Postcards of Detroit help tell the city's story at Venice Biennale of Architecture

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Visitors to the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale on Architecture can leave with not just images of a futuristic Detroit in their heads. But with some photo postcards in their hands. 

By Patricia Montemurri

VENICE (WJBK) - The Detroit landscape reimagined at the Venice Biennale of Architecture features otherworldly, fantastical designs. But the free souvenirs for visitors are postcards of a Detroit marked by familiar landmarks of distinction and devastation.

The postcard photos range from artsy, moody shots of Detroit’s architectural gems, such as the Belle Isle Aquarium, the Belle Isle Bridge and downtown skyscrapers. But there are also well-known icons of the city’s decay, like the Michigan Central Train Station and a burning house.

The postcards are based on photos submitted by the public in a contest last fall, and judged by famed New York City photographer and sociologist Camile Jose Vergara and Cynthia Davidson, the editor of international architecture journal Log. Davidson also is one of the co-curators who chose 12 architectural teams from among 250 applicants  to create the unique, speculative designs targeting four Detroit neighborhoods.

The postcards had plenty of takers as media and trade people took in the exhibits this week, before the Venice Biennale opens to the public Saturday  and runs through November, and the Detroit designs come to Detroit’s MOCAD museum next February.

The postcards don’t depict many neighborhood scenes or reflect the city’s predominantly African-American population. There's a 1960s -era snapshot of white youngsters sitting on a car hood in a well-kept neighborhood. There’s a photo of a white young man on a bike riding by a grassy vacant lot, while a house fire rages in the background. There’s one shot of a black youngster standing in front of a van outfitted with stereo speakers, and another shot of a Hispanic family in front of a vintage car. There are two photos of the decrepit Michigan Central train station - one of them with a bridal party, who are white, posed in front of the station.

The full line-up of photos can be seen at

Yazemin Bay, an arts journalist from Istanbul, Turkey, hovered by the postcard rack with her friend Friday, after an acquaintance told her to make sure to see the Detroit designs at the U.S. Pavilion.

"My friend told me Detroit is emerging from the ashes," said Bay.

New York City-based architect Bill Ryall said some of the postcard photographs are “images you don’t expect to see because they’re so beautiful.”

He was captivated by a photo of the city’s Belle Isle Aquarium and an overgrown baseball diamond fence in Rouge Park. The photo of a young man bicycling down a street seeming impervious to the roaring house fire behind him, said Lyall, “is rather shocking.” He is inspired to visit Detroit, he said, based on recent media stories he’s read and the boost from the Biennale exhibit.

Tom Letherbarrow, an architect from Perth, Australia, carried away a handful of the Detroit postcards, citing the striking composition of one which features a downtown mural, as well as one that had a faded sign painted on a brick building that read “Enjoy Detroit.”

What does he know about Detroit as he peruses the exhibit? The Detroit exhibit showcases 3-D models of four different Detroit neighborhoods, created as speculative designs by 12 teams of U.S.-based architects.

“The city struggled over the last 10 years. It’s car manufacturing industry had all but dried up. There are lots of people not earning much money,” said Letherbarrow.

He especially like a postcard of several pre-Depression era corner bank buildings, now reinvented as stores, businesses, or churches. “There’s a sense of irony there, isn’t there,” said Letherbarrow.

Andreas Heuvel, an architect from Muenster, Germany, entered the U.S. Pavilion Friday and stopped immediately at the array of postcards.

“My mind is already pretty full of these pictures I’ve seen - empty spaces, empty places, and how nature is coming back to the neighborhoods,” said Heuvel, who picked out a black and white photo of downtown Detroit skyscrapers.

When the U.S. Pavilion was formally opened Friday, dignitaries celebrated the pavilion's spotlight on Detroit by saluting the city's industrial past and its ongoing revitalization.

But there were no dignitaries from the City of Detroit government here to participate in the opening ceremonies or get a close-up look at the designs. The U.S. exhibit on Detroit was organized by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, with the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department.

“We certainly invited the mayor and (city planning director) Maurice Cox and it happens to be a difficult time period,” said Interim UM Architecture Dean Robert Fishman. One of the event’s organizers, former UM architecture dean Monica Ponce de Leon, said that it’s likely that busy civic officials felt it wasn’t necessary to be in Venice because the exhibit will be displayed starting in February at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MOCAD). 

Both Fishman and Ponce de Leon, now at Princeton University, said they expect the Detroit exhibit to jumpstart a healthy discussion about Detroit’s landscape and rebuilding when the exhibit moves to the MOCAD museum in February.

“I think there will be a lot of controversy. There’s a great suspicion that it will be architecture for architects’ sake and that it has no relationship” to everyday city living, said Fishman. But he believes citizens over time  will be surprised by how the architects used community concerns to fashion their designs.

“They’ll argue it out,” said Fishman, "and that’s not a bad thing."

The Venice architecture exhibit planners enlisted civic leaders and Detroit residents  to be part of  a Detroit community advisory board to help with selecting the Detroit neighborhoods, and the architect teams met with community members and key institutions to listen to their questions and aspirations.

U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips toured the exhibit Friday and told architects and journalists at an opening ceremony that the Venice festival “is the most important contemporary art exhibit in the world.”  Phillips said Detroit is drawing more young people to the city. While the designs for Detroit are considered speculative ideas - fantastical rather than likely to be built  -- they make for a “bold exhibit and it may be a catalyst” for developing ideas for other American cities, Phillips said.

Patricia Montemurri can be reached at