Posts tagged with "Venice Architecture Biennale":

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BREAKING: SAIC and UChicago may be organizing the U.S. Pavilion at Venice Biennale

We have been reporting on the official silence from the U.S. Department of State regarding the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. But now there seems to be a glimmer of information on who will organize and curate the pavilion. A job posting on the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) website is seeking a “Venice Biennale US Exhibition and Program [Coordinator].” The exhibition, according to this posting, is being co-curated with the University of Chicago:
Under the leadership of the SAIC and UChicago program directors and curatorial team, the Exhibition and Program Coordinator supports the development of the U.S. pavilion at the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice, Italy (hereafter, “Biennale”) through research, fundraising, planning, scheduling, commissioning, staffing, and more. This work involves coordinating and collaborating with architects, artists, scholars, public and private organizations in both the U.S. and Italy.
There is no word on the theme of the exhibition and the posting makes us wonder if this group was selected without a coordinated curatorial approach or idea, perhaps based on a fundraising budget and strategy? The job listing claims the Program Coordinator will be under the program director and curatorial team of the sponsoring institutions. The architecture program of the Art Institute of Chicago is directed by Jonathan Solomon who co-curated the 2010 U.S. Pavilion with Michael Rooks. (The High Museum in Atlanta was the organizer for the 2010 pavilion as well.) Solomon clearly knows his way around the Venetian Giardini. Stay tuned.
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The U.S. currently has no curator for its Venice Biennale pavilion—and the clock is ticking

UPDATE 8/9/2017: The SAIC and UChicago may be organizing the U.S. Pavilion at Venice Biennale. See our new coverage here. Will the United States be represented at the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture? Since 2010, the State Department—the federal agency that organizes and partially funds the pavilion—began to systematize the pavilion’s creation through an RFP process. The announcement of the pavilion's curators and organizers typically happens a full two years before the event. It’s important to have this lead time as the curators and organizers must help fund the pavilion and raise at least $500,000. The 2018 Biennale will open on May 26, 2018, and there hasn't been any word on who's been selected. On this past June 12, we asked, why hasn’t the U.S. Department of State announced the U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale? Then we contacted the State Department Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and received the following reply from a spokesperson on July 27:
The State Department supports freedom of expression and speech around the world as a means to share American values and ideas with the world. We are proud to continue our support of an American grantee to the Venice Architecture Biennale, one of the most influential international architecture exhibitions in the world. A decision will be made in the next few weeks on a grantee for this year’s exhibit. We also want to note that the State Department’s support to the Venice Biennale is only a portion of the total funds that go each year to the grantee. The Biennale is a public-private partnership, with the private sector and individual donors also funding the featured U.S. exhibit. As such, official announcement and promotion of the award is carried out by the grantee.
Evidently, the curators and organizers—and not the State Department—are the ones to make the announcement (and begin the fundraising). Still, a person close to the U.S. Pavilion has told us that the State Department has made a decision on who will curate the exhibition and, perhaps as a result of funding negotiations, no announcement has been made. Furthermore, our contact has no idea when it will be made public. When we pressed the State Department on whether it had made a selection, the spokesperson responded again on August 3. According to him, it seems gears are in motion but a decision has not yet been "formalized":
The grant review and award process for the 2018 Architecture Biennale involves the State Department coordinating with several Federal Government entities, and the process has been extremely complex this year. We cannot precisely say when the decision will be made public, but know it is in motion and it will be soon. When a decision has been formalized and a grant is awarded, we will make every attempt to share your interest in the 2018 Architecture Biennale with the grantee organization, who ultimately will make the announcement.
The clock is ticking.
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Why hasn’t the U.S. Department of State announced the U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale?

