit'sWassermanProjects exhibition, Desire Bouncing,a panel discussion addressed the future of architecture and art in Detroit. The panel was moderated by Reed Kroloff, principal of Jones Kroloff and former director of Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum.
The panel included exhibiting artist Alex Schweder, associate curator at MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design; Sean Anderson, architectural critic; Cynthia Davidson, Venice Biennale U.S. Pavilion co-curator; and Mitch McEwen, assistant professor of Architecture at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at University of Michigan.
Detroit is physically changing. Some of its architectural treasures and thousands more of its abandoned homes have been demolished. But now that Detroit is undergoing the slow process of rebuilding, what kind of architecture will replace it?
This and other questions were discussed among an expert panel of architects and critics that gathered last Friday at Wasserman Projects, a gallery and event space in a renovated fire truck maintenance facility in Detroit's Eastern Market. Around 50 guests attended the panel discussion, called "Architecture By Any Means Necessary."Kroloff began by asking the panelists, "What are things architecture can do beyond creating a city environment?""Structures are receptacles for stories, for meanings," said Alex Schweder, an artist who often combines performance and architecture in his work. "The structures in Washington D.C. are a manifestation of stories we tell about our country.""Buildings can perform things we never thought were possible," said Mitch McEwen, a founding partner at A(n) Office and Principal of McEwen Studio. Her example of Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which changed her conception of architecture, lead to an argument about the interaction between a building and its visitors. Cynthia Davidson described her distaste for Detroit's Renaissance Center, the headquarters of General Motors, often criticized for its confusing walkways and lack of synergy with downtown. "[Designer John] Portman makes you realize how controlling architecture can be," she said. In response to a question about what new architecture in Detroit should do, Schweder advocated architects and city managers give up some control. "Our roles can be collaborative with client and users," he said. "People want voice and agency in the look and use of their city."The discussion took a turn towards political issues and actual implementation of these ideas.Sean Anderson, acknowledged the difficulty Schweder's proposal. "History is often not recognized by developers that come and rebuild cities."During the audience question portion of the panel, someone mentioned that vast areas of Detroit that have no architecture, but "only the ghosts of architecture." He then wondered if this "absence" was worth preserving."Detroit is a city of single family homes," answered McEwen. She felt that memorializing vacancy was the wrong approach. "I hope the city rebuilds, but with respect for the logic of the single family home."Desire Bouncing will be on show through April 9th at the Wasserman Projects at 3434 Russell Street, #502, Detroit, Michigan 48207.
As part of the U.S. Pavilion for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, 20 photographs by 18 individuals have been chosen as winners of the “My Detroit” Postcard Photo Contest.
“The twenty photographs to be printed as postcards will help us tell the exhibition visitor short stories about life in Detroit,” explained co-curator Cynthia Davidson in a press release.
The pavilion, entitled The Architectural Imagination, will present 12 speculative architectural projects for four sites around Detroit. The postcards, made from the contest winning photographs, will be available at the pavilion as well as be part of the exhibition catalog.
Picked from 463 entries, the images were chosen by photographer and sociologist Camilo José Vergara, who has photographed Detroit since 1985, and Davidson. The images range from views of iconic Detroit architecture, including the Michigan Central Station, to family portraits of local Detroiters. Ten of the contest winners are Detroit residents.
"Detroit has a rich culture and history to draw from as we work toward creating a vibrant future," said Robert Fishman, University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning interim dean and professor. "The photos recognized in the postcard contest are a reflection of Detroit over time that we are excited to share with the world."
The Architectural Imagination is being organized through the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture, by co-curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de León. The U.S. Pavilion will be open at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale from May 28 – November 27, 2016.
