Venice architecture show becomes Detroit talking point

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Venice, Italy — The goal was to start a conversation about the future of Detroit.

Issouf Abiodun, a Paris, France resident, snaps photos of "Dequnidre Civic Academy" at the US Pavilion of Venice Architectural Biennale 2016. Detroit is the sole focus of the U.S. entry to the Biennale, which opened Saturday. The conceptual design of two empty lots near in Eastern Market near the Dequindre Cut was created by Marshall Brown Projects in Chicago.

And while the impact of the Motor City’s exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 won’t be fully realized for some time, it’s clear the fantastical designs got people talking.

More than 200,000 people are expected to visit the Biennale during its six-month run. The show is considered the Oscars of the architecture world — an international showcase of the best in contemporary design. Detroit is the sole focus of the United States’ entry, giving organizers a rare opportunity to make a fresh statement about a city long defined by its rust belt reputation.

“I think it’s great that architecture and urban design is part of the conversation,” said Maurice Cox, the city of Detroit’s planning director. “This conversation is just beginning. It’s a rare, tremendous opportunity.”

At the U.S. Pavilion, a building in a sprawling Napoleonic-era park, 12 re-imagined models of four Detroit locations debuted Saturday to scores of journalists and thousands of industry professionals from around the world. The sites include the former Packard Plant, the U.S. Post Office on Fort Street, and vacant spaces in Mexicantown and the Dequindre Cut area.

Public gets first peek at Detroit exhibit in Venice

The exhibit’s grand visions stirred some concern that under-represented Detroiters would be left out of plans for the city’s future. A group called Detroit Resists formed specifically to protest the city’s Biennale entry.

On Thursday afternoon, record producer and activist Bryce Detroit stood in front of a crowd outside the Dutch Pavilion and warned of the dangers of gentrification in the Motor City. According to his social media accounts, the artist came to Venice to support Detroit Resists and emphasize that grassroots involvement is key to the city’s resurgence.

His message: “Don’t let anyone tell you that Detroit is a blank slate.”

Goal: To spark conversations

The criticism of the show before it opened reflects how seriously some in Detroit are taking the potential impact of the exhibit, called “The Architectural Imagination.”

The show’s curators, Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon, contend the city is at a crucial point in its history and that architecture and design can bolster the innovative solutions many Detroiters have already proposed to deal with empty buildings and decades of population loss.

“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.”

Architects chosen to re-imagine the Detroit locations were told to create a conceptual design that would address the needs of the site, as well as a possible template for other cities that have suffered the loss of heavy industry.

An advisory committee was formed in Detroit to help inform the architects/designers. Each of the teams met with various community members to listen to the concerns at the four sites.

“Our main goal is to generate multiple conversations about public space and public life in post-industrial cities,” said Ponce de Leon, who was dean of University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning when she began working on the Biennale exhibit. She is now dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture.

Imagination is only limit

The museum-like models are wildly diverse. The only common theme may be that Detroit becomes a city of dense population again and a leader in technology and innovation beyond the auto industry.

One model by Los Angeles-based architect and designer Greg Lynn, for example, re-imagines the Packard Plant as a multiple-purpose facility with huge tubes and buildings that look soft and curvy. Viewers can put on Microsoft HoloLens goggles to view holographic images of the facility.

The new complex combines a transport hub, industrial park, factory and university. A 1.7-mile-long logistics-drone superhighway links 25 existing elevator cores at the plant.

Packard Plant owner Fernando Palazuelo, who attended the Biennale, praised each of the designs, though none will ever get built.

“Such an amazing platform as the Biennale can often mean more interest, investment — not just for the Packard Plant, but for the city,” Palazuelo said. “That is an amazing opportunity.”

Reeks of colonialism?

Many critics point out that show is speculative and autocratic — that despite organizers’ effort to reach out to the community, it’s still about egocentric architects and designers.

One local architect, Gina Reichert, has contended the exhibit’s approach “reeks of colonialism.” Reichert and her partner, Mitch Cope, are widely praised for their projects in Detroit that focus on neighborhood stabilization through architecture and art. The two recently posted a video that stressed their concerns of top-down architecture versus community involvement.

But supporters of the Detroit Biennale exhibit, including Cox, say it’s far too soon to judge it. He expects to see real impact from “The Architectural Imagination,” which will be on display in Venice until late November.

And next year, Detroiters get a chance to judge for themselves: The show is coming to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2017.

“The job of an architecture exhibition is not to be a kind of a pragmatic response to a site,” Cox said. “Its job is to project and propel us into us into the future.”