At the Biennale, Learning from Detroit

The U.S. Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale promises an optimistic approach to urban renewal.

Co-curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon will be identifying four areas of blight-stricken Detroit, and selecting 12 architectural teams to re-imagine them.

“Monica and I wanted to do a ¬†project together in Detroit, because it’s on the upswing,” Davidson says. “We want to enlarge the discussion of the city and how make it more livable, green and equitable.”

Once the U.S. Department of State approved their proposal, the pair got to work on a website for the project, launching it last week.

Called “The Architectural Imagination,” the site champions one of Diego Rivera’s four Art Moderne murals in the Detroit Institute of Art. Depicting a series of industrial workers, it seems an appropriate image for the once bustling and innovative motor city.

“The design for the first concrete highway was made there,” she says. “Plus, Motown and techno were invented there.”

Davidson was in Detroit last week, discussing potential sites with an advisory board and seeking out recommendations. “We don’t want to trample on any toes, and we want to stay away from sites in development,” she says. “We wanted to learn as much as we could from difficult neighborhoods and sites for architectural interventions.”

Currently, 20 different sites have been identified. That number will be winnowed down to four – one for each the galleries in the U.S. Pavilion in Venice. The curators are hoping for three different concept for each of the four sites, with detailed solutions that could be applied not just in Detroit, but anywhere in the world.

“We want to exhibit the process of how they came to the final model, with drawings leading to the final model,” she says.

The architects who will be selected – Davidson anticipates as many as 500 entries – will not be commissioned by landowners, developers or the city of Detroit, but by the co-curators themselves.

They’re a qualified pair, at that. Davidson is executive director of Anyone Corporation and editor of the international architecture Journal, Log. Ponce de Leon is dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and principal in MPdL studio. In January 2016, she’ll serve as dean of the architecture school at Princeton University.

For more information or to apply, go to

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