The Imaginary and the Critical: A Conversation with Cynthia Davidson

Cynthia Davidson is the editor in chief of Log and co-curator of The Architectural Imagination, the 2016 U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. 

Wes Hiatt: Let’s start off with what got us talking about getting together in the first place. That was your reading of Eric Peterson’s criticism of the US Pavilion in the first issue of Paprika this semester.

Cynthia Davidson: He said the US Pavilion was “misguided.” As I recall, somebody pointed this out to me and said, You’re going to be really mad. When I read the sentence, I thought, Eh, so what. You know, it’s a kid. But then I thought about it later, and precisely because it is a young person who presumably wants to be taken seriously, I was unhappy, because he gave no reason for the dismissal. I like criticism. I like learning from what other people have to say about what we’ve done in this exhibition––what they find problematic, what they find energizing. To say that it’s misguided, what does that mean? There was no explanation. It’s just a totally subjective comment. If you thought it was misguided, it’s better not to even mention it. There’s a lot to be said by omission. When you don’t write about something it means it’s not worth a second thought. But when you do mention something you have to think about it. So to dismiss anything with one word I think is short sighted of any critic, not just this particular individual. You can’t be critical in a single sentence that says, This went down the wrong path. Why did it go down the wrong path? How did he come to that conclusion? I would welcome that critique so that we could discuss it further. “The Architectural Imagination” will open in Detroit in February, so the more we talk about the issues that could be raised before we get there, the better. So I was disappointed.

I just came back from Birmingham, Alabama. I was invited there because of the imagination in the US Pavilion. Many people thought the work was really exciting—that architects are thinking about the city and not only planners. Architects have something to contribute to discussions about the city, and they represent ideas in different ways than planners do, and in ways that can seem more imaginative than an urban plan. There are so many issues that need to be addressed in Detroit, and many, many people are working on the ground to address the neighborhood issues, particularly City Hall. For example, it may seem small, but Mayor Mike Duggan has turned the streetlights back on—they’d been turned off when the city couldn’t pay its electric bill, leaving whole neighborhoods in the dark. All kinds of important things are happening there. Until Maurice Cox was appointed Planning Director last spring, nobody was really thinking about architecture at City Hall, because it can seem like architecture is only useful when there is something you need to build. But architecture is about much more than just building. Architecture is about ideas. It’s about imagining new ways of habitation. It’s about so many things that we tried to bring to the table with this exhibition.

Luke Studebaker: Does that attitude account for the scale of the projects in the exhibition? The projects in the US Pavilion seemed to be at a larger scale than most other work in the Biennale. Even if they shared much in common with other exhibitions, they seemed to present a different understanding of where the architect’s skillset can be applied.

CD: The city of Detroit is 139 square miles. There’s a debate as to whether there are 20 square miles or 40 square miles of empty land within the city limits. Of the 20 sites that our advisory board wanted us to consider, one was 165 acres. But we couldn’t work at that scale. It’s not an architectural scale. We chose the smaller sites so that the architects could conceivably come up with speculative projects that included program and drawings and models––completely new work—within three months. It was a very compressed time schedule to do all that. We also asked them to do this without a developer, without a client, without a budget––just to represent potential ideas. After talking with people in each community to learn what they were thinking about, everything that the architects produced was large-scale because the sites were large, and because the communities themselves have ambitions. When there are three different ideas for each site, you begin to have a dialogue with the community by demonstrating that there’s always more than one solution.

We don’t work for the city of Detroit and we have no intention to influence what’s going on in Detroit. Our intent was to show the power of the architectural imagination, to show the depth of it, the diversity of it, to represent it through the tools that architecture uses, like drawings and models, and then to see how the community responds. We hope the exhibition gives a lot of people in Detroit access to a language they don’t generally speak and then ways to think about how they want to see their city develop. In the context of Venice, an exhibition of this scope was pretty unusual.

WH: At the Biennale a lot of the other pavilions seemed to me to have the ethos of “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” that the world is in shambles and we’re going to use that to our advantage. But, the US Pavilion seemed, hopeful is the wrong word, but ambitious, in that it suggested that architecture can have agency within a crisis mode, and that doesn’t have to be just for Detroit. It can be for rural areas or anywhere. Looking back, would you see the US Pavilion as a critique of other national pavilions or of Alejandro Aravena’s exhibition in the Central Pavilion?