When is the U.S. Department of State going to announce the commissioners of the 2018 American pavilion for the Venice Biennale of Architecture? It’s full year away from opening but, in fact, it's getting late in the process to create, fund, and install the exhibition. The American pavilion was for many years (the Biennale of Architecture began in the 1970s) a casual affair and officials would sometimes wait until last minute and simply call Philip Johnson and ask him for a theme—and to help fund the pavilion. In 2008, the State Department, the federal agency that organizes and partially funds the pavilion, began to systematize the pavilion's creation by implementing a traditional RFP process to select a theme and curators. The Department asked the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to organize a jury of peers to select the pavilion for Venice and, it was hoped, other national art and architecture exhibitions like Istanbul and Cairo. This has been the system since 2008 and has helped make the process more democratic and easier to organize. But what is up with the State Department announcement for 2018? We understand that the exhibition has been funded (by both the State Department and the NEA) and the NEA has passed on their recommendation of the top two applications. However, the deputy secretary at the State Department seems to be sitting on the announcement? One source claims that at least one of the finalists has been told they are in the running and the non-finalists informed (there were apparently a record number of recommendations this year) but at least one of the groups that submitted a proposal has not been contacted. Is this inaction a result of the Trumpian incompetence that we hear is spreading all over Washington or is there is simply no interest in having a pavilion at Venice in 2018?
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The 2018 Venice Biennale will focus on generosity and thoughtfulness within architecture

Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who are both principals at Dublin-based Grafton Architects and are curating the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, have disclosed their agenda for the Biennale. Titled Freespace, Farrell and McNamara explained at a press event that the 16th Biennale will exhibit "a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture's agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself." Officially, La Biennale Architettura 2018 will be known as The 16th International Architecture Exhibition Freespace and will begin on May 26th, running through November 25. At the press event held yesterday at Ca’ Giustinian in Venice, Farrell and McNamara elaborated on their plans, defining Freespace as the following:
  • Freespace describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture's agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself.
  • Freespace focuses on architecture’s ability to provide free and additional spatial gifts to those who use it and on its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers.
  • Freespace celebrates architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project - even within the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions.
  • Freespace provides the opportunity to emphasise nature’s free gifts of light - sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity, materials—natural and man-made resources.
  • Freespace encourages reviewing ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions where architecture provides for the well being and dignity of  each citizen of this fragile planet.
  • Freespace can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived. There is an exchange between people and buildings that happens, even if not intended or designed, so buildings themselves find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time, long after the architect has left the scene.
  • Freespace encompasses freedom to imagine, the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.
Farrell and McNamara continued, adding that the Biennale will showcase works of architecture—built and/or unbuilt—that exhibit "modulation, richness, and materiality of surface; the orchestration and sequencing of movement, revealing the embodied power and beauty of architecture." The pair also stated that they wish for the Biennale engage visitors emotionally and intellectually and to invoke discussion on architecture's contribution to humanity. In this sense, Farrell and McNamara's agenda is a riff on Alejandro Aravena's previously curated Reporting From the Front, which took a more hedonistic approach in addressing the overlap between architecture and global social issues. The Irish duo concluded their statement by saying:
We are interested in going beyond the visual, emphasizing the role of architecture in the choreography of daily life. We see the earth as Client. This brings with it long-lasting responsibilities. Architecture is the play of light, sun, shade, moon, air, wind, gravity in ways that reveal the mysteries of the world. All of these resources are free. It is examples of generosity and thoughtfulness in architecture throughout the world that will be celebrated in the 16th International Architecture Exhibition. We believe these qualities sustain the fundamental capacity of architecture to nurture and support meaningful contact between people and place. We focus our attention on these qualities because we consider that intrinsic to them are optimism and continuity. Architecture that embodies these qualities and does so with generosity and a desire for exchange is what we call Freespace. “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” - Greek Proverb.
About Grafton Architects: 
Farrell and McNamara founded Grafton Architects in 1977 and made their first Biennale appearance in 2002. In 2012, their firm won the Silver Lion for a promising practice. Their projects are mostly institutional—for universities, schools, and governments—and are spread across the globe. Most recently, their Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) building, seen above, won the inaugural 2016 RIBA International Prize.
Their statement in full, along with President of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta's remarks, can be found here.
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2016 Venice Biennale U.S. Pavilion to go on display in Detroit

