Detroit to take stage at world’s top architecture show

October 26, 2015

In a cultural coup for Detroit, the U.S. State Department has chosen the Motor City to be the entire focus of the American pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, the world’s premier exhibition of architectural innovation.

Beginning next May in Venice, Italy, the U.S. exhibit, one of dozens of national exhibits on display, will be curated by the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and feature the work of 12 architectural teams chosen from around the nation.

The 12 teams will produce conceptual designs for four Detroit sites: The Packard Plant, the Dequindre Cut and Eastern Market district; West Vernor Highway in southwest Detroit, and the U.S. Postal Service building and adjacent land near downtown between West Fort Street and the river.

By showcasing imaginative solutions to what these mostly underused sites may become, the U.S. hopes to offer innovative ideas for global cities in the 21st century.

Andrew Zago, a Detroit-born architect now based in Los Angeles who will submit work for the Biennale, said the Venice event, held every two years, provides a critical opportunity for the world’s architects and designers to think about Detroit and other post-industrial cities in new ways.

“It’s a big deal,” Zago, who has worked frequently in Detroit, said. “I think it’s theinternational architecture event. It’s where you see everyone.”

The 12 teams, consisting of dozens of designers, recently visited Detroit to see the four sites and meet with community members. They are now working on their projects, which are due to be submitted to U-M by the end of January. Taubman College Dean Monica Ponce de Leon and her co-curator, Cynthia Davidson, executive director of New York based nonprofit Anyone Corporation and editor of the architecture journal Log, will then choose which parts of each team’s work to send to Venice.

Ponce de Leon and Davidson met at a previous Venice Biennale in 2012 and decided to submit an application to the State Department for them to curate the 2016 show. The architecture Biennale is held on alternate years with one focusing on art on the other years. As many as 200,000 people may visit the architecture Biennale over several months next year.

Ponce de Leon and Davidson said they decided to focus the 2016 U.S. pavilion on Detroit.

“For us It was very important that Detroit be that city because of Detroit’s rich history of invention,” Ponce de Leon said. “And because of it’s rich history of invention it really has all the he right ingredients for architects to speculate about the city of the 21st century.”

Although Detroit has already been the focus of global attention in recent years, in many ways the city remains prey to cliches about Rust Belt failure and what can be done about it.

Davidson said that the 12 teams are expected to offer imaginative solutions for how architecture can recreate urban sites, especially in the context of open space of which Detroit has so much and which is part of each of the four sites.

“We don’t want 12 new museums for Detroit. We want new ideas about what is a program in Detroit in the 21st century,” Davidson said.

Dan Kinkead, an architect and acting director of the Detroit Future City Implementation Office, served as an advisor to Ponce de Leon and Davidson on a committee that helped pick the four sites to be the focus of the work. He said the forward-looking nature of the assignment gives architects freedom to think about the city’s needs far into the future.

Detroit to take stage at world’s top architecture show

John Gallagher, October 26, 2015. Detroit Free Press