CD: We think of “The Architectural Imagination” as ideas for Detroit that also have application in other postindustrial cities. The recent call from Birmingham is an example of that possibility. I don’t think our pavilion was a critique of any other pavilion, or of Aravena’s theme, because we had to propose our idea to the US Department of State months before Aravena was even named director of the Biennale. When people learned we were focusing on Detroit, they assumed we were following his theme because the city’s recent woes are so well known. As for the other pavilions, “Making Heimat,” the exhibition about arrival cities for immigrants in the German pavilion, resonated with one of the projects in “The Architectural Imagination.” Zago Architecture––Andrew Zago and Laura Bouwman––proposed to resettle 68,000 Syrian refugees in Detroit over a five-year period. Their exhibit includes a letter they wrote to President Obama about their concept. So, like Austria and Germany, the US Pavilion also addressed political issues. There are over 250 objects in the exhibition, and a lot of text to explain that these aren’t Cinderella castles; these are real ideas for a real place. Even if they look overly ambitious to some people, even if they look like too much architecture to other people, they are all underpinned with programmatic ideas.

A(n) Office proposed to relocate a community in Detroit that’s being displaced by the new bridge from Canada that’s about to be built. In order to accommodate new customs facilities for all the trucks that come across that bridge, the city will dislocate 900 residents of a relatively stable neighborhood. So Mitch [McEwen] and Marcelo [López-Dinardi] proposed to relocate those people in the Mexicantown neighborhood by building housing, and associating it with a program for cleaning the air. Their project, called Promised Land Air, proposes to improve the air quality in the neighborhood, which is right next to a huge rail yard that kicks up all kinds of dust and diesel smoke. To the east of the site is a very prosperous immigrant neighborhood.

So there were projects you would associate with Aravena’s call, but not everyone associated the kinds of forms the architects produced with these programs, which is interesting. What is it we expect? There was an op-ed piece in the New York Times this fall about the opening of the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington in which Ron Christie, a White House staffer in the Bush administration, recalled George Bush signing the museum into law in 2003. Christie remarked on the administration’s goal to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations” often associated with minorities. When I hear critiques about the projects in the Biennale––they’re too big, they look like developer projects, they’re too expensive, that’s not what the community needs––that little phrase starts an itch. Is it possible that many of us have been laboring under a soft bigotry––something so soft we don’t even realize it—of low expectations, meaning certain communities would never use or don’t warrant things that look on the surface to be so extravagant? That’s a really interesting thing to think about.

LS: To me, that also has to do with taking risks. Having low expectations would mean not taking the risk to make a proposal that presents a new possibility for how to address a given issue, even if that proposal draws criticism or even falls short of its own goals.

CD: Architecture has to be able to take risks. But I also don’t think that architecture solves problems. The Renaissance Center is a perfect example. Renaissance Center was built to, quote-unquote, solve a problem: to get people to come back to downtown Detroit after the race riots, when everybody was afraid to inhabit downtown. And yet it was a citadel. It was a fortification. It separated populations. It persisted in segregating black and white. While it was like a stakeholder, saying downtown will survive, it also was not the most politic of buildings. In addressing one problem, it created others. I think, though, that we learn from that. Monica and I never asked the architects to solve a problem. We asked them to use their imagination. We asked them to imagine a program that the community might benefit from and then to create a form. I think a lot of the architects looked around and said, There’s a need for jobs here. There’s a need for workplaces here. There’s a need for housing. In fact, because the city has had to tear down so many abandoned single- and two-family houses, there’s not enough housing that’s ready to be moved into. You can buy a house that needs a lot of work for not very much money, but it’s going to cost a lot of money to rehabilitate it and get it back online. These are some of the problems facing the people who live there. We didn’t go to Detroit and say, Look, we’ve got this exhibition of ideas for you, pick one. That was never our intention. Ours was only to start conversations and help people understand the vast range at which architecture can work.

WH: As a last question, let’s talk about the value of criticism. We started off talking about how, as young people, perhaps we need to sharpen our skills in writing as a form of critique. What do you think the value of criticism is to students?

CD: A good critic will draw your attention to different ways of looking at something. A critic doesn’t just pick up any old thing—building, project, book, film—and write about it. There’s a lot of commercial and cultural production that goes on that’s never written about because it doesn’t raise any flags and doesn’t challenge how you think. Maybe that hamburger you just ate was good because you were hungry, but it’s not worth writing about. Or that film was good because you needed to take your mind off your work and it made you laugh. That doesn’t mean some critic is going to say, This raises some questions about how we think about things. A student, however, should always be asking questions. And this is why you could say that criticism is important for students in particular, because a student’s job is the work of learning. My philosophy of life is to learn something new every day. That’s what makes getting up interesting and worthwhile. I like what I do because I learn from everyone who sends us articles, calls, or sends emails saying, What about this? Have you thought about that?

Architecture is in the business, I believe, of making things a little bit better, even if it creates as many problems as it tries to address. To constantly be thinking about how things might be a little bit better makes architecture the most optimistic profession in the world. When you build, you’re building for the future. It’s always about projecting into the future in some way, for unknown future occupants, for unknown future activity. I think criticism also helps us to look forward in new ways and with new thinking. And it helps you question whether as architects you’re making the right choices in your own work.