The Architectural Imagination, the exhibition from the U.S. Pavilion of the 2016 Venice Biennale, is returning to the United States. Opening on February 11th at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the exhibition will bring the 12 proposed projects for Detroit back to their home city. Organized by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and curated by Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon, the exhibition was first shown at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. The show advocates for the power of architecture to construct culture and catalyze cities, with Detroit as the setting for a larger conversation about world cities. Projects in the show are presented through large models, drawings, and interactive virtual reality. The show includes work by; A(n) Office, Detroit, Michigan Marcelo López-Dinardi; V. Mitch McEwen BairBalliet, Columbus, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois Kelly Bair; Kristy Balliet Greg Lynn FORM, Los Angeles, California Greg Lynn Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Atlanta, Georgia Mack Scogin; Merrill Elam Marshall Brown Projects, Chicago, Illinois Marshall Brown MOS Architects, New York, New York Hilary Sample; Michael Meredith Pita & Bloom, Los Angeles, California Florencia Pita; Jackilin Hah Bloom Present Future, Houston, Texas Albert Pope; Jesús Vassallo Preston Scott Cohen Inc., Boston, Massachusetts Preston Scott Cohen SAA/Stan Allen Architect, New York, New York Stan Allen T+E+A+M, Ann Arbor, Michigan Thom Moran; Ellie Abrons; Adam Fure; Meredith Miller Zago Architecture, Los Angeles, California Andrew Zago; Laura Bouwman The opening of the exhibition will include an introduction by Dean Robert Fishman of the Taubman College and a presentation by exhibition curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon. The exhibition will be on show from February 11th through April 16th, 2017, and will be free to the public at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Michigan.
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Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara named curators of 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale

Yesterday the Board of the Venice Biennale selected the Dublin-based architecture team Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to curate the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, otherwise known as the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture. The duo founded Grafton Architects in 1977 and made their first Biennale appearance in 2002. In 2012, their firm won the Silver Lion for a promising practice. Their projects are mostly instututional—for universities, schools, and governments—and are spread across the globe. Most recently, their Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) building, seen above, won the inaugural 2016 RIBA International Prize. Paolo Baratta, chairman of the Venice Biennale board, released this statement on Farrell and McNamara and the upcoming Biennale:
The Exhibition curated by Alejandro Aravena offered visitors a critical overview of the worldwide evolution of architecture and underlined how important it is that a qualified demand on the part of individuals and communities be met by an equally effective response, thereby confirming that architecture is one of civil society’s instruments for organizing the space in which it lives and works. Along these lines, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara will continue to address the same theme but from the point of view of the quality of the public and private space, of urban space, of the territory and of the landscape as the main ends of architecture. The curators, who are well-known for the refinement of their work, are also known for their intense didactic activity and their ability to involve and fascinate new generations.
The biennale will begin May 26, 2018, and run through November 25, 2018.
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Detroit Resists decries lack of community representation on Venice Biennale U.S. Pavilion panels

