Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    Detroit Detroit Detroit

    Mitch McEwen
    Jun 19, '15 2:17 AM EST

    Detroit is now my home city, so I am thrilled that next year's U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale will be dedicated to exploring the intersection of Detroit and architectural imagination.  As excited as I am that The Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan will be the U.S. Pavilion producer and organizer, I cannot say that I have any inside information on how that theme will be explored.  I hope that it will encompass both under-appreciated architectural histories - for example, the amazing built work of Minoru Yamasaki here, the mega-structure of towers-on-a-plinth that is Portman's Renaissance Center, the plethora of early 20th century worker's housing - as well as subversive and imaginative projective futures.

    On the occasion of this announcement I am also inspired to share some urban-scale research that I have been mulling over for the past few months.  National media often addresses Detroit's expanses of vacancy and abandonment.  This presents itself starkly in aerial photos showing expanses of green fields and graphically in population statistics.  This problem of open land and its value or destruction of value was an initial interest of mine, when I started doing exhibitions and research here.

    As I've moved here, though, I am more interested in the notion of maintenance and the proliferation of houses.  [This is evident in my House Opera project under construction now in Southwest Detroit.] Another way to look at Detroit's over-hyped vacancy is, rather, that Detroit has a surplus of houses.  A vast majority of these houses were constructed in the first half of the 20th century with certain traits, certain types.  Most are wood structure (often balloon-frame) or masonry.  Detroit is full -- full of people and full of so many houses.  Who owns them? Who is maintaining them?  What does it take to maintain them? What do all these houses teach us about entropy, matter, history, or control?

    Rather than seeing Detroit as vacant, I see Detroit as potentially the greatest experiment in public housing that the US has seen since the 1960s.  The city is largely residential and, increasingly -- in complicated ways-- public.  Public not only in the sense of property conceived as public space, but more-so as swaths of low-scale residential buildings managed through quasi-public entities, such as the Detroit Land Bank, or publicly regulated processes that produce brownfields. Demolition swarms this proliferation of public and quasi-public properties, as do brownfields.  It is as if the prospect of rendering space public were so dangerous that it must be destroyed.  

    Detail shows Southwest Detroit, neighborhood of the House Opera.  

    The maps here use data sourced from the Motor City Mapping project, an entity that also blurs public-private motives and authorship in complicated ways.  

    House Opera video


    • natematt

      I attended two institutions in the area, and was prompted to do a number of projects in the city. Given the somewhat atypical nature of the context, and overworking of various stereotypical projects I grew rather weary of Detroit as a place for theoretical architecture. This motivated me to participate in the production of a publication with a vast array of projects concerned with similar contexts, meant to break away from the more common and perhaps less productive traps and trips in so many Detroit designs.

      For your potential interest:

      Jun 19, 15 2:43 am  · 

      Very beautiful work in that Ampersand, nate.

      Jun 24, 15 5:35 pm  · 

      Thanks Donna! I thought the content was exceptional, and we tried to make something nice. Unfortunately the budget got cut and we never got proper physical prints made, so the circulation was rather poor.

      Jun 26, 15 2:38 am  · 

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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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