In his review of The Architectural Imagination, the exhibition we curated for the U.S. Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Biennale, William Menking raises important questions about architecture that the entire profession needs to address. Alas, he also makes blatant errors that grossly misrepresent the work that we and the 12 U.S. architecture teams developed to expand the discussion of architecture in Detroit.
The Architectural Imagination was conceived in late 2014, more than six months before Alejandro Aravena was named director of the biennale. That the exhibition begins a dialogue with Aravena’s theme is fortuitous. Menking suggests that the work in the U.S. Pavilion does not address Aravena’s concerns about “inequality, sustainability, insecurity, and segregation,” and then cherry-picks phrases from our press releases and exhibition catalogue to frame his argument. His egregious word substitution in one phrase must be corrected here.
Menking writes: “They [the curators] assert that the projects are entirely speculative and ‘offer no serious solutions for a city beset by real problems.’” His insertion of the word “serious” where we wrote “concrete” completely changes the meaning of our
catalogue statement. These projects are serious; they are not fixed buildings—that is, not concrete solutions. They represent multiple programs and design opportunities for a postindustrial city that is seeking unique ways to stabilize its population and neighborhoods. By putting architectural ideas and forms on the table for Detroit, The Architectural Imagination gives the city’s residents access to a high level of architectural design and language. This access empowers citizens to engage in discussions about the city’s future direction before that direction is decided by existing power structures.
New Corktown by Present Future slowly replaces the old U.S. Post office with wood skyscrapers built from trees grown throughout the city. (Matthew Messner/AN)
From the beginning of this project we laid out a process that enabled the architects to meet with a number of diverse community groups. These organizations included members of business improvement districts that Menking erroneously claims were excluded from the process: the Southwest Detroit Business Association, the Eastern Market Corporation, Detroit Future City, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and others too numerous to list here. From these community meetings, the architects developed programs that recognized neighborhood aspirations and then they began to work on architectural designs. The projects will be shown in Detroit in early 2017, where we are organizing a series of public conversations about the projects and re-engaging the neighborhoods that worked with us last year.
It is also important to note that we worked with an advisory board of community activists (see thearchitecturalimagination.org) who were instrumental in the selection of the sites—sites that they considered key for the future of the city and that would benefit from speculative architectural thinking. Menking complains that the projects are large, but overlooks the fact that the four real sites, three of which are owned by the city, are even larger, due to job and population loss and abandoned buildings. To reduce them to small parcels is to return to a postwar model that failed in Detroit. Most importantly, if civic architecture is not to be subsumed by the large scale of corporate development in America today, then size matters in the construction of the public realm. All of the projects call for public investment—not developer-driven privatization. They follow the models already surfacing in Detroit through grass-roots organizations responsible for the success of the riverfront, Dequindre Cut, and Eastern Market. These recent projects, which have transformed Detroit, are not small, and at the time of their implementation, funding was
cited as the impediment to their realization.
The problems in Detroit are myriad; we, and the architects in The Architectural Imagination, would never claim to be able to solve them in the context of an exhibition. But by providing three options for each of the four sites, the projects put forth alternatives to the status quo and provide a framework for conversations about what the public realm could be. In doing so, they address inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation, and much, much more.
Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León
Co-curators, The Architectural Imagination
July 1, 2016