A compelling position statement has been making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. Posted in February by a group called Detroit Resists, which identifies itself on its website as “a coalition of activists, artists, architects, and community members working on behalf of an inclusive, equitable, and democratic city,” the statement challenges the politics of the United States Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. It also raises significant questions about the relationship between architecture and power.
The U.S. contribution to this summer’s Biennale is an exhibition titled The Architectural Imagination. The curators, Princeton architecture dean Monica Ponce de Leon, AIA, and Log editor Cynthia Davidson, define themselves in their joint bio as “advocates of the power of architecture to construct culture and catalyze cities.” A lineup of 12 talented design firms are contributing what the curators describe as “speculative architectural projects designed for specific sites in Detroit but with far-reaching applications for cities around the world.”
Ponce de Leon and Davidson are formidably intelligent and their intentions with The Architectural Imagination are undoubtedly excellent. But while they may assume “the power of architecture” is a force for good—a sentiment that most architects presumably share—Detroit Resists isn’t so sure.
“Indeed, if the mass dispossession of Detroit’s predominantly African-American residents by the mobilization of their homes in austerity urbanism does not exemplify the power of architecture, then we do not know what does,” the statement reads, evoking the bank-led epidemic of foreclosures, and the possibility that the city will abandon whole neighborhoods. “We fear … that the U.S. Pavilion, precisely as an attempt to advocate ‘the power of architecture,’ is structurally unable to engage this catastrophe and will thereby collaborate in the ongoing destruction of the city.”
It hurts to see architecture through the eyes of a skeptic. But building is expensive, and in a society like ours, with a disproportionately small number of individuals and institutions holding a disproportionately large percentage of the total wealth, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the historically disadvantaged perceive architecture as a symbol of inequality and a manifestation of unsympathetic, top-down authority. To better understand the dynamic, look no further than the angry reactions to planning proposals at public meetings in post-Katrina New Orleans and post-recession Detroit. (It can’t help community relations that of the 12 firms taking part in The Architectural Imagination, only one is local—or two, if you count Ann Arbor, Mich.)
For all their collective wisdom and compassion, architects can’t guarantee that a project will serve the greater good, because somebody else usually holds the purse strings. It’s this dynamic, rather than architecture in and of itself, that makes Detroit Resists wary. And it’s precisely when ethics fall out of balance—when a project brief comes into conflict with social justice—that the profession has the biggest opportunity to do the right thing. Architects are uniquely positioned in the development process to reconcile differences between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Sometimes the greatest role an architect can play is that of mediator, responsible to both client and community.