Fantastical visions could shape Detroit of future

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

In a small U.S. State Department building in Venice, Italy, crews are putting the final touches on 12 museum-caliber models of Detroit buildings and places.

They are fantastical visions, resembling modern art or miniature sets for a science fiction movie.

None of the models will become reality, yet many expect them to shape the way the Motor City looks in the near future. And while few have actually seen them, they have already generated unease over whether the exhibit celebrates Detroit or exploits its decline.

The models are “the best America has to offer” in the world of contemporary architecture and design, a U.S. State Department statement declares. They were created by 12 teams of architecture/design groups from across the nation, selected out of 250 practices who wanted to make the Detroit models.

Next week, these models debut at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, officially called the 15th International Architectural Exhibition. The Venice Biennale is considered the Oscars for contemporary architects and designers.

These 12 conceptual designs of Detroit will represent America. At the Biennale, 64 countries show off the best their nation has to offer. It is rare a single city represents an entire nation.

“Hundreds of thousands of people who know of Detroit in the popular imagination, or are accustomed to Detroit being a city of the past, will be invited to see Detroit as the city of the future,” said Maurice Cox, city of Detroit’s planning and development director. Cox is influential in determining what kind of buildings and spaces get built and preserved in Detroit.

“The Venice Biennale will be understood as a pivot … a defining moment,” Cox said.

One model imagines the downtown U.S. Post Office main facility near the Detroit River with a subway stop surrounded by a newly planted tree farm. Near the current Salvation Army, a towering new housing complex is made of cross-laminated timber.

Another depicts the former Packard Plant, which ceased production in 1958, as a working factory again, making new materials used to build houses to cars to clothes.

Another has recast a former maintenance yard for Detroit Public Works at a traffic-choked intersection of West Vernor and Livernois as an integral link to the neighborhood’s proximity to Canada; it would house a Canadian consulate. The imagined site also offers housing for Detroiters displaced by the new international bridge and expansion of the Marathon Oil refinery. There’s even a facility that fights the city’s high asthma rate — a killer toll of Detroit’s heavy industry.

Urban designer and Detroit resident Mitch McEwen is familiar with the southwest Detroit site, since she bicycles past it on her way to a Salvadoran pupuseria restaurant on Livernois. She is among those who created a model of the location for the Venice exhibit.

“The Biennale is an amazing honor,” the University of Michigan professor said. “So often, the Biennale shows where architecture is headed.”

Not everyone, however, is a fan. A website called Detroit Resists — calling itself a coalition of local architects, activists and artists — wonders if the Biennale is going to be inclusive. The group says it wishes to be anonymous.

“The protest brings up the whole issue of who gets to represents Detroit,” said Vince Carducci, a cultural critic and dean of undergraduate studies at the College for Creative Studies.

Exhibit spotlights city

Some 250,000 people are expected to attend the Biennale. It opens to the public Saturday, May 28, and runs until Nov. 27. International press will report about the Detroit models, and consequently, about Detroit. Throughout the months-long Biennale, panels full of intellectuals will wax poetic about the importance of Detroit and how it represents the same opportunities and challenges many cities in the world face.

Many in Detroit who have heard of the Venice Biennale say the exhibit will be a game-changer.

Cox worked with the 12 teams as they met with dozens of community leaders and explored the city over the past year. The teams were selected by two curators that worked with the University of Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

One of the curators, Monica Ponce de Leon, was dean of U-M’s school of architecture when the Biennale process began. Now she is dean at Princeton University’s School of Architecture. The other curator is Cynthia Davidson, executive director of New York-based Anyone Corporation and editor of the international architectural journal Log.

Davidson and Ponce de Leon pitched the idea that Detroit should be the focus of the U.S. entry at the Biennale. Among other things, they raised $650,000 to make the exhibit happen.

“Detroit was the ideal place,” Ponce de Leon said. “It is the birthplace of the automobile industry, the concrete paved road, Motown and techno music. It is a tremendous innovator of modern architecture and modern lifestyle.’’

It also faces the same problems many cities in the world grapple with: segregation, crime, traffic and inequality.

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

The name of the Detroit show is The Architectural Imagination: “But imagination, conceptual designs, grounded in reality,” Davidson said.

Four distinct sites

The 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 Street; an empty former maintenance terminal for Detroit Public Works on West Vernor and Livernois. 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, McEwen, lives in Detroit. Another practice, which has four members, is in Ann Arbor; they all teach at University of Michigan. The others are based in various cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Columbus, Ohio.

Some spent less than a week in Detroit, where they met with residents and visited the locations and other parts of the city.

One Detroiter the teams met with is Dan Kinkead, former director of projects at Detroit Future City, a nonprofit that thinks about long-range planning for the city. He has an architecture and design background, and runs his own consulting firm in Detroit.

Kinkead and others say given the type of talent involved and the sway the international Biennale commands, the 12 models of Detroit can impact reality.

“These may be speculative designs, but because they’re part of the Biennale, that platform, it tends to shift the frame enough that it starts to influence the practical. It changes the way many think about these spaces,” Kinkead said.

“We also need to realize, in a very peculiar way, these kind of adventurous schemes may be most achievable in a place like Detroit,” he said, mainly because it’s cheaper to develop here compared to other U.S. cities.

Maria Salinas is among the many Detroiters who met with the architects who had never heard of the Venice Biennale. “Once they explained what it was, I was like ‘Wow, what a great opportunity,’ ” Salinas said.

Salinas is executive director of Congress of Communities, a southwest Detroit-based nonprofit that deals with strategic planning for the neighborhood. Salinas helped gather about 25 various southwest residents to meet with the architects about the West Vernor site last fall. They held a three-hour meeting, Salinas said.

“I am all about protecting the neighborhood. And so when people come in and say they got big plans and they know how to fix our problems, that doesn’t usually get very far,” Salinas said. “But they came and they listened well and they asked questions. They were respectful.”

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN