Detroit gets ready for its close-up in Venice

Louis Aguilar The Detroit News

Venice, Italy — Here in this gorgeous, old-world city, an elite international exhibit of architecture and design is preparing for a show that’s determined to prove these sometimes-snobby professions can have a social conscience.

No surprise, then, that Detroit has a big role in the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens to the public Saturday and runs until November 28. Some 250,000 people are expected to attended the Biennale throughout its run.

Amid a lush, sprawling Italian park, 64 countries will exhibit the best their nation has to offer in the world of contemporary architecture and design. In past years, that usually meant exhibits relied on retrospectives of “star” architects and landmark buildings. This year’s official theme is “Reporting from the Front.”

Nations have focused on various themes, such as buildings built during wartime, dwindling natural resources and economic disaster.

The focus of the Netherlands’ entry is a military camp built in Gao, Mali by the United Nations peacekeeper force. Of course, at the Biennale, this exhibit is beautiful — the building that holds the exhibit is bathed in the blue of the UN peackeepers.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum presents “A world of fragile parts” — an exhibition examining the threats to global heritage sites faced by war and political upheaval.

And then there’s Detroit. The Motor City is the sole focus of the U.S. entry. It’s based on four Detroit sites and here in Venice, those sites look like nothing that exists in the city now.

The show, called “The Architectural Imagination,” offers a dozen exercises in speculative architecture based on real Detroit places. Its curators, Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon, selected 12 very different architectural practices from around the U.S. to re-imagine the selected sites. Each spent time in the city’s neighborhoods before proposing projects.

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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 St.; and an empty former maintenance terminal for Detroit Public Works on West Vernor and Livernois.

Each location has three different teams of architects creating their particular visions for the site.

“We wanted to make the show about American architects thinking about Detroit,” said Ponce de Leon, a former University of Michigan dean who is now dean of architecture at Princeton University. “Our main goal is to generate multiple conversations about public space and public life in post-industrial cities.”

While at UM, she worked with Detroit high school kids for years.

“For me, it’s very personal,” she said Wednesday. “I have seen first hand the level of imagination and invention that Detroiters have. But globally the media views Detroit in a very narrow way.

“I thought this exhibit would be a great way to show the world the kind of diversity of thinking that goes in Detroit. It is a place full of big ideas.”