Public gets first peek at Detroit exhibit in Venice

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Venice, Italy — Visitors praised the creativity and vision of a re-imagined Detroit during the opening day Saturday of an international architectural exhibit featuring the Motor City.

A dozen fantastical models of four real Detroit sites make up the official U.S. entry to Venice Architecture Biennale, the world’s most popular and elite showcase for contemporary architecture and design.

An estimated 250,000 people are expected to attend the six-month show, which set in a lush, sprawling park by the Venetian Lagoon. The U.S. is one of 64 nations with entries in the Biennale.

In the opening hours of the Motor City show, called "The Architectural Imagination," the international visitors viewing the show said they didn’t know much about Detroit or had visited the city.

“I know Detroit is tough, lost many people, but I see ... it has gardens in many places now,” said Issouf Abiodun, a 28-year-old corporate stage designer in Paris who speaks limited English. He snapped images of the English-language explanations of the exhibits so he could translate them later.

Like many visitors, Abiodun said he needed time to process the exhibit: “But I like the strong ideas, the many details. Very smart."

The Detroit exhibit drew some Norwegian photography students who stocked up on the free Detroit postcards, one of which displays a young man bicycling past a home engulfed in flames.

A pair of Serbian industrialists stood in line to don virtual reality goggles that provide a holographic walk through a re-imagined version of the Packard Plant, which ceased production in 1958.

A Peruvian engineering professor, Refugio Ganoza, said he was intrigued that Detroit had a neighborhood called Mexicantown. The former Detroit Public Works maintenance terminal at the corner of West Vernor and Livernois is one of the locations that has been re-imagined by the architects and designers for the Biennale.

One model is not a building at all, but a towering collage of bric-a-brac intended to reflect the diversity of the southwest Detroit neighborhood. It was designed by the Atlanta firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.

The 12 models of the Detroit sites are conceptual, which means they are intended to inspire but not actually be constructed. Besides the Packard Plant and Mexicantown, the sites also include an area near the Dequindre Cut and the U.S. Post Office on Fort Street.

Organizers of the Detroit show hope, among other things, the exhibit changes the Motor City’s often negative portrayal in the international media.

“Our main goal is to generate multiple conversations about public space and public life in post-industrial cities,” said Monica Ponce de Leon, one of the two curators of the exhibit.

Many Saturday visitors said they had heard of the Motor City’s woes.

“Of course, everyone has heard of the city’s downfall,” said Andrea Vismara, a novelist and photographer from Venice. “But I also have heard of improvement. The models are quite imaginative, and to show Detroit as city that generates strong visions for a new type of construction and design; maybe that is beneficial for the city.”

Davide Graniti, an architecture PhD student from Verona, Italy, was impressed the Detroit models promoted the use of recomposed materials for their various structures.

“There is much information to think about,” Graniti said. “These are relevant models that consider many issues architects examine —the use of new materials, new types of spaces. I hope that is more than just an intellectual exercise and it has some real effect on Detroit.”