Dialogue : : Cynthia Davidson, Co-Curator United States Pavilion La Biennale di Venezia

For the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, the United States Pavilion presents ‘The Architectural Imagination’, a curatorial project led by Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León featuring speculative architectural proposals for four sites in Detroit, Michigan. ARCHITECTEM met with Cynthia Davidson over gelato at the vernissage to discuss the curatorial vision, selection of Detroit as the focus, and her journey to curating; below is an excerpt from the conversation. 

Without imagination, one couldn’t get from knowledge of the past and present to justified expectations about the complex future.

Timothy Williamson

Cynthia Davidson is executive director of the nonprofit Anyone Corporation think tank in New York and editor of the international architecture journal Log. Mónica Ponce de León is Dean of Princeton University School of Architecture, founding principal of MPdL Studio, and former Dean of University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Ponce de León’s design for the pavilion is a series of column signs announcing the exhibition in Detroit’s eight most commonly spoken languages. The Architectural Imagination cataLog, edited by Davidson, is a special issue of Log; an independent journal on architecture and the contemporary city that presents criticism and commentary in a literary format.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale

ARCHITECTEM In your opening essays of cataLog while introducing this years US Pavilion you note: “Two years ago, believing that architecture can catalyse positive change in cities, Mónica Ponce de León and I conceived the idea of an exhibition for the United States Pavilion at the Biennale Archittetura 2016 that would present new speculative architectural projects for Detroit. We named it “The Architectural Imagination”, signifying both something yet unseen and something that only an architect would envision. We set out to try to answer two questions: What is the architectural imagination? And why would the architectural imagination be of value in Detroit?”. Could you expand on this curatorial ambition and what led to it ?

CD        If you read Robert Fishman’s essay about the mid 20th century history of Detroit, or really the 20th century history of Detroit, you will understand how it so rapidly became one of the capitals of industry in the world; through the production of the car and as a result of the automobile industry. In order to have enough workers to man assembly lines, to meet the production demands for cars, the united auto workers union recruited a number of southern blacks to move north to Detroit to take these jobs. But since they didn’t pay them the same as white workers, they didn’t live the same. There was prejudice, as there is everywhere in the world, against different races and different religions. This created an extraordinary tension in the city, which is what led to its initial white flight that began in the 1950s after World War II.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Courtyard of the United States Pavilion serving as signage with 13 columns – 8 totems featuring the most commanly spoken languages in Detroit today and 5 truncated to provide seating.

There are many layers of issues in Detroit, not limited to just population loss. There are many social economic issues including job loss, job difference and demolition of buildings. It’s a city that needs tender loving attention. The people who have remained, the nearly 700,000 people who still live there, deserve particular attention and particular consideration on our part. They need to be involved in the discussion of how the city looks at itself in the future. I believe, and I know Monica believes, Detroit has already hit the bottom and is bouncing back up. It could bounce up very quickly, in which case a lot of people will be left out of the discussion about how the city develops. Or it could bounce back more slowly, with broader participation of the community.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Zago Architecture Speculative project “A new Federal Project”

There are many community groups, non profits, and artists groups who are working in neighbourhoods to stabilise them, to redo abandoned houses, to save whats there. But a lot has been destroyed and taken away, as has happened in many post industrial cities. We were hoping that this exhibition, by proposing ideas for some of these issues, for four different sites in four different neighbourhoods in Detroit, will begin to present ideas perceived through the eyes and minds of architects. Through the ‘Architectural Imagination’,  that would help to involve a broader community in the discussion about what is potentially possible in this city. The projects that we have asked these architects to create, are all from scratch. There is nothing old in this Pavilion, it is all new thinking on the parts of the architects.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Present Future Speculative project “New Corktown”

ARCHITECTEMWhere do the proposals of these ‘Architectural Imaginations’ stand, in terms of providing solutions to these issues?

CD        Architecture always asks questions. Great architecture poses more questions than it answers. I think this is a series of propositions not a series of answers or solutions. Proposals that are intended to start conversations about what is possible in Detroit today.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Pita & Bloom Speculative Project “The New Zocalo”

ARCHITECTEM Is this your first time curating an exhibition? What are some lessons learnt from the process?

