For all of the development and activity taking place today in Detroit, in areas like Campus Martius and Canfield Street, dozens of additional opportunities for investment and revitalization await. This is one of the reasons the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit or MOCAD’s new exhibit, “The Architectural Imagination” is garnering so much attention.

Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon curated the exhibit, which features 12 breathtakingly imaginative tabletop models, drawings and videos that focus on four areas of Detroit:

1. The Packard Plant
2. A vacant lot in Mexicantown at the intersection of West Vernor Highway and Livernois Avenue
3. The area surrounding the U.S. Post Office on the Riverfront near Corktown
4. The part of Dequindre Cut near Eastern Market

The Detroit Riverfront near Corktown
The Detroit Riverfront near Corktown

The exhibit earned the U.S. State Department’s showcase at the 15th Venice Architectural Biennale in Venice, Italy, in 2016. Sixty or so countries have showcases at the Biennale and each year, the State Department utilizes its pavilion with an exhibit that best represents America.

Entitled “The Architectural Imagination,” the exhibit is a symbol of what architecture can do to generate ingenuity and intelligent debate, says Davidson, who talked to TBD about the exhibit just prior to its February 11 debut.

How important was it to talk to residents of Detroit when designing this project?

Well, it’s critical to the beginning of the project. When Monica (Ponce de Leon) and I conceived of this project, it was always to invite architects to come to Detroit and meet with community members in order to talk to them about what they felt their neighborhood needs were, what they felt they would want if they could have whatever they wanted, and their concerns. When we were awarded the Pavilion by the Department of State, we organized an advisory board of people working in Detroit starting with Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox, who was then very new to the city. But he is someone Monica and I both knew. And we put together a team of people to suggest sites in the city that might benefit from some new perspective – new people looking at the city who might bring different ideas to the table. They presented us with some 20 different sites. None of them were in the downtown core. All of them were in neighborhoods. There is already a lot of great work going on in the core.

Isn’t that a prevailing thought, that there is too much emphasis on downtown and not enough within Detroit’s neighborhoods?

Yes, and that’s the advantage of having the advisory group. We said to them, “We don’t want to focus on the core. We want to work in neighborhoods, and what would you suggest?” And we started with 20 different sites and narrowed it down to seven sites and then Monica and I revisited the sites and chose the four that we chose – Mexicantown in southwest Detroit, the U.S. Post Office on the Riverfront (the sorting facility, which is the closest to downtown), the assembly of vacant lots on either side of the Dequindre Cut near Eastern Market, and the Packard Plant.

We decided we had to do the Packard Plant, which wasn’t one of the 20 sites but it’s just so well known as ruin porn. Within the international context of the Biennale, we thought it would be a really interesting challenge to say, “What would three contemporary architects make of this historic site in such a state of decay?” The Packard Plant has a new owner, of course, so that made it all the more interesting to think about what might happen there. He (Fernando Palazuelo) and his organization were very generous and let us come to their offices, walk the site with them, and hear what their plans are.

This was before we had a community meeting in a church. People came from the Albert Kahn legacy office; people came from the Detroit/Berlin techno connection. It was a really interesting group. It was a really great evening. Some of the architects were local, although most of them were not because with the U.S. Pavilion, our idea was to take a broad representation of American architectural thinking today. Then you mix that up with an iconic American city and see what you come up with.

The Packard Plant
The Packard Plant

We’re very excited that the show is now coming to MOCAD because we get to reconnect face-to-face with people who helped us in the fall of 2015, which is a long time ago now, and see what they say about what these architects have conjured up. I think it will be a very exciting time.

So the exhibit basically consists of the architects’ specific visions of those four areas of Detroit?

