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Detroit Group Claims Planned Festival Pavilion Neglects the City's Real Issues

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The U.S. Pavilion for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennial has garnered controversy

Every two years, the Venice Architecture Biennial serves as a global platform for dozens of countries to showcase the best and brightest in their field through thematic exhibitions.

For the 15th edition of the fair, kicking off on Saturday, May 28, U.S. Pavilion curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon turned their eyes to Detroit, a city struggling through decades of economic decline and its consequences—dwindling public services, arson, and extreme poverty among them.

Their exhibition, "The Architectural Imagination," features proposals by a dozen firms for problem-solving through architecture and urban planning "designed for specific sites in Detroit but with far-reaching applications for cities around the world."

Davidson and Ponce de Leon's enterprise has not been entirely well-received. In late February, an organization called Detroit Resists emerged online to argue that these efforts are both misguided and potentially harmful.

The anonymous collective of local activists, professors, artists, architects, and community members (of undisclosed number) published a statement relaying a fear that the U.S. Pavilion "is structurally unable to engage this catastrophe and will thereby collaborate in the ongoing destruction of the city."

They cite a correlation between Detroit's most iconic architecture and "the city’s enduring legacy and reality of racism." (Davidson and de Leon declined to comment for this article, citing the anonymity of the members of Detroit Resists.)

Via email, Curbed contacted the collective to expand on this statement.

The U.S. Pavilion actually seems to be the latest in a long line of well-meaning architectural think tanks that have taken it upon themselves to solve Detroit's civic problems. Is there a specific reason you chose to respond to this one?

We completely agree with you about the long line of projects intended to "solve" Detroit’s problems. According to the curators [of the U.S pavilion], the exhibited projects are "designed for specific sites in Detroit but with far-reaching applications for cities around the world"—which makes us wonder if the "solutionism" here might be even more extreme.

What particularly provoked our interest, though, was the relation between the extravagant promises and promotion of the U.S. Pavilion, on the one hand, and the violence of contemporary austerity urbanism in Detroit, on the other.

To us, it seems as if the U.S. Pavilion might be directly participating in austerity urbanism, and in its displacements and dispossessions, by using the urban field it has created as a site to speculate on the "architectural imagination." This is what specifically solicited our response.

I wanted to unpack your sentiments towards the Pavilion's statement. Do you feel that it's insulting? Do you feel that it's reductive?

We were neither insulted nor reduced by the statement with which "The Architectural Imagination" was launched. On the contrary! We were motivated to apprehend that statement, as well as the project it describes, as extremely useful thresholds to discuss the politics of architecture in contemporary Detroit.

For us, the U.S. Pavilion offers a very constructive point of departure for conversation about and action on issues of great importance to us and to our communities—issues of austerity urbanism, gentrification, affordable housing, and racial inequality, just to name some of the most prominent.

Can you provide a few specific examples of the toll Detroit architecture has taken on its residents?

The best example is the single-family house. These houses are, of course, architecture, and they are also the predominant repository of wealth for many of Detroit’s residents, especially working- and middle-class black families that, for a whole series of reasons, have lacked the investment opportunities on offer to comparable white families.

It is precisely these houses that are currently under concentrated assault in Detroit’s current austerity urbanism—assaulted by foreclosures and evictions, by the so-called blight removal program, and by a water shut-off policy targeting homes where water expenses far exceed the EPA's recommendations.

In Detroit, then, what looks like a house often does not function as a place that houses; as vectors in austerity urbanism, houses have become sites of displacement and dispossession. To ignore these issues or, even worse, to approach them as site preparation for speculation on the architectural imagination is, for us, rather problematic.

Do you see the potential of architecture to become part of a political solution, if it were governed by better public policy?

We would say that architecture is not only a tool of the powers that be—though it certainly is that—but it is also a tool that can be used to resist and contest those powers. Indeed, we see the political capacity of architecture to reside precisely in its ability to advance resistance, contestation, and the imagination of a more equitable, inclusive, and democratic city. If and when the architecture governed by public policy fails us, then we can produce other architecture, as well as other policies!

Have you had much response to your response?

We have had a great response to our Open Statement. In Detroit, many individuals and several institutions have reached out to us to declare their solidarity, to ask to participate in our project, and to plan further on-the-ground outcomes of our critique.

More widely, faculty at a number of architecture schools and people at other institutions concerned with architecture have also reached out to us to solicit our participation in conversations about the U.S. Pavilion and the issues that it represents.

We’re very excited about all these responses because they extend our attempt to connect the U.S. Pavilion to ongoing discussions about equality, inclusion, race, architecture, and the city

The curators have made a point to recruit Detroit residents on their advisory board. Do you find that this inclusion gives them any credibility in their efforts?

We’re not sure if the term "Detroit resident" serves as the most appropriate descriptor of the members of "The Architectural Imagination" advisory board, even in the case of the board members based in Detroit; we wonder to what degree the board is representative of the city. But since the board members allowed themselves to be named and we are still anonymous, we think it's not appropriate for us to discuss this much further.

Why does Detroit Resists remain anonymous?

We wanted the Open Statement to be anonymous because we didn’t want it to be about us; we wanted it to be about the U.S. Pavilion, its particular apprehension of Detroit, and how this apprehension might relate to other processes of value extraction and dispossession underway in the city. Our hope was that our critique would speak for itself and so, with this hope, we signed it only by the name of our coalition.

In lieu of architectural proposals, what real solutions would you like to see?

We're interested in any efforts that promise to build an equitable, inclusive, democratic Detroit.

The Architectural Imagination [The Architectural Imagination]

Venice Architecture Biennial [Venice Architecture Biennial]

A Primer on Alejandro Aravena, Director of the 2016 Venice Biennale [Curbed]