CD       Its the first exhibition I’ve done for the Biennale. In the the year 2000, I did an exhibition in Chicago that was meant to represent new attitudes toward material in architectural practices in Chicago. It was a small show, that accompanied a much larger exhibition on 20th century architecture, that the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Elizabeth Smith curated. She wanted an exhibition about current Chicago architecture at the same time. I used to live in Chicago so I did a proposal, it was selected and I did essentially the same thing that Monica and I did here.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Marshal Brown Projects Speculative Project “Dequindre Civic Academy”

I selected seven architects, who were all working in particular materials. I asked them to demonstrate the use of the material – in an exhibition, in an architectural way. It was a flea market! I really lost control of it. In the year 2000, we didn’t have internet and email the way we do now with images running back and forth. Just fax machines, so the communication was extremely difficult. I was in New York, they were in Chicago, and I couldn’t fly back and forth. There were parts of the show that were very good, but as a show overall, I feel it was uneven and not as successful. What Monica and I have done here together is kind of similar, but with much more curatorial oversight and we are very happy with what these architects have produced.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
SAA/Stan Allen Architect Speculative Project “Detroit Rock City: An Urban Geology”

ARCHITECTEMHow did your collaboration with Monica come about?


CD       Monica and I knew about each other, but we really only met 4 years ago at David Chipperfield’s Biennale. Then, I was in a conference at the University of Michigan where she was the Dean of the Taubman college. I had this idea for sometime to do a project for the Biennale, we decided to do it together and it was a really rewarding collaboration. We actually first proposed to focus on Detroit in a very different way for Rem Koolhaas’s Biennale. Detroit for us is the capital of modernism. The automobile is the symbol of modernity. The automobile changed everything; changed how we could live, changed the shape of structures and introduced new typologies like the parking garage. We thought that would be a great subject. We were not selected by the Department of State, but we became interested in the subject of Detroit and the idea that we could do something very different that would benefit Detroit in the long run. That it would be a very powerful statement about architecture and architecture’s formal role in the city and its formal relationships to society. So we re-wrote the proposal and we were selected.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects Speculative Project “Mexicantown: A Liminal Blur”

ARCHITECTEMHow did you approach Aravenna’s curatorial statement, Reporting from the Front?


CD     We had to submit the proposal almost a year before Aravenna was named curator, and our selection for the US pavilion was announced one month before his announcement. We thought what we are doing in Detroit will fit, we wont have to change a thing. Alejandro had a list of terms that he hoped would be explored. When we had a press conference in New York with him and Paolo Baratta he read these terms. Monica and I had ten minutes to talk about the US pavilion, and I said these fifteen terms that Alejandro Aravenna has just listed, every single one of them applies to the city of Detroit except for natural disaster, every single one. So fourteen of his concerns I believe we have addressed in the United States pavilion.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
T+E+A+M Speculative Project “Detroit Reassembly Plant”

ARCHITECTEM How do you receive and respond to the opinion voiced by some, that this is a gentrification project?


CD         We brought all these architects to Detroit, the ones that didn’t live in Detroit or hadn’t lived there before. We brought them to Detroit to talk to residents, to tour the sites, to talk to people in the city and people who tried to make a change so that when the show actually goes back to Detroit we can re-engage these people. Next year we will have an opportunity to say to a much broader population, participate in this discussion, because its going to affect your future.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Bair Balliet Speculative Project “The Next Port of Call”

We believe architecture has a really important role to play programatically and formally. In this particular instance, here at the Biennale we want to start the discussion about architecture’s role in the city today, in a way that reaches all populations. There are some people in Detroit who are afraid that this is a gentrification project, but it has nothing to do with gentrification at all. They are critiquing in advance of seeing it, and plucking words out of our statement to say it is gentrification, when its certainly not about that.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
Greg Lynn FORM Speculative Project “Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge, and Innovation”

When you talk about gentrification, in my experience – which is New York since I live in Manhattan – if you think about Soho, it was initially an industrial area of southern Manhattan, then the artists came in, and then the rich people came in. Because each time there was extraordinary displacement of what occurred there before, in my mind that is gentrification. Honestly there is so much open land in Detroit, you don’t have to displace anyone to build a new building, whether it is privately sponsored or government sponsored. What one must be aware of however, I believe, is how that structure is going to interact with the whole population, given the racial and religious divisions. How is it going to involve everyone, how is everyone going to feel they are included and not excluded from these new projects. We asked the architects to think about that, and I believe that is what they did.

United States Pavilion Venice Biennale
MOS Speculative project “A Situation made from Loose and Overlapping Social and Architectural Aggregates”
The 12 projects on display in Venice, by 22 American architects, comprise some 250 objects including architectural models, drawings, collages, and videos. Working with a Detroit Advisory Board, the curators selected four sites that exemplify some of the key challenges in Detroit and would benefit from speculative architectural proposals. The exhibition is open in Venice till November and will also travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in February 2017.


All Images Copyright © 2016 ARCHITECTEM

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