Earlier in September, the community organization Detroit Resists submitted this essay, “Let’s get serious: “Community” and “Activism” in the Architectural Imagination,” regarding the recent controversy surrounding the U.S. Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. In a follow-up, they've written this "Annotation" regarding an upcoming series of panel discussions taking place at the Biennale. A full resolution version of the image above is available here. Entitled “The Architectural Imagination,” the U.S. Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale exhibits “speculative architectural projects” authored by twelve “visionary American architectural practices” for four sites in Detroit. According to curators Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León, these projects comprise “new work that demonstrates the creativity and resourcefulness of architecture to address the social and environmental issues of the 21st century.” Post-bankruptcy Detroit is a city shaped by violent processes of displacement in the form of mass evictions, mass foreclosures, mass water shutoffs, and mass blight removal primarily targeting the city’s working-class African-American families and communities. Taking this city as a field upon which to demonstrate architecture’s relevance, the U.S. Pavilion gestures to architecture’s long colonial tradition of appropriating sites of race- and class-based inequality as laboratories of disciplinary research. On October 1, 2016, the curators of the U.S. Pavilion will host “conversations” under the title of “Architecture and Change.” “Change” might be a very appropriate topic for the curators to address. As perhaps the most generic, value-free and depoliticized term in the historiographical lexicon, “change” offers itself up as a precious discursive resource: a word that can refer to virtually any difference over time whatsoever. Whether the architectural projects displayed in the U.S. Pavilion are posed as harbingers of “change” or consequences of “change,” conversations on “change” run the risk of displacing political understandings of historical transformation as, for example, in the form of decolonization or democratization. Repeated references to “the social” and “the political” in the description of these conversations may function as a ruse: these categories may be brought up as frames for discussion in order to elide their absence in the curatorial process itself. The circling of disciplinary wagons around the notion of architecture that the U.S. Pavilion advances is perhaps most vividly revealed in the constitution of the panels in “Architecture and Change.” The panelists are all faculty members from one of four schools of architecture in the United States, each with a deep stake in the U.S. Pavilion project: the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning is the Pavilion’s institutional organizer and direct recipient of the funding for the Pavilion provided by the U.S. Department of State, while the Princeton University School of Architecture, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture are official sponsors of this specific event. These schools are also employers of nine of the visionary American architects displaying work in the U.S. Pavilion. The panels, therefore, consist of the representatives of four institutions, discussing the work of faculty employed at these institutions, and funded by the same institutions themselves. As the list of the U.S. Pavilion’s sponsors reveals, most of the capital supporting the Pavilion comes from corporations that would directly benefit from the displacement of Detroit’s working-class African-American communities: Shinola is a luxury fashion company, Westin is a luxury hotel chain, and Aperol is a luxury liquor; Dassault Systemes makes Catia and other 3D software that designers use to make luxury architecture; and the Deshler group, Global Transportation Management, and GS3 are different subsidiaries of a single corporate conglomerate supplying the parts and logistics that manufacturers use to make automobiles, luxury and otherwise. The list of the U.S. Pavilion’s sponsors is itself an important text; it illustrates how the Pavilion participates in the current alignment of architectural attention and economic investment that is transforming Detroit into a city of gentrifying consumers and it points to the beneficiaries of the architectural imagination that the Pavilion stages. Who is absent from these conversations? We might suggest that the very communities these processes pretend to aid are both invoked and erased. Architecture can never change in decolonizing and democratic ways without transformative engagement with movement-based activism—the only site of emancipatory agency in our historical conjuncture. This is a proposition that the U.S. Pavilion not only refuses to grapple with but also, with all the talk of “change” floated around it, might actively attempt to displace.
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The Victoria & Albert Museum grapples with art, architecture, and authenticity at the Venice Biennale

As the Palmyra arch—destroyed by ISIS and recreated by archeologists and scientists—tours the world, preservation has been a hot topic this year. Building on this fervent global discussion, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) from London exhibited A World of Fragile Parts at this year’s Biennale in Venice.

Located in the Arsenale, the exhibition was designed by London architecture studio Ordinary Architecture and curated by Brendan Cormier. This was also the first time the V&A and La Biennale di Venezia had worked together. A World of Fragile Parts focuses on the phenomena of copies and raises questions about authenticity and the act of emulating artifacts. Does copying result in fakes? Rip-offs? Or acts of cultural preservation?

The exhibition illustrates how museums have long been displaying duplicates. The V&A itself did so from the 1800s onwards by creating plaster casts of art and sculpture work. In 1867, “The Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art” was set up by the V&A to aid the exchange of such copies (a reproduction of which is on show). "The [V&A] founding director, Henry Cole, had a mandate to bring examples of great art and architecture to a British public," Cormier told The Architect's Newspaper (AN) over email. "Since certain pieces were unmovable, especially architectural details from churches across Europe, he instead decided to commission plaster cast copies of those details and bring them to London." The practice allowed locals to view artwork from across the globe, however, it eventually fell out of favor in the 20th century, with public opinion swaying to view such copies as unauthentic.

On display in the exhibition is the head of the former Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. Originally discovered in 1912, the bust has been on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin since 1924. Despite many calls from Egypt to return it, the German museum has refused and has blocked access to the artifact. That didn’t stop artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, though. Without the permission of the museum, Al-Badri and Nelles scanned the head of Nefertiti using an Xbox Kinect controller and made a 3D print.

