Architects Reimagine Detroit

A new exhibition in Venice showcases how 12 teams would reinvent four sites in Detroit badly in need of facelifts

(Pita & Bloom)

It's true that Detroit is in a grim state of deterioration. As much as 20 percent of the city’s 139 square miles are now vacant. 

But that also makes it a community ripe to be reimagined.

That potential to help rejuvenate a major American city is at the heart of a thought-provoking exhibition unveiled late last month in Venice, Italy at the 2016 Architecture Biennale, an event that showcases innovative architecture from around the world. The show, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, organized by the University of Michigan and titled “The Architectural Imagination,” focuses on new looks and purposes for four different sites in Detroit.  

“Detroit is a city on the brink of a new future and we felt architecture should be part of the conversation,” says Cynthia Davidson, executive director of the New York nonprofit Anyone Corporation and editor of the architecture journal Log, who along with Monica Ponce de Leon, dean of the Princeton University School of Architecture, curated the exhibition. 

Together they formed an advisory board that included city officials and people involved with a number of Detroit-area nonprofits, and asked it to recommend sites whose makeover could have a real impact. From the original list of 20 suggested sites, Davidson and Ponce de Leon trimmed it down to four. They then selected 12 different teams of architects from the around the U.S. and assigned three of them to each of the four locations. 

One is the site of a huge dilapidated plant on the city’s east side where the Packard Motor Company once built luxury cars. Another is a large, triangular lot next to a rail line, but also adjacent to a burgeoning immigrant neighborhood known as Mexicantown. Then there's a site near what's known as the Dequindre Cut, where a railway line once ran along the Detroit River. The final challenge was to rethink a 10-story mail-sorting facility that blocks a neighborhood called Corktown from the riverfront. 

Each team was instructed to come up with a clear purpose for a site, and only then create a design for how the land or the remains of any buildings would be transformed.

“We also asked them to try not to demolish anything, because there’s already been enough demolition in Detroit,” says Davidson. She pointed out that while the projects are all based in Detroit, the problems they attempt to address plague many cities that have lost much of their industrial cores. One of the exhibition’s goals, she says, is to foster ideas that could be applied far beyond Detroit.

She and Ponce de Leon believed that Detroit was a particularly appropriate choice, not just because of its current problems, but also because of the city’s past as the place that, as much as any, helped shape how America looks, a country that was largely designed in response to the automobile.

For all the exhibition’s visions, it’s certainly possible that none of these designs will ever come to fruition. “The Architectural Imagination” is less about designing actual buildings than it is about fashioning inventive ideas that can help people start to think differently about where they live.

“We are all for fixing leaking roofs and broken sidewalks,” says Davidson, “but that’s not everything. How can we raise the status quo for not just one neighborhood, but the city as a whole. Can architecture do that? We think it can be a catalyst.”

“The Architectural Imagination” will remain on display in Venice until November, then it will move on to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in February.

Packard Plant: Detroit Rock City

What remains of the once sprawling, but now abandoned Packard Plant provided a challenge to three architectural teams. Stan Allen Architect (SAA), based in New York, proposed using the old plant's remains as a platform for a vertical botanical garden that would serve as a scientific center, as well as an educational space. The project, called Detroit Rock City (above), is presented as a model for future development where the city is eventually repopulated as a "series of dense urban nodes—islands of urbanism within a larger matrix of open space."


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