Art Works Blog

Spotlight on International Architecture Biennale

On May 28, thousands of architects from around the world will come to Venice for the opening of the 15th International Architecture Biennale. This biannual event features exhibitions sponsored by some 60 nations, and a separate thematic exhibition curated by a specially appointed director.

For the United States Pavilion, Mónica Ponce de Léon—dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University—and I conceived an idea for an exhibition that would present new speculative architectural projects for Detroit. Believing that architecture can catalyze positive change in cities, we named it The Architectural Imagination to signify both something not yet seen and something that only an architect would envision.

When our proposal was selected by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in late May 2015, we set out to try to answer two questions: What is the architectural imagination? And why is the architectural imagination of value in Detroit?

The answers to those questions are still in flux; they will always be in flux, because ideas and needs are ever changing. Nonetheless, we, and a team of students from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, are currently installing the drawings and models that the architects produced over the last six months. It is looking like a truly exciting exhibition.

To conceive of an architecture exhibition without predetermined content is to take a big risk, particularly in the glare of the international spotlight of the Venice Biennale. But to consider the idea of architectural imagination, Mónica and I decided simply to frame the conditions for an architectural project: to lay out the idea of architectural imagination and to put it—and architects—to work in Detroit. By commissioning new work, rather than selecting completed projects, we risked that the work would not materialize or that the ideas and objects produced for display would fail to engage not only the viewer but also the urban subject. It was, however, a risk worth taking, as the work now shows.

We chose Detroit as the location for The Architectural Imagination because of its historical role as a locus of invention and its potential for reinvention. As the home of the automobile industry, the free-span factory floor, and Motown and techno music, Detroit was an important center of modern imagination in the eyes of the world. Today it looms in the public consciousness as a city with a depleted population and an urban landscape pockmarked with blight. But now that Detroit has emerged from bankruptcy, there is a certain excitement to plan for the city’s possible futures. For some, this means asking how to shore up neighborhoods, for others, what to build and how to build it equitably. With so much cleared land, new landscape projects are also one of the city’s priorities. The Architectural Imagination introduces architectural ideas into the mix as a way to spark the collective imagination, to launch conversations about design, and to position Detroit as a model postindustrial city, one that is more equitable and prosperous in entirely new ways.

To begin, we set two processes in motion. The first was to select the architects. We conducted a nationwide call for expressions of interest in The Architectural Imagination. We received more than 250 responses from across the country that represented more than 600 individuals. These included established, award-winning professional practices and lesser-known young designers. The 12 firms/teams we chose reflect the range of these responses, and emphasize creative thinking and design excellence across generations. We hoped that this diversity would bring very different approaches to the challenges posed by the sites.

The second, equally important process was to assemble a Detroit advisory board to help us choose the sites. Detroit’s new planning director, Maurice Cox, an architect who understands the biennale’s international significance, also joined this 11-member group of local advisers from the civic, nonprofit, and business sectors of the city.

When we met with the advisory board in early July 2015, they presented 20 sites that would benefit from the attention and research a speculative architectural project would generate. Together with the board, we selected seven sites for consideration. Mónica and I then revisited these sites to choose four—one for each of the four rooms in the U.S. Pavilion. Our final selections reflect typical conditions that Detroit faces today: the historic but dilapidated Packard Automotive Plant; an area along the Dequindre Cut near Eastern Market; a former light industrial site in Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit; and a large U.S. Postal Service facility between the Corktown neighborhood and the riverfront.

After we selected the architects, we assigned three teams to each site in order to receive three different proposals. The architects were asked to develop programmatic ideas and to produce architectural models and drawings representing their projects. Advisory board members helped to arrange site visits and community meetings that the architects participated in over four weeks in September and October. Some architects used drones to photograph their expansive sites; others made repeat visits and interviewed area residents.

Even with all of this activity, one could not have predicted the proposals the architects would produce. Mónica and I followed their work via WebEx conferences and e-mailed images. From the beginning the projects took different directions, from a school, to a research center for recycled building materials, to a refugee resettlement program, all of which were housed in exciting, imaginative forms. Unpacking this work here in Venice, we are seeing a range of ideas that is certain to launch a hundred conversations. If the architectural imagination captures the public imagination, then we will have succeeded in our effort to introduce new ideas in architecture not only to Detroit but to cities everywhere.

The 15th International Architecture Biennale is open from May 28 - November 27, 2016. The show will also be hosted at Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit from February 2 - March 27, 2017.

Cynthia Davidson is co-curator of The Architectural Imagination, executive director of the nonprofit Anyone Corporation think tank in New York, and editor of The International Architectural Journal Log.

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