The Postcard Photo contest winners are:
Sara Jane Boyers, Santa Monica, CA
Derek Chang, New York, NY
Jon DeBoer, Royal Oak, MI
Antoinette Del Villano, Brooklyn, NY
Jennifer Garza-Cuen, Reno, NV
Geoff George, Detroit, MI
Erik Herrmann, Ann Arbor, MI
Julie Huff, Detroit, MI
William McGraw, Dearborn, MI
Ayana T. Miller, Detroit, MI
Ben Nowak, Oak Park, MI
Kevin Robishaw, Detroit, MI
Salvador Rodriguez, Saint Clair Shores, MI
Harrell Scarcello, Southfield, MI
Sue Shoemaker, Brown City, MI
John Sobczak, Bloomfield, MI
Cigdem Talu, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Corine Vermeulen, Hamtramck, MI
The curators of the 2016 US Pavilion at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale have announced an open call for proposals for the exhibition The Architectural Imagination. They are looking for speculative projects that use Detroit as a testing ground for new modes of urbanism that could have application around the world.
Curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon will commission twelve visionary U.S. architectural practices to produce new work that addresses 21st century urbanism. They are looking for “design excellence, innovative speculative thinking, and architectural expertise in built and/or unbuilt work.”
For more information on how to submit, click here.
Call it the Floating City meets Motor City. The U.S. Department of State selected the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan to organize the exhibition of the United States Pavilion in the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. Curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon take Detroit as their starting point. Out of the ashes of Motown and Ford comes an urban archetype that provokes the exhibition title: “The Architectural Imagination.”
Much has been made of Detroit’s “ruin porn” and the pervasive blight that has transformed the city from a dense urban fabric to a patchwork. In Venice, “The Architectural Imagination” will present new ideas for sites in Detroit that ultimately have global application, each developed and explored by a select architectural team. As such, the city, which comes with a narrative of the hopes and fears of twentieth century urban America, might prove the model for a creative, resilient, and sustainable 21st century city.
“Historically Detroit has been a place of invention from the Kahn brothers to Motown to techno,” explained Davidson. She noted that the city is a site of American ingenuity applicable to many cities, however underscored architecture as the critical component. “Architecture itself has an important role to contribute to any city through form,” she continued. “We should be speaking through architectural form not just urbanism. Detroit is a laboratory for rethinking typologies.”
The organizers are forming a committee of advisors to select four sites in Detroit. A call for participant portfolios open to U.S. citizens and residents will go out in a couple of weeks, said Davidson.
Davidson is executive director of the nonprofit Anyone Corporation, based in New York City, and editor of the international architecture journal, Log. Ponce de Leon, recently named next dean of Princeton University School of Architecture, is currently the dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan and principal of MPdL Studio.
The American Academy of Arts & Letters was formed in 1904 on the model of the French Academy. It operates today as a 250 member honor society, and, since 1955, has had an active yearly architecture awards program.
The Academy has just announced its awards for 2014 with its top award The Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize (of $20,000) going to the Italian artist and architect Massimo Scolari for his contribution to architect as art. Scolari had a retrospective of his drawings and models last year at Cooper Union and a pair of his iconic sculptural wings are still visible on Coopers second floor balcony.
The Academy also announced that two Arts & Letters Awards of $7,500 each would go to New York firms Christoff:Finio and Selldorf Architects under the leadership of Annabelle Selldorf for creating work which shows "strong personal direction."
Finally the Academy gave well deserved awards to Michael Blackwood and Cynthia Davidson for their "exploration of ideas in architecture."
Back before the bubble—be that real estate or dotcom—there was a rather significant architectural rag known as ANY Magazine, meaning exactly that, or, if you're the nitpicking sort, Architecture New York. If you're reading this blog post, or writing it for that matter, it probably predates your architectural conscience. That said, it was a very Important and Influential publication, one with such luminaries contributing as Stan Alan, Peggy Deamer, Tony Vidler, Greg Lynn, and the rest of the gang. Well, the mag has a modest but earnest web presence, along with its younger sibling publication, the equally venerable log. Among the people involved with the former was the recently deceased Charles Gwathmey. On the occasion of the architect's passing, ANY has posted an interview the architect did for Issue 11, way back in 1995, with Cynthia Davidson. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. It's so nice it makes us wish we'd been around to read the thing first-hand.