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Detroit architecture exhibit sparks international curiosity

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Venice, Italy — Some 4,000 miles away, in a European city renowned for its old-world architecture and ancient canals, an exhibit about Detroit is sparking some international curiosity.

Reporters from at least a dozen nations swarmed the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 on Thursday, the first day that media got a look at an event that’s considered the Oscars of the architecture and design world.

Detroit is the sole focus of the U.S. entry at the Biennale. Twelve fantastical models of four Detroit sites are on display in what curators of the exhibit hope will change the world’s view of the Motor City.

“This exhibition is critically important for architecture and Detroit,” said Cynthia Davidson, one of the two curators of Detroit’s entry, “The Architectural Imagination.”

“Architecture has an enormous range of ideas and actions it can take,” Davidson said. “This is a really critical moment in Detroit; with coming to terms of where it is and where it could go, of what it could become.”

The line was out the door at various points during the day to see the Detroit exhibit. At night, some 800 people jammed the official opening party in the sculpture garden of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Detroit techno pioneer Blake Baxter spun the tunes for attendees, including U.S. ambassador to Italy John Phillips, Packard Plant owner Fernando Palazuelo and plenty of new fans of Detroit.

“I want to go to Detroit to see the post-industrial city reinvent itself,” said Diana Marrone, a Naples-based journalist and public relations consultant. “It is not hard to understand a city that invented modern things like the assembly line, the great music like techno — that it is a place of unique invention.”

The Detroit exhibit at the Biennale features highly stylized versions of how iconic locations could be transformed.

At one of the models based on the ruin of the Packard Plant, reporters put on Microsoft HoloLens goggles to view holographics featured in one architect’s vision.

Called “The Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge, and Innovation,” the conceptual design by the Los Angeles-based architect and designer Greg Lynn re-imagines the Packard Plant as a sprawling new factory with huge tubes and buildings that look soft and curvy.

In another exhibit, architect Marshall Brown created a model of a tower building for what is now two muddy lots on Division Street near the Dequindre Cut. The tower is called “Dequindre Civic Academy,” a 2.7 million-square-foot facility partially based on the Renaissance Center.

The models are based on four Detroit locations: the former Packard Plant; vacant land on Division 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.

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

At the U.S. Post Office facility — a place with more than 1,000 workers — postal officials said they had no idea the complex was going to be “re-imagined.”

Yet here, architects have re-imagined the site as “The New Corktown,” which imagines riverfront-area space surrounded by trees and a subway stop. Another, “The Next Port of Call” by the firm BairBalliet, features a series of swirling white-and-gold buildings between open spaces.

“We wanted to make the show about American architects thinking about Detroit,” said Monica Ponce de Leon, the other curator of the Detroit exhibit. She is currently dean of architecture at Princeton University. She previously was dean of University of Michigan’s school of architecture and planning. “Our main goal is to generate multiple conversations about public space and public life in post-industrial cities.”

That’s good, because there is some talk already in Detroit that this elite show is mere exploitation of the city — ruin porn —that taps into a growing unease about gentrification.

Organizers and others here insist it can help change the conversation and that dialogue is just starting.

“This is a great opportunity for an international platform that any city would be lucky to have,” said Packard Plant owner Palazuelo, who attended the exhibit. “To have this kind of incredible talent examine spaces in the city — that can open many people’s eyes of the tremendous possibilities in the city and that many Detroit residents have created.”

The Venice Architect Biennale opens to the public Saturday and runs until Nov. 28. Some 250,000 people are expected to attended throughout its run.

“Globally, the media views Detroit in a very narrow way,” Ponce de Leon said.

“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.”

About the sites

Twelve top architect and design practices across the nation were selected to imagine new uses for four Detroit sites for the Biennale. Each site was assigned three different teams, so each location has three re-imagined models.

The sites are:

U.S. Post Office, 1401 W. Fort. The facility — it’s a post office, mail processing center and administrative office — takes up an entire block. The architects were encouraged to imagine how the building could help connect the thriving Corktown neighborhood and the west riverfront, where the RiverWalk path now extends.

Dequindre Cut/Eastern Market area, 1923 Division. These are two empty dirt lots owned by the city. The site is one block from the latest addition of the Dequindre Cut pathway, the former railway that is now a popular bike and pedestrian trial. It’s also on the eastern edge of Eastern Market, the historic farmers market that is attracting upscale retail and housing.

Mexicantown, 6370 W. Vernor. The site is a former maintenance yard for the Detroit Public Works near an ugly, traffic-choked intersection of West Vernor and Livernois. Various organizations have tried, unsuccessfully, to raise interest and funding to develop the site. West Vernor is the main business strip to the resilient southwest side community.

Packard Plant, East Grand and Concord. The massive former Packard Automotive Plant, named after the former automaker, has become an iconic symbol of Detroit decay. Its new owner, Fernando Palazuelo, describes the facility as 3.5 million square feet of potential. He’s made progress in cleaning up the space, securing it from tourists and scrappers, and securing several tenants. He estimates it will take up to 15 years to overhaul.