The U.S. Pavilion’s Reimagination of Detroit at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

By Luci Slater

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The 15th International Architecture Exhibition- La Biennale di Venezia, which began May 28 and is on display through November 27, 2016, is in full swing. This year’s theme, Reporting From the Front, is directed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who is best known for social-housing projects. The exhibition is laid out in a unitary sequence from the Central Pavilion to the Arsenale, which includes 88 participants from 37 different countries. The major concepts and messages that the theme expresses include awareness, perspective, need, opportunity, and choice, encouraging architecture to make a make a difference.

This year, the United States Pavilion presents The Architectural Imagination, an exhibition of new speculative architectural projects designed for specific sites in Detroit, Michigan. The project is co-curated by Cynthia Davidson, executive director of the nonprofit Anyone Corporation think tank in New York and editor of the international architecture journal Log, and Mónica Ponce de León, dean of Princeton University School of Architecture, founding principal of MPdL Studio, and former dean of University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, who the U.S. Department of State chose to organize the exhibition.

Together with an eleven-member Detroit advisory board, the co-curators picked four sites including vacant land along the Dequindre Cut near Eastern Market, an abandoned light industrial building and its paved surroundings in Southwest Detroit/Mexicantown, a massive U.S. Postal Service sorting facility and vacant block on the riverfront, and the abandoned and decrepit Packard Automotive Plant. Although they are specific sites, the curators want the ideas expressed by the architecture to become a model for other post-industrial cities facing similar practical challenges.

In order to select the architects, Davidson and Ponce de León issued a nationwide call for expression of interest in producing state-of-the-art architectural proposals for Detroit. With over 250 responses, Davidson and  Ponce de León selected 12 teams: A(n) Office, Detroit (Marcelo López-Dinardi, V. Mitch McEwen); BairBalliet, Chicago and Columbus, OH (Kristy Balliet, Kelly Bair); Greg Lynn FORM, Los Angeles (Greg Lynn); Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Atlanta (Mack Scogin, Merrill Elam); Marshall Brown Projects, Chicago (Marshall
Brown); MOS, New York (Hilary Sample, Michael Meredith); Pita & Bloom, Los Angeles (Florencia Pita, Jackilin Hah Bloom); Present Future, Houston (Albert Pope, Jesús Vassallo); Preston Scott Cohen Inc., Cambridge, MA (Preston Scott Cohen); SAA/Stan Allen Architect, New York (Stan Allen); T+E+A+M, Ann Arbor, MI (Thom Moran, Ellie Abrons, Adam Fure, Meredith Miller); Zago Architecture, Los Angeles (Andrew Zago, Laura Bouwman).

In the fall of 2015, the teams walked their project sites, and throughout the year have worked with community leaders and citizens to discuss each site’s aspirations and ideas before beginning their projects. Three architect teams were assigned to each site, whose purpose of the project is to demonstrate creativity and resourcefulness within the area. The architecture serves as an idea and makes visible hidden possibilities within the sites. The architects proposed programs and forms for the sites not as fixes for Detroit but as provocations for convening public conversations about the design challenges that face the 21st-century city.

Ponce de León’s design for the pavilion is a series of column signs announcing the exhibition in Detroit’s eight most commonly spoken languages. The 248-page cataLog, edited by Davidson, is available at the United States Pavilion and the bookshops inside the exhibition venues. The exhibit also includes 20 postcard views of Detroit, which Davidson and photographer Camilo José Vergara selected from the 463 entries to “My Detroit”, a postcard photo contest that the curators held last fall. These free souvenir postcards, many featuring images by Detroit photographers, each tell a short story about the Motor City.

The exhibition has been divided into four rooms – one for each site – and is a compilation of physical models, drawings, renderings, and various process work. Architect Greg Lynn even uses the Microsoft HoloLens in order to conceptualize and showcase his education center redesign of the Packard Plant, which has been abandoned for a half century. Other speculative projects ranged from a governmental center to house some 68,000 refugees by Andrew Zago to a vertical botanical garden by Stan Allen Architect. The exhibit will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in February 2017.

For more information about The Architectural Imagination, visit www.thearchitecturalimagination.org

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The Architectural Imagination, 2016. U.S. Pavilion courtyard. Photo by Salam Rida.

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The Architectural Imagination, 2016. Mexican Town. Photo by Salam Rida.

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The Architectural Imagination, 2016. Packard Plant. Photo by Salam Rida.

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The Architectural Imagination, 2016. U.S. Post Office. Photo by Salam Rida.

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The Architectural Imagination, 2016. Dequindre Cut. Photo by Salam Rida.

 

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