The artists' 3D-print—exhibited in Cairo but also publicly available under a Creative Commons License—is the most precise scan ever made public of the original artifact. “With the data leak as a part of this counter-narrative we want to activate the artifact, to inspire a critical re-assessment of today’s conditions and to overcome the colonial notion of possession in Germany,” the two artists said on their website.

A World of Fragile Parts doesn’t just cover this passage of history: Cormier has sampled modern reproductions too. Part of the remade Palmyra arch can be found in the exhibition. The arch was fabricated with precise stone-cutting tools and information from a 3D model built using photographs of the original. In this example, and indeed many others, a sense of urgency is installed throughout the exhibition. "Despite best efforts to preserve originals, there will always be a level of uncertainty—the potential damage of violent attacks, environmental disasters, and accidents—that put our material culture at risk," said Cormier. "Compiling a vast database of digital backups, which then can be reconstituted physically, offers an immense opportunity."

Working with Cormier, architect Sam Jacob created a full-size mock-up of a refugee camp from Calais, northern France. Using, wood, plastic, and CNC milled synthetic stone, the installation referenced the camp which has become a talking point between France and the U.K. as refugees camp on the border between the two countries.

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Venice Architecture Biennale to host symposium on museums and urban progress

This weekend, a symposium at the Venice Architecture Biennale, "Museums and Cultural Spaces As A Motor of Urban and Social Progress," will address the role of culture in society and cities. The Architect’s Newspaper will be there reporting on the event and the international museum experts, architects, curators, urban planners, and policy makers scheduled to speak. The event will take place in The Teatro Piccolo Arsenale all day Saturday 24, 2016. For more information, visit here.
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Detroit Resists fires back at Venice Biennale’s U.S. pavilion curators over community engagement

Detroit Resists is a community organization that submitted this essay, "Let’s get serious: “Community” and “Activism” in the Architectural Imagination," regarding the recent controversy surrounding the U.S. Pavilion at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale. We've published it here with links to The Architect's Newspaper's review and the curators' response. In their response to William Menking’s review of The Architectural Imagination, the curators of the exhibition, Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León, call out Menking for “his egregious word substitution in one phrase.” Menking wrote that “[the curators] assert that the projects are entirely speculative and ‘offer no serious solutions for a city beset by real problems’.” The curators point out that they used the word “concrete” instead of “serious” in their original statement; while the projects in The Architectural Imagination were not “concrete solutions,” the curators argue, these projects were nonetheless “serious.” Regardless of how one parses the meaning of “serious” in relation to The Architectural Imagination, the curators invite us to read their “Response” as closely as they attempt to read Menking’s review. When we engaged in that reading of the curators’ “Response,” we also find some wordplay worthy of note. When The Architectural Imagination was launched in the summer of 2015, the project’s website announced a “Detroit Advisory Board.” In the “Response,” however, we read about “an advisory board of community activists.”  Who—or what—are these “community activists”? The Architectural Imagination’s Detroit Advisory Board was comprised of a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State, an Associate Dean of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Planning Director of the City of Detroit, the Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the CEO of Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, a Real Estate Manager of Midtown Detroit, Inc., and on and on… We submit that there is no conventional definition of “community activist” that would apply to any member of this advisory board and we are fairly certain that few—if any—members of this board would present themselves to any Detroit community as a “community activist.” Moreover, many Detroit communities know organizations represented on the Detroit Advisory Board as explicitly anti-activist. The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has been a driving force in the securitization of public space in downtown Detroit; despite the efforts of the National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union to defend the right of free speech on the publicly-owned RiverWalk, the Conservancy has consistently and actively prevented activists and demonstrators from assembling there. Midtown Detroit, Inc. has choreographed the transformation of the Cass Corridor, once a center of alternative communities and activist organizations in the city, into the gentrified “Midtown.” Detroit Future City has scripted the displacement of some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities and most vibrant activist organizations for “innovation landscapes.” What prompted an advisory board with a decided leaning towards market-oriented neoliberal urbanism to be recast as “an advisory board of community activists” is a not uninteresting question, but we—just like the curators in their “Response”—are more interested in the effects of this rhetoric than the reasons for engaging in it. In reframing the members of their advisory board as “community activists,” the curators rhetorically annihilate authentic community activism in Detroit—activism that has been resisting emergency management, austerity politics, disenfranchisement, and ethnic cleansing well before and all during the course of their project—and they delete this activism from the architectural imagination that they so seriously want to advance. This annihilation allows the curators to co-opt the term “community activism” to describe philanthrocapitalism, public-private partnerships, corporate nonprofits, and the culture industry. In so doing, the curators invite us to occupy a world in which “community activism” is an appropriate name for the activities of the state, foundations, real estate development enterprises, and, presumably, the architects who serve them. This co-option of “community” and “activism” becomes vivid in a dramatic instance of word substitution in the curators’ “Response.” Consider, in one short section of that response, the way in which the words “community,” “business,” and “neighborhood” so easily replace one another:

