For his 2014 publication, Abandoned America: An Autopsy of The American Dream, Matthew Christopher photographed disused buildings, as well as those in disrepair, across the United States, from schools to factories and gas stations, documenting what he called the fall of one of the greatest civilizations in the world.
His photos were a meditation of sorts on the collapse of American industry, the subsequent job loss and the following abandonment of homes and cities.
Now, for the Biennale of Architecture, which opens here on May 28, the American Pavilion, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, and the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, has put the problem into the global spotlight, by presenting some imagined architectural solutions to what Christopher calls urban blight and the context of iconic buildings, using Detroit as its muse.
For the exhibition, The Architectural Imagination, curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon, have put on display models from 12 architects, presenting proposed architectural solutions for four Detroit sites.
The sites were selected from a total of 20 presented by local powers in Detroit, all of which are considered to be in need of transformation, Davidson told The Daily Beast.
Detroit has become an emblem for the problems documented in Christopher’s book, and in discussion here in Venice today, thanks to the loss of everything from the automobile industry to Motown, and the subsequent depletion of the population and emptying of homes.
But the idea of the exhibition is to create global solutions or to make Detroit, or these future visions for it, an inspiration that could apply to and help move forward other cities suffering from urban blight, all around the world.
The four Detroit sites selected for the exhibition, include Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit; the US post office; Dequindre Cut, and the Eastern Market and Packard Plant.
The 12 speculative projects presented in sometimes otherworldly looking displays, included a center to house 68,000 immigrants, or some of the increased number of refugees that President Obama has agreed be admitted to the U.S.; a vertical botanical garden; and a strange looking white building which the architects suggest should function as a reminder of the void.
The exhibition has been divided into four rooms, one for each site. Each shows physical models and sometimes materials along with a written explanation for each proposition.
“When Cynthia and I decided to submit an application, we decided Detroit was the right city for the Biennale,” De Leon told The Daily Beast. “Detroit is a city that is full of invention and imagination. It has a long history of inventing culturally significant art and architecture and exporting it to the rest of the world.
“We believe that what is happening in Detroit today is actually very positive, and that you can look at it from another perspective, or cast it in another light to provide inspiration for other cities around the world.”
De Leon thinks that Detroit has been portrayed by the media in a singular way, or that something has got lost in translation.
“What has been left out of the picture are the people left in Detroit,” she said. “There are a lot of grassroot groups in Detroit with a great deal of imagination and entrepreneurship, that are doing things that are changing the physical layout of the city, and that we think are very imaginative. We wanted to put those groups into conversation with architects, and for those groups to benefit from what architects can bring to the table.”
One architect to take part is Chicago-based Marshall Brown who has reimagined a charter school as a mini city that people can live in while Detroit is transformed.
“Detroit is in a state of flux and no one knows what it will become,” he said. “We have many parts of Chicago that people recognize in Detroit, like depopulation. I don’t look at those as a negative. I look at it as a challenge. Architects know what to do when cities are being built, but not when they are going in the other direction. I don’t think Detroit is a tragedy.”
A secondary idea behind the exhibition is to think about how to deal with post-Industrial cities in general.
“We want to explore potential in the post industrial city for architects to introduce new ideas,” said Davidson. “We chose Detroit because it was the center of public imagination for so many years, having produced the automobile, a model of construction for factories that went all around the world, or even Motown that changed the spirit of a generation. It is a city wrestling with a lot of problems, from job loss to racial problems, or loss of population. We said what kind of thinking can architects bring to the table that can capture the public imagination and then try to exercise change?”
Even though Davidson thought that she knew Detroit well, the size of the areas the projects are focused on are beyond what she calls normal architectural scale.
“Entire areas have been leveled through white flight which actually began in the 1950s,” she said. “The area around Detroit is prosperous and has grown in population. It is just this 138 square mile city with an eroded tax base that is suffering, that has an eroded population and landscape.
“The potential to think of new ways to live in a city and what architecture’s role in that is, is wide open for discussion. We wanted architects to create pieces that would open the discussion of how to live in post-industrial cities for ways forward. It is all part of a huge loop of culture and civilization. It is an endless cycle.”
As for other cities in the U.S. suffering a similar fate, “We could have chosen Baltimore,” she said. “Or Cleveland, or Southern cities that have lost jobs for any number of reasons, not just what Mr. Trump is saying, that he can get them back from China or Mexico, but because industry has changed. We have robots doing what people did, and Detroit is where that started. But suddenly what does the human do?”