Reimagining Detroit - from Italy

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Chicago architect Marshall Brown, center, explains his idea to build a towering pre-K to college campus near the Dequindre Cut to U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips.


Imagine the tallest building in Detroit not being the Renaissance Center, but a tower near the Dequindre Cut that’s a monument to teaching the city’s children from pre-school to college.

Imagine an elevated plaza with a bandshell in southwest Detroit, to unite two neighborhoods divided by an old public works yard.

Imagine the disintegrating Packard Plant a factory again, but fleshed out in curvy spherical shapes connected by tunnels, through which drones can travel. Or the riverfront land behind the main U.S. Post Office on Fort Street carved out for an inlet pond for ice skating in winter.

Designs for a reimagined Detroit are the focus of a U.S. State Department-sponsored exhibit at the world-renowned Venice Biennale on Architecture, now underway in one of the world’s most dream-like cities. A dozen teams of U.S.-based architects have unveiled fantastical designs for reinventing four sites in Detroit.

Detroit is the focus of the U.S. exhibit at a world-renowned architecture festival because the Motor City “is synonymous with a failed city” the U.S. Ambassador to Italy said Thursday night in Venice.

U.S. Ambassador John Phillips said Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy provides “real challenges and real opportunities.” That’s one reason the U.S. State Department wanted an exhibit at the prestigious Venice Biennale to zero in on Detroit.

The State Department selected the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning to organize the exhibit.  The architecture school’s former dean, Monica Ponce de Leon, and Cynthia Davidson, editor of the international architecture journal Log, curated the competition that drew more than 200 entries, from which the 12 teams were selected.

The Detroit exhibit drew curious crowds of architects, urban planners and journalists from around the world Thursday before the show opens to the public on Saturday. The New York Times, in an article Wednesday, said the U.S. Pavilion’s Detroit exhibit was one of the 6 must-sees at the Venice Biennale.

Although the exhibit is all about Detroit, its title is “The Architectural Imagination” - reflecting how speculative the designs are and how unlikely they are to be built. The designs focus on four sites in Detroit, the Dequindre Cut near Eastern Market; the Packard Plant; southwest Detroit/Mexicantown at 6370 Vernor Highway; and the riverside area edging up to the main U.S. Post Office on Fort St. 

The world gets to see the Detroit designs up close before Detroiters do. The Venice Biennale is expected to draw more than 200,000 visitors through November. Then, the Detroit exhibit travels to the city, where it will be on display next year at MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Detroit.

The Venice Biennale is known to focus on sometimes abstract, outlandishly creative designs, just fragments of which may make it into everyday practical uses

But although the designs may strike some as whimsical, impractical and outlandish, they also address many practical issues address pertaining to education, the environment and preservation.

Chicago-based architect Marshall Brown looked at an area near the Dequindre Cut, where vacant land is anchored by the Detroit Edison Public Academy. He envisioned a pre-K through college campus, marked by a tower higher than the Renaissance Center. It would include housing, a library, a recreation center, and community spaces.

“The children of Detroit could live and learn in Detroit’s tallest monument - a monumental village,” said Brown. It may seem pie-in-the-sky, said Brown, but “everything real was once a dream.”


Kelly Bair, an architect who grew up in Grosse Pointe, says a proposal to reinvent the land that goes from the Detroit River to the main U.S. Post Office on W. Fort Street is designed to “reinvigorate the edge of the river.”  This is just an idea and there’s no plan to close the post office now.

But Bair and architect partner Kristy Balliet of Columbus, envision slicing the behemoth post office on the diagonal, with openings to the river, an inlet pond for ice skating in the winter, and an extension of the yet-to-be-finished M1 rail line to this edge of Corktown.

“Right now, the post office is a barrier to the river,” said Bair. She said she realizes her participation is an exercise in imagination and unlikely to be ever built. But she thinks part of their proposal could come to fruition - such as the inlet pond or entertainment pavilions on the now vacant land.

The Ann Arbor office of T+E+A+M architects reimagined the Packard Plant, an international image of Detroit’s abandoned ruins. Architects Thom Moran, Ellie Abrons, Adam Fure and Meredith Miller used rubble from the site and mixed it with recycled plastic to make unique building material. They’d use it and other materials on the plant’s façade, while the interior could be workshop/factories devoted to material technologies, such as reinventing rubble.

The rubble, said Meredith Miller, “can be a positive thing in a new representation. Instead of bringing in something foreign, we used what was there for a brand new use.”

“It will be nice to bring it back to MOCAD and engage Detroiters with it,” said Fure.

T+E+A+M architects from Ann Arbor/UM reinvent the Packard Plant. They used rubble from the site and mixed it with recycled plastic to make unique building material.

Another reinvention of the Packard Plant, created by Greg Lynn of Los Angeles-based Greg Lynn Form, showcases a curvy, swerving arrangement of flattened spheres, connected by tunnels.  Visitors are encouraged to put on digital eyewear - Microsoft’s HoloLens - that allows them to imagine themselves inside the futuristic structure, while also reading about the Packard’s past.

But some doubt these fantastical concepts reflect the desires of Detroiters.  Musical artist, entertainer and community activist Bryce Detroit, is the face of “Detroit Resists,” a group that opposes the Detroit designs.  Among “Detroit Resists” backers is a University of Michigan architecture professor Charles Hauser, who also traveled to Venice.

The showcase of Detroit designs, said Bryce Detroit,  didn’t have enough grassroots involvement from Detroiters, and takes away focus from creating solutions for problems such as Detroit water shut-offs and unjust evictions. He spoke here in Venice at an alternative program to the Biennale and, at the invitation of managers of the Dutch exhibit, did a rap performance Thursday in front of the Netherland pavilion.

“The gist is that what’s happening here represents the conventional design process and since the times of urban renewal, that’s been a force of destruction for African-Americans and indigenous people,” said Bryce Detroit.

The  U.S. exhibit’s designs are “not about making exploitable real estate proposals, but it’s about opening the imagination and possibilities,” said Geoff Thun, a Windsor, Ontario native who is an associate dean for research and creative practice at the UM Taubman School of Architecture.   “Past images of Detroit aestheticized ruin and despair. This is producing new opportunities for citizens to rethink and reimagine where they can go and what they can imagine.”