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. (Emphases added.)

Through nothing else than the magic of word substitution, we see meetings with philanthrocapitalist development groups becoming “community meetings” and “community meetings” offering revelations of “neighborhood aspirations.” Once again, the curators perform an annihilation by co-option: otherwise unrepresented “neighborhood aspirations” are here conjured up through some of the very entities that these neighborhoods are currently opposing. What is at stake in these word substitutions? We think that the stakes are high enough to qualify these substitutions as at least as “egregious” as Menking’s replacement of “concrete” with “serious.” Through rhetoric, magical thinking, and an arrogation of the right to profess upon communities to which they have no accountability, the curators place themselves and their project in the position of giving voice to a supposedly voiceless citizenry, a citizenry otherwise unable to contend with the socio-political situation in which they find themselves. Consider, then, these lofty words from the curators’ “Response”:

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.

In staging an exhibition of speculative architectural projects as a gift of “a high level of architectural design and language” to Detroit’s residents, we hear the echo of civilizing missions whose colonial authority is cast as educative and morally uplifting; in the claim that the exhibition of these projects “empowers citizens,” we see the imagination of an abject citizenry with no capacity to empower themselves; in the notion that “the city’s future direction” has not yet been decided by “existing power structures,” we see a disengagement from a city whose ongoing reality is, to a great degree, the attempted imposition of precisely that direction by precisely those structures; and in the claim that the speculative architectural projects in The Architectural Imagination “address inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation, and much, much more,” we hear an attempt to co-opt the work of organizations that are actually working with and for the communities dealing with those issues. In a final exercise of word substitution, let us substitute the imaginary “community activists” invoked by the curators of The Architectural Imagination with actual community activists currently resisting mass water shutoffs, mass foreclosures, mass evictions, racial injustice, police violence, food insecurity, education privatization, and other threats facing Detroit’s residents: We the People of Detroit, Detroit’s People Platform, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, Black Lives Matter Detroit, Detroit Eviction Defense, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, People’s Water Board, and many other groups—none of which the curators of The Architectural Imagination apparently saw fit to engage. When seen in the context of the work of these groups, we cannot understand the engagements with “inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation,” and the other issues the curators claim for The Architectural Imagination as at all serious. Moreover, we also believe that “architecture”—whatever that contested word is taken to mean—can find much more inspiration, agency, and relevance by learning from and working with communities and activists engaged in issues around inequality, sustainability, insecurity, and segregation than by claiming those engagements by little else than fiat. In the introduction to The Architectural Imagination published in the project’s catalogue, Cynthia Davidson approvingly quotes the following words of the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai: “The imagination today is a staging ground for action, and not only for escape.” If Davidson had turned the page in the book in which Appadurai wrote these words, she would have read Appadurai’s subsequent qualification of his claim: “It is important to stress here that I am speaking of the imagination now as a property of collectives, and not merely as a faculty of the gifted individual (its tacit sense since the flowering of European Romanticism).” With its celebration of the work of “visionary American architectural practices” and its tacit disregard for actually-existing communities, The Architectural Imagination advances just the model of imagination that Appadurai is writing against. We think, then, that The Architectural Imagination fails to meet its own standard for imagination. Seriously.
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What role should architects and outsiders have in reimagining Detroit?

