Stalking Detroit

In graduate school I was given an assignment called "Stalker." Under the dome of Los Angeles sky, I was to sit in my car outside the MGM Studios south plaza building, wait for someone to exit the building and get into their car – "pick someone, anyone," read the brief. Ostensibly it was a way to get oriented in a new city, but really, it was a kind of mapping – perhaps the most honest kind: see where the subject leads you.

This was the goal of the committee who produced Stalking Detroit. Rather than impose solutions to the problem of Detroit, they begin with the premise that Detroit doesn’t need to be solved. Detroit faces some serious difficulties; and though the book presents distressing statistics that keenly illustrate the city’s loss of citizenry, the suburban sprawl that decimated the downtown and the heart-rending disparity of wealth, land and resources along racial lines, the editors assert that Detroit, the ultimate product of modernity, devoted to the monoculture of the automobile industry and an obsessed with technology, is evolving into exactly what it was designed to be. Stalking Detroit is not naïve to the problems, it simply observes. "Lavish [Detroit] with unwanted attention," the editors suggest in their introduction, and then present alternative futures.

A highly erudite and articulate production (designed and printed by ACTAR in Barcelona) the book is a compilation of essays, photographic images and architectural projects. The three projects, "Projecting Detroit," "Decamping Detroit," and "Line Frustration," are sited in the city’s downtown. They are accompanied by critical responses from architects and academics.

The design projects are interspersed with divergent artworks and essays. "Detroit’s Michigan," written by Kent Kleinman and LeslieVan Duzer, highlights the fate of the Michigan Theater – a representative of the city itself. Constructed in 1926 and abandoned in 1975, the theater is now in a constant, albeit static, state of demolition. The artwork is crude intervention of a three-story parking lot within the structure of the theatre, it is composed of "sheared beams, amputated balconies, severed electrical lines [and a] ragged plaster canopy." Anti-architectural, it is typical of the city’s infrastructure on the whole, not fully constructed nor demolished.

Another piece in the deconstruction vein is, Erasing Detroit. The artwork utilizes the fact that "...between 1978 and 1998 only 9000 building permits were issued for new homes in Detroit, while over 108,000 demolition permits were issued." towards a rather poignant student project of the systematic demolition of one simple house among thousands, taken apart piece by piece, and displayed in a local gallery – a kind of anti-monument.

In an essay entitled "After Ford," Patrik Schumacher and Christian Rogner, both at the Architectural Association’s Design Research Lab, note the connection between corporate organization and spatial articulation in the construction of buildings and urban space, evidenced in the history of Detroit. "After Ford" expands on the socio-economic history of the automobile industry – Fordist and post-Fordist organizational models of urbanization – with Detroit as its trope. Ford’s architect Albert Kahn devised a system of reinforced concrete, creating wide spaces, vertical organization and offering freedom of movement. The increased flexibility for production lines resulted in the Model T. Later, when production exigencies determined that the era of one-factory-under-one-roof had passed, production spread out into the city and extruded horizontally, reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s "City as machine." Surprisingly, even as production left the city, Kahn and Ford’s River Rouge complex was listed as a national historic landmark in 1978, and still churns out a car every few seconds.

Today, Schumacher and Rogner continue, there is an attempt to recolonize the abandoned downtown core with casinos, sports stadia and other urban cures. One tactic has been to treat the city as an American "ruin," encouraging tourism and reconfiguring the city as a brand name recreation center. Others attempt social missionary work and propose drastic measures to fix the city. Still others hype Detroit in order to increase speculative property values. None attempt to address Detroit’s spatial problems, however, which are the direct result of abandonment, disinvestment, decay and the bleak lack of diversity of an economic monoculture.

