The controversial project to rethink Detroit architecture

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Zago Architecture designed "A New Federal Project" as a conceptual approach
to settling 68,000 refugees in Detroit. The project is part of
"The Architectural Imagination" at A+D Museum in Los Angeles
Photo by Avishay Artsy

Behind the mute buildings that form the backdrop to our lives you can find heated debate -- about what those buildings should be like and who they should represent.

Those questions lay at the heart of the controversial exhibition The Architectural Imagination. It first appeared in the US Pavilion at 2016's Venice Architecture Biennial, directed by Alejandro Aravena. It then went to Detroit and now it is on display at the A+D Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

The exhibition was curated by Mónica Ponce de León, dean of Princeton's architecture school, and Cynthia Davidson, a writer and editor at an architectural theory journal called LOG. The pair picked 12 design teams -- three from Los Angeles -- from over 250 applicants and gave each team one of four sites on which to conceive a speculative programs.

They directed the designers to "think imaginatively, not worry about budget. Don't worry about costs, don't worry about building regulations and zoning. Imagine what might be possible," Davidson said.

This resulted in some highly imaginative schemes -- including a cluster of civic buildings to support a Syrian refugee resettlement program by Andrew Zago and Laura Bouwman; a tubular, blob-like Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge and Innovation on the site of the defunct Packard Plant by Greg Lynn; and a Zócalo in place of a strip mall by Pita & Bloom that drew its decorative inspiration from layers of peeling paint in the decrepit relics of industrial Detroit.

Pita & Bloom's project "THE NEW ZÓCALO" is a proposal for the
Mexicantown area of Detroit and is part of "The Architectural Imagination"

However, the show drew a backlash from those, says LA Times Christopher Hawthorne, who felt "this was opportunistic. . . taking advantage of a struggling city and. . . imposing these visions of overwrought formal visions" on struggling neighborhoods.

Davidson points out the reaction has been mixed -- and recalls Detroit's Planning Director Maurice Cox telling her "we had changed the conversation in Detroit."