Architectural Melancholy: Diego Rivera in “The Architectural Imagination”

The Architectural Imagination is an exhibition of new speculative architectural projects designed for specific sites in Detroit but with far-reaching applications for cities around the world. It will open to the public in the US Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

“The Architectural Imagination,”

The exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion, called The Architectural Imagination, intends to showcase the power of architectural thinking in regenerating postindustrial cities. Cocurated by critic and editor Cynthia Davidson and former dean of architecture at the University of Michigan and now at Princeton, Monica Ponce de Leon, it will look at the potential of four abandoned or underused sites in Detroit, as radically reimagined by 12 teams of architects.

Catherine McGuigan, “Design’s Social Agenda: Architecture in the Public Interest is Now Part of the Zeitgeist,” Architectural Record, February 2016.


Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 6.21.57 PM

Figure 1: Screen capture,


In the months preceding the 2016 Venice Biennale, the U.S. architectural media has enthusiastically begun to amplify the rhetoric with which the U.S. Pavilion was launched in the Summer of 2015. The projects branded by the curators of the U.S. Pavilion as “speculative” are now circulating as exemplary of (to cite just one recent article) “design’s social agenda,” “architecture in the public interest,” and “the power of architectural thinking in regenerating postindustrial cities.”

The journalists who have begun to write about “The Architectural Imagination” do not have the speculative projects that will be exhibited in the Pavilion available to review and we don’t either. However, we do have one potent image—an image that might shed light on the politics of the U.S. Pavilion and thereby offer a frame within which to re-read the product placement statements of the sort that have begun to circulate in the architectural media.

This is the only image on the website of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale (figure 1). The image consists of one panel from the north façade of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, painted by Rivera in 1932 and 1933 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This panel shows workers at the Ford River Rouge Plant building V8 engines. The website zooms in on this panel, neatly framing it between the moldings of the architecture of the Detroit Institute of Arts courtyard. What we are given to see is Rivera’s depiction of the assembly line and his deliberate highlighting of the collaboration of man and machine, with an emphasis on the tense muscles of the workers as they labor.



Figure 2: Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry mural on north wall, Detroit Institute of Arts.


What we see, however, is the result of a close cropping of Rivera’s murals, a cropping that cuts out Rivera’s larger narrative (figure 2). The images that are missing, literally and figuratively ‘out of the picture,’ give us some insights into the relationships obscured by the presentation of the mural on “The Architectural Imagination” website and, perhaps, of the project more generally.

One missing image is the horizontal band on top of the cropped image; this band reveals Rivera’s ambitious depiction of global human and material extraction. Two bodies, one black and one brown, here represent the African and Latin American races. As our eyesight descends from these commanding presences, the bodies give way to the material resources extracted from far away lands. On the corners of this side of the mural, also cropped out of view, two contrasting views of scientific research are depicted: on the right-hand panel, a child is vaccinated, highlighting science’s contribution to health and life, whereas on the left an assembly of individuals wearing gas masks point to the complicities between science and war, in the creation of more efficient means to annihilate populations. These images—representing brown and black bodies, the violence of material extraction, the pain and suffering that extraction provokes in faraway lands, and the consequences of advanced scientific research in both life and death—are missing from the cropped version of the image that is presented to us on the website of “The Architectural Imagination.”

Furthermore, the cropped image is just one part of the five surfaces painted by Rivera in the Detroit Institute of Art’s courtyard. Rivera painted over the top of the east and west facades with stories of war and technology and echoed the mural on the opposite side, which includes white and Asian figures whose resources are also in turn being extracted. Lest we misinterpret these messages, Rivera printed the titles of these scenes in the floor of the courtyard, completing his depiction of the River Rouge factory as a site not only of labor and production but also of extraction, exploitation, and suffering. This three-dimensional intervention does not sit neatly, so to speak, within the courtyard. Rather, it aggressively takes over and completely alters our experience of the space.

By cropping the image, what we are left with on the website of “The Architectural Imagination” is an imagined version of Rivera—a harmonious story of interracial collaboration on the factory assembly line rather than the larger narrative of the exploitive process, precisely illustrated in the other sections of the murals, by means of which capitalists extracted surplus value from industrial labor and produced a society structured by inequality.

One of the primary ways in which the contradictions and violence ensuing from the capitalist exploitation of labor were smoothed over in Detroit was architectural: the introduction of the single-family house as a reward for a life spent on the assembly lines of the sort Rivera depicted in his murals. It is precisely these houses, now primarily occupied by working-class black families, that are currently the targets of Detroit’s post-bankruptcy austerity urbanism—an urbanism made manifest in mass foreclosures and evictions, in mass destruction of “blighted” houses, and in mass shut-offs of water in houses contending with unaffordable water bills.

So what does it mean that the website of the U.S. Pavilion includes a cropped section of Rivera’s murals? For us, this is a clear symptom of what Walter Benjamin once termed “left-wing melancholy.” Benjamin described left-wing melancholy as a means of avoiding contemporary political concerns by fetishizing aspects of the history of left politics.[1] Left-wing melancholy returns to the sites, events, images, and texts that compose this history in the belief that such returns would somehow constitute political interventions; in Benjamin’s words, left-wing melancholy is a “transposition of revolutionary reflexes … into objects of distraction, of amusement, which can be supplied for consumption.”[2] Could there be a better example of this transposition than the use of a section of Rivera’s revolutionary murals to decorate a project that appears to march in lock-step with austerity urbanism?

[1] Walter Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy,” in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[2] Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy,” 351.


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