The projects in Stalking Detroit attempt to point the way revitialization. The first of these, "Projecting Detroit," is a project by architects Georgia Daskalakis and Omar Perez of DAS : 20 Architecture Studio, which focuses on the presence of absence. The project takes inspiration in the vacated, decayed regions of Detroit, as these offer both potential and freedom. Reminiscent of Derridean undecidablity, that Truth is not found in structural oppositions but in the space between, they note that people are drawn to the gaps between present and absent, construction and erasure. "Detroit offers us the experience of a new and unprecedented reality," they note, not attempting to comprehend and categorize the contracting city but to experience its immediacy, lest it be formulated into something else, something with which we are always already familiar.

Their project picks out uncanny spaces and offers possibilities for inhabitation that avoid "aggressive transformation." Formally, the project cuts a section of ground, adding various horizontal planes that shift the ground plane, decreasing synoptic perception so that landscape, city and horizon shift in and out of view. Programmatically indefinite, the project is Bernard Tschumi’s parc de la villette, but with a drive-in theater, an amphitheater, athletic grounds with observation platforms, a pool, bathhouse and infirmary. While the ambition of DAS:20’s project is clear, they nevertheless impose memory on a city designed to be without it, contravening the founding principles of Detroit and suggesting a trajectory for the future.

In the second project "Decamping Detroit," Charles Waldheim and Marilí Santos-Munné affirm that "from a planning standpoint Detroit is a resounding success. […US cities are] temporary ad hoc arrangements based on the momentary optimization of industrial production."

The military infrastructure that lent itself so keenly to the forces of economics and production, when complete, could be decommissioned and, as such, Detroit simply decamped, hence their project’s title. The project suggests a disposable nomadism. Some of their proposals return to the land with migrant worker homesteads and garden annex and experimental agriculture cooperative homestead, but others (arson investigation center, rifle range, and ex-urban survival training boot camp) are frightening proposals. The project enters the realm of the post-apocalyptic, rather than post-industrial. Their proposals are more about survival fear factor than building meaningful community.

As with our grad school stalking project, in which some subjects were oblivious, others terrorized, sometimes you must leave well enough alone. Clearly Detroit is not doing well enough, but architectural solutions are perhaps not adequately substantial to effect the kind of change required. Dan Hoffman notes in his contribution to the book, "architecture is corollary to the erasure of nature by the art of construction," but the inverse is also true. While it might be difficult for architects and planners whose existence is predicated on doing something, anything, perhaps we must accept that Motor City and the twenty-first century were not meant to co-exist and thus we must let it lie fallow.

The central issue, which the entire book fails to tackle, is the evolution of this particular city, and why it hasn’t followed the example set by other cities. In fact, this is acknowledged by the book’s premise, stated at the outset, that Detroit is evolving into exactly what it was supposed to be. It was not designed to be a city in the classical sense. Cities develop out of conflicting desires and their resolution. Detroit did not; it was immaculately born from the desire of a single industry. As a result it resists accretion and intervention, proposals of this type that that now go against its grain.

Also remarkably absent from the text is that there are a great number of people still living in Detroit, and the majority are extremely poor, to say nothing about the disparity of wealth according to race. The issue for government has become the provision of services. Property taxes are no doubt lower here than anywhere else in the nation and expenses outweigh revenues in the context of a single house per city block, but these problems are place-less; they are the problems of the very poor, anywhere they might live.

The proposals in Stalking Detroit have all the poetics and poignancy that only serious detachment allows. As artworks, they stand as meaningful statements. But as architecture, they ultimately fail, because they are solutions for tabula rasa circumstances. Where you have nothing to begin with, you can build anything. But will they come? Migratory flows of people based on gainful employment are not going to alter because you’ve created a park, or a sectionally interesting landscape. It satisfies the architect’s classic hero complex by thinking that architecture can solve problems such as these, of this magnitude. The projects proposed begin to look self-indulgent in the face of the scale of the problems.

The sole project in the book to persevere and actually work, is the Michigan Theatre parking lot. It is presented as architectural tragedy, with all the attendant horror of its being flayed alive and bones displayed for public consumption. An Other – both a hybrid and an outsider, it is beautiful in its absurdity and attractive in its unanticipated occupation.