However Unspectacular

2005

However Unspectacular is Interboro’s winning entry to Archplus’s “Shrinking Cities” competition. A collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, the project confronts the depopulation and disinvestment of one of America’s formerly great cities: Detroit. A response to the tendency within the architectural community to make a spectacle of Detroit, the project is, intentionally unspectacular, arguing for a “New Suburbanism” that could more evenly distribute wealth and opportunity.

With the Center for Urban Pedagogy


PROJECT TEXT

There’s a story people love to tell about Detroit. Beginning with the invention of the assembly line, it traces Detroit’s rise to Fordist paradise, notes the city’s role in the making of the modern middle class, and then waxes poetic about some urban version of the American dream that a combination of industrial restructuring, anti-urban federal policies, and racism brought to an untimely end. The story’s next chapter is thus about Detroit’s decline; it takes us through deindustrialization, race riots, and the suburban exodus, and ends by speculating that Detroit is a city that has “outlived itself.” In a postscript, the story’s author, who is now walking around “the ruins of Detroit” points to the trees that are growing through streets and factory floors, the houses that have crumbled into the earth, and the deer population that has colonized the downtown and concludes that one day, Detroit will revert to nature.

Some people who tell this story are thrilled by this latter prospect. So much so, that they come up with ways to facilitate it. James Corner, for example, has proposed roping the city off. Camilo Vergara has proposed turning the city into a museum of ruins.

However spectacular this story is, we’d like to offer another reading. We agree that Detroit will gradually be reclaimed by its environment, but we don’t take this to mean that in, say, fifty years Detroit will look like a prairie. That’s because if left to it’s own accord, Detroit will not revert to “nature.” If left to its own accord, Detroit will return to the suburbs. Today it’s the suburbs, not the indigenous landscape, that you can count on to fill in whatever hole civilization has created. Simply put, it’s the most ravenous, opportunistic force around.

Would the continued suburbanization of Detroit a bad thing? Potentially. If it followed the national trend, the outlook is bleak. Whites would repopulate the city, blacks would be relocated to inner ring suburbs, and a period of exacerbated racial tension and pious hand wringing over gentrification would precede the final outcome: a white low-density city, rich in services and opportunities and surrounded by an impoverished ring of Black suburbs.

However Unspectacular stems from our conviction that the suburbanization of Detroit doesn’t have to follow national trends.

A major component of our strategy is to imagine an urbanism based on risk management, where geographic risks – for example, being born in center-city Detroit – are distributed evenly throughout the Metropolitan area. We suggest a more physical strategy that builds upon an emergent “New Suburbanism” to diversify the housing mix, income level, and programs of center-city Detroit (Book One: The New Suburbanism), but also a more policy-level strategy that allows Detroit’s residents to spread their risks amongst larger geographic areas (Book Two: An Urbanism Based on Risk Management).

However unspectacular it may sound, we firmly believe that this anti-heroic, sober approach is the most appropriate to the task at hand. Anyway it’s not as though Detroit hasn’t seen its share of Renaissance Centers, “Cool City” campaigns and other initiatives that, though high on the spectacle index, failed to deliver on their promises. The problem with such proposals is that, for all their bells and whistles, they have done very little to better the lives of average Detroit residents.

And so Detroit doesn’t need to make further spectacle of itself by roping itself off or turning itself into a “museum of ruins.” On the contrary, Detroit needs to stop being a spectacle, a monument, an anomaly among relatively well-off people, even if they do live in the suburbs.

Project Team: Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, Damon Rich,¬†Georgeen Theodore, Christine Williams, Rosten Woo

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