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Inside The U.S. Pavilion at This Year's Venice Architecture Biennale

Detroit takes center stage at the 2016 U.S. Pavilion

This year's Venice Architecture Biennale, as in years past, is a sprawling showcase, combining built, unbuilt, and purely speculative architectural projects from a number of countries around the world. This time, though, the exhibitions have taken a more political turn.

Under the direction of Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean architect and the winner of this year's coveted Pritzker Prize, the national pavilions are aligned under the theme "Reporting From the Front," which refers to "battles that need to be won," according to Aravena, "in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life."

For U.S. Pavilion exhibition curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon, this meant examining architecture as a regenerative force in Detroit, a city that for several decades has, infamously, been suffering economic decline.

As such, the two created "The Architectural Imagination," a show for which they invited a dozen American firms, including Preston Scott Cohen Inc., MOS Architects, and Detroit-based A(n) Office, to speak to various local communities and "develop [speculative] programs that reflected what they learned from Detroit citizens," explains Davidson.

"Architectural ideas have the ability to capture the public imagination, and when the public is engaged, that’s when change occurs," says Davis. "The ideas presented in 'The Architectural Imagination' are intended to expand the conversation in Detroit, a city that is considering many possible futures."

The curators divided the exhibition into four post-industrial sites "in four very distinct Detroit neighborhoods with different aspirations": the abandoned eight-block complex of the former Packard Plant; the High Line-like Dequindre Cut greenway, which occupies the site of a disused train track; an empty lot in Mexicantown; and the derelict 1960 Riverfront Post Office. The architects took it from there, addressing a wide range of issues.

Zago Architecture’s "A New Federal Project" proposes a program to house 68,000 international refugees in Detroit over a five-year period, presenting five new, visually cacophonous buildings around Dequindre Cut to house settlement services. Meawhile, T+E+A+M’s "Detroit Reassembly Plant" recycling project ostensibly mines the Packard Plant ruins for building materials, presenting blobs of useful new polymers that could be made by mixing concrete or brick rubble with post-consumer waste.

The exhibition sticks mainly to traditional methods (scale models, digital renderings, and sketches), but the pavilion also demonstrates how modern technology can influence the world of architecture in radically different ways. A video by Greg Lynn of Greg Lynn FORM shows the architect designing a new hybrid transport/university/robot-driven manufacturing hub for the Packard Plant site using the Hololens, an augmented reality visor Microsoft handed the firm to play with.

Using the visor, Lynn was able to easily rearrange 3D digital representations of buildings all over the site, which reportedly cuts down design time, and visitors to the exhibition were able to don a pair and wander the halls of the project digitally.

One uninvited exhibitor used augmented reality to implement the realest exhibit of them all. Detroit Resists, an activist collective that had earlier criticized "The Architectural Imagination" as a misguided and presumptuous exercise, installed its own exhibition on the American Pavilion site, visible through the LAYAR augmented reality smartphone app.

Billed as an "occupation," the Detroit Resists exhibition comprises images of protest that came homegrown from within the city itself: Right at the entrance, they placed a 3D watertower painted with the words "FREE THE WATER," a 2014 message to the city in opposition to mass utility shut-offs, as well as the slogan "Respect Existence or Expect Resistance."

In contrast to the slickness of the architectural models and Lynn's Microsoft-sponsored presentation, it reads as refreshingly authentic, passionate, real. Despite its direct opposition to the message of the curators' mission, the Detroit Resists occupation amplifies it, expanding the conversation about the city, and furthering the possibility for change.

"The Architectural Imagination" is on view at the Venice Architecture Biennale through November 27. The show will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in February 2017.