Yes. Let’s take the Dequindre Cut site. We had 12 architects and we assigned three architects to each site. Three different architecture teams worked on the Dequindre Cut site. They had to first develop a program for the site. These weren’t sort of Cinderella castles, but rather what programmatic ideas do you take away from your meetings in Detroit and your research in Detroit and your being on the site? What programmatically makes sense? What does the neighborhood need? What does the city need – because a neighborhood is always adjacent to another neighborhood, which is adjacent to another neighborhood, which is adjacent to another, which is adjacent to downtown. With the Dequindre Cut being adjacent to Eastern Market, you always have on one side a very active neighborhood but on the other side, a neighborhood that’s largely been razed because there are so many abandoned houses. So, one architect came up with a school. And it’s not just any school. He called it the Dequindre Civic Academy, which would be a K-University campus. Of course, schools are an issue in Detroit so that was a very interesting choice. Monica and I worked with these architects all the time. We were not just curators. We were also pseudo clients with these architects so that we could say, “Hmm, that’s good. Or that’s not so good. Have you thought about it that way?” Some architects’ programs are more developed than other architects’ programs. But that’s typical given the amount of time that we were able to give them.

The walls of all of these concepts had an open quality that to me suggested a certain porosity, meaning you weren’t kept in or kept out. There’s more movement. A wall in architecture is an object that separates. But these conceptually didn’t separate and I found this to be really an interesting sort of undercurrent in all of the work… There are so many American cities and the fact that we could do something for Detroit that could become emblematic for many places was I think very interesting. But like I said, I don’t think this was intentional on their part. I think it was something I read into it. So I don’t know if it was necessarily for Detroit. I’ve never asked the architects. Because this exhibition, as far as the Department of State is concerned, is also about taking the best American ideas to an international exhibition. So it’s not just for Detroit but it’s also about representing the United States abroad.

So this exhibit is meant to educate?

Yes. People need to think about what does architecture do and not do in communities in which things are built. A lot of that depends on the client and the developer who builds it. But of course the good ideas usually come from the architect. Architecture is a complicated business and we wanted to bring this show back to Detroit to say, “Look, this is what architecture can imagine. What do you think of this? What do you like about this? What do you not like about this?” We also want to raise awareness about what architects can and can’t do and give the population of Detroiters an expanded vocabulary for talking about what is going to potentially happen in their city. Not that one of these projects is going to be built but somebody’s going to come along and say, “I’m going to do X,” and then how are you supposed to react to that as a citizen of Detroit? In any case, there’s a lot of energy in the exhibition, a lot of ideas and I imagine there’s going to be quite a lot of discussion. The goal is for people to start reimagining their own lives.

Is that also one of the basic tenets of “The Architectural Imagination”?

After we did this, I was at an author’s talk here in New York this past fall for an Irish author named Colum McCann. He’s a great storyteller. And he said the great thing about novels is that as a reader, you encounter someone else’s imagination and when you encounter that imagination, it allows you to reimagine your own life anew. That’s like architecture and just what we did in our show. We asked these architects to imagine architectural alternatives for a city called Detroit.

So when anybody looks at this, they can imagine something. They may even come away with a whole new idea of their own and that’s the point too. It’s good to generate more new ideas. You don’t have to look at these ideas and say, “I choose Project A and Project F and we’re going to build them here and there.” That’s not the point of the exhibition at all. It’s about how do you imagine what the city could be? And the sites we chose are sites that are under pressure, sites where something is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. The southwest Detroit site on the edge of Mexicantown is a site that the Detroit Catholic Organization has been connected to for some time and they’re very concerned with what happens on it. They were also very excited that we brought in some new people to give them new ideas. The Packard Plant obviously has a new owner and the Dequindre Cut site is one the city feels is ready to be developed because new sections of the Cut have now opened. Things are going to happen. Not tomorrow, but maybe this year or the next, so what would you imagine? You don’t have to be a developer with deep pockets to imagine.

A vacant lot in Mexicantown
A vacant lot in Mexicantown

We’re excited about it. We hope it raises a lot of discussion. Not just about the show itself but about the city. Not that there hasn’t been a lot already – there has, of course – it’s ongoing. But this is another way to participate in that conversation.