Backlash builds for visions of Detroit at Venice event

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

An elite architecture and design exhibit in Venice, Italy, that re-imagines some iconic Detroit sites may become fodder for the ongoing fight about gentrification in the Motor City.

A megamasonry mountain, formed by recycled building materials, is supported by the Packard Plant’s columns in this rendering.

The emerging debate is a sign at least some Detroiters are taking the Venice event seriously. As the city experiences an uneven comeback, the issue of who is benefiting from the rebound has become a contentious part of the dialogue.

The 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, officially called the 15th International Architectural Exhibition, debuts Saturday and runs until November. At the Biennale, 64 countries show off the best contemporary design their nation has to offer. In a rare move, the sole focus of the U.S. portion of the Biennale is Detroit.

For the U.S. entry, called The Architectural Imagination, 12 architect and design practices across the nation were selected to imagine new uses for four Detroit sites. The architects/designers will unveil museum-like models that are conceptual designs of the Detroit sites.

Concerns about the Detroit exhibit began weeks ago.

Detroit architect Gina Reichert, who was not involved in the project, said in an email to The Detroit News that “what’s being presented at the U.S. pavilion in Venice is an outdated mode of thinking about cities and the role of the architect, that the presence of überforms will save us all.”

“This is not Detroit’s imagination on display,” she wrote. “It is outsider thinking, untamed and turned on by the exoticization of a place they do not know or understand. It reeks of colonialism.”

But Vince Carducci, a cultural critic and dean of undergraduate studies at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, said it’s too soon to judge the Detroit exhibit in Venice.

“If we don’t talk about mass de-industrialization, the legacy of race and class, then it’s a thought experiment happening in Europe, and that’s all it will be,” Carducci said.

Others have expressed unease as well. A website called Detroit Resists has launched that defines itself as a coalition of local architects, activists and artists who wonder if the Biennale is going to be inclusive. A local artist named Bryce Detroit has started a crowdfunding campaign to travel to Venice to be part of a Biennale protest organized by several Italian art groups.

The Biennale models are based on four Detroit locations: the legendary former Packard Plant; a pair of muddy lots on Division Street near the Dequindre Cut and Eastern Market; the main U.S. Post Office downtown at West Fort; and an empty former maintenance terminal for Detroit Public Works on West Vernor and Livernois on the city’s southwest side. The city owns the land near the Dequindre Cut and the former maintenance terminal.

Each location has three different teams of architects creating their particular visions for the site. Only one of the architects lives in Detroit. Another practice has four members who teach at the University of Michigan. The others are based in various cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Cambridge, Mass., and Columbus, Ohio.

The models are fantastical visions of the site that will never become reality. But given the influence of the Biennale, they could shape future development in Detroit, many believe.

“Detroit is the ideal place” for the Biennale, said Monica Ponce de Leon, one of the two curators behind the Detroit exhibit. Ponce de Leon and the other curator, Cynthia Davidson, both aimed to showcase Detroit as a city with a long history of innovation and creativity.

“This attitude that we can come in and fix Detroit, that is not our viewpoint at all,” Ponce de Leon said. “It is the birthplace of the automobile industry, the concrete paved road, Motown and techno music. It is tremendous innovator of modern architecture and modern lifestyle.”

Davidson and Ponce de Leon didn’t want the U.S exhibit to be a tribute to one architect or designer, which is often the case. They wanted new works that would spark real dialogue and help many to view architecture and urban design as part of the solution to various social woes.

The curators took the unusual step of forming an advisory committee of local residents to help give the architects and designers a history of the sites and the city.

Maurice Cox, director of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, worked with the 12 teams as they met with dozens of community leaders and explored the city.

“The only way to assure that it was about Detroit was to give them audience with Detroiters,” Cox said. “If there is resonance, and I think there will be, Detroiters will see something they said reflected in these otherwise something fantastical expressions of architecture.’’

Cox and others say the Biennale is the just beginning of the dialogue.

“The job of an architecture exhibition ... is to project and propel us into us into the future,” Cox said. “It’s an invitation to imagine what’s possible. It is often visionary.”

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN

The Detroit News travels to the Biennale

■The Detroit News will be there this week when the most prestigious international exhibit in the world of contemporary architecture and design debuts in Venice, Italy. Detroit is the sole focus of the U.S. entry.

■We’ll see the 12 museum-like models of iconic Detroit sites, meet the architects and designers who created the visions, and, generally, report how Detroit plays in gorgeous Venice. Look for coverage in print and online at

■To learn more about the Biennale, go to the website Some 250,000 people are expected to attend the Biennale from May 28 to Nov. 27.