There is often a barrier to entry when it comes to talking about Detroit. No matter how empathetically one approaches the subject, there is the distinct possibility of being accused of insensitivity. Detroit has been through, and continues to go through, some of the most difficult urban issues in the country. And, naturally, many Detroiters are downright tired of outsiders coming in and proposing “solutions” to the city’s ills. So when it was announced that the United States Pavilion for the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale would focus on the city, it was not surprising that some would take issue.

The United States Pavilion is explicitly about Detroit. The pavilion is organized by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and curated by Mónica Ponce de León, former dean at Michigan and current dean at Princeton University, and Cynthia Davidson, editor of the journal Log. Titled the Architectural Imagination, the two curators charged 12 design firms to speculate on four sites throughout Detroit—the former Packard Automotive Plant, the U.S. Post Office on Fort Street, and city-owned sites in Mexicantown and the Dequindre Cut. The firms range from lesser-known talent to well-known names like Stan Allen and Greg Lynn. All firms were given free rein to imagine what program and form should go on their sites. They met with city and community representatives to discuss their projects and gain a better understanding of the sites. Overall, the exhibition is fairly typical of what one might expect to see in a show about architecture, with large models and drawings filling the pavilion. (See our review of the pavilion and de León and Davidson's response.)

Before the exhibition opened, well before any of the designs were revealed, criticism was leveled against the show. Most notably this critique came from a group called Detroit Resists. Remaining anonymous, Detroit Resists released a statement linking architecture, and the institutions that generally support building, to some of the systemic issues that plague Detroit: mass water shutoffs, evictions, gentrification, and spatial racism. The group accused the organizers, and indirectly the participating firms, of political indifference.

And Detroit Resists was far from alone in its skepticism, if not in its fervor. The conversation of Detroit and its relationship to contemporary design and architecture is a popular one. The U.S. Pavilion is not the first, and will not be the last, to speculate on Detroit. The general criticism of any design proposals produced for the city is that the egoism of the designers and their lack of connection to the city mean that they could not possibly contribute to the betterment of the people of Detroit.

One could not have a conversation about the possible designs without also having a conversation about whether it was even appropriate to talk about architecture and Detroit together. Just weeks before the Biennale opening, New York’s New Museum hosted a weeklong workshop titled Ideas City in Detroit. The workshop brought together Detroiters, other Americans, and international designers and architects to discuss and think about the city. Similarly, the U.S. Pavilion participants engaged the community in conversations throughout the design process. A great deal of the conversation in that week, and in the concluding public forum, revolved around the role of outsiders in the reimagining of Detroit. Ideas City made very few proposals for the city, though. Instead, it reserved most of its actions to discussion and listening. By most accounts—from Detroiters and others—the event was productive.

Yet the skepticism of the U.S. Pavilion is not what is at issue. Rather, it is the preemptive cynicism and dismissive posture that came with that skepticism. To say that architecture, from within or from without Detroit, is inherently a negative for the city, is to negate any possibility of it being anything else. Having a serious conversation about architectural ideas means admitting that Detroit is not a war-torn wasteland, because it isn’t, and engaging with architects means accepting Detroiters as urbanites as much as any other city dwellers.

Now that the pavilion is open, we are able to look at the projects and judge whether they are doing the harm of which they have been accused. Proposals range from complex abstractions of information gathered from the community to complex postindustrial tech complexes. Others take on community gathering spaces, and yet others reimagine infrastructural amenities, such as urban farm space and material reclamation. Now is the time to carefully read the projects and decide whether they live down to the allegations of cultural insensitivity that were laid against them.

Detroit, like all cities, is inseparably linked with architecture, old and new. No matter how badly, or well, things are going, architecture is part of the city-making conversation. It will never heal the ills of any city. It is not a solution or a means to specific ends. Yet to dismiss the possibility of architecture is to close the conversation on the built environment. And though it is naive to think that architecture won’t be used for nefarious purposes, it is cynical to think that it has to be used as such. Where exactly it fits into improving the postindustrial city, or the racially segregated city, is still unclear. But there are people working on it.

The U.S. Pavilion, The Architectural Imagination, will be open from May 28 through November 27 at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. More information on Detroit Resists can be found at detroitresists.org

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Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León respond to AN’s review of U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Curators’ Response

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 Imagination July 1, 2016