Let’s get serious: “Community” and “Activism” in the Architectural Imagination

Private security guards attempting to remove demonstrators for water rights from the Detroit RiverWalk, a public space managed by Detroit RiverFront Conservancy.

An op-ed by Detroit Resists published in The Architect’s Newspaper on 1 September 2016.

In their response to William Menking’s review of The Architectural Imagination, the curators of the exhibition, Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León, call out Menking for “his egregious word substitution in one phrase.” Menking wrote that “[the curators] assert that the projects are entirely speculative and ‘offer no serious solutions for a city beset by real problems’.” The curators point out that they used the word “concrete” instead of “serious” in their original statement; while the projects in The Architectural Imagination were not “concrete solutions,” the curators argue, these projects were nonetheless “serious.” Regardless of how one parses the meaning of “serious” in relation to The Architectural Imagination, the curators invite us to read their “Response” as closely as they attempt to read Menking’s review. When we engaged in that reading of the curators’ “Response,” we also find some wordplay worthy of note.

When The Architectural Imagination was launched in the summer of 2015, the project’s website announced a “Detroit Advisory Board.” In the “Response,” however, we read about “an advisory board of community activists.”  Who—or what—are these “community activists”? The Architectural Imagination’s Detroit Advisory Board was comprised of a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State, an Associate Dean of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Planning Director of the City of Detroit, the Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the CEO of Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, a Real Estate Manager of Midtown Detroit, Inc., and on and on…

We submit that there is no conventional definition of “community activist” that would apply to any member of this advisory board and we are fairly certain that few—if any—members of this board would present themselves to any Detroit community as a “community activist.” Moreover, many Detroit communities know organizations represented on the Detroit Advisory Board as explicitly anti-activist. The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has been a driving force in the securitization of public space in downtown Detroit; despite the efforts of the National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union to defend the right of free speech on the publicly-owned RiverWalk, the Conservancy has consistently and actively prevented activists and demonstrators from assembling there. Midtown Detroit, Inc. has choreographed the transformation of the Cass Corridor, once a center of alternative communities and activist organizations in the city, into the gentrified “Midtown.” Detroit Future City has scripted the displacement of some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities and most vibrant activist organizations for “innovation landscapes.”

What prompted an advisory board with a decided leaning towards market-oriented neoliberal urbanism to be recast as “an advisory board of community activists” is a not uninteresting question, but we—just like the curators in their “Response”—are more interested in the effects of this rhetoric than the reasons for engaging in it. In reframing the members of their advisory board as “community activists,” the curators rhetorically annihilate authentic community activism in Detroit—activism that has been resisting emergency management, austerity politics, disenfranchisement, and ethnic cleansing well before and all during the course of their project—and they delete this activism from the architectural imagination that they so seriously want to advance. This annihilation allows the curators to co-opt the term “community activism” to describe philanthrocapitalism, public-private partnerships, corporate nonprofits, and the culture industry. In so doing, the curators invite us to occupy a world in which “community activism” is an appropriate name for the activities of the state, foundations, real estate development enterprises, and, presumably, the architects who serve them.

This co-option of “community” and “activism” becomes vivid in a dramatic instance of word substitution in the curators’ “Response.” Consider, in one short section of that response, the way in which the words “community,” “business,” and “neighborhood” so easily replace one another:

From the beginning of this project we laid out a process that enabled the architects to meet with a number of diverse community groups. These organizations included members of business improvement districts that Menking erroneously claims were excluded from the process: the Southwest Detroit Business Association, the Eastern Market Corporation, Detroit Future City, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and others too numerous to list here. From thesecommunity meetings, the architects developed programs that recognizedneighborhood aspirations and then they began to work on architectural designs. (Emphases added.)

Through nothing else than the magic of word substitution, we see meetings with philanthrocapitalist development groups becoming “community meetings” and “community meetings” offering revelations of “neighborhood aspirations.” Once again, the curators perform an annihilation by co-option: otherwise unrepresented “neighborhood aspirations” are here conjured up through some of the very entities that these neighborhoods are currently opposing.

What is at stake in these word substitutions? We think that the stakes are high enough to qualify these substitutions as at least as “egregious” as Menking’s replacement of “concrete” with “serious.” Through rhetoric, magical thinking, and an arrogation of the right to profess upon communities to which they have no accountability, the curators place themselves and their project in the position of giving voice to a supposedly voiceless citizenry, a citizenry otherwise unable to contend with the socio-political situation in which they find themselves. Consider, then, these lofty words from the curators’ “Response”:

By putting architectural ideas and forms on the table for Detroit, The Architectural Imagination gives the city’s residents access to a high level of architectural design and language. This access empowers citizens to engage in discussions about the city’s future direction before that direction is decided by existing power structures.

In staging an exhibition of speculative architectural projects as a gift of “a high level of architectural design and language” to Detroit’s residents, we hear the echo of civilizing missions whose colonial authority is cast as educative and morally uplifting; in the claim that the exhibition of these projects “empowers citizens,” we see the imagination of an abject citizenry with no capacity to empower themselves; in the notion that “the city’s future direction” has not yet been decided by “existing power structures,” we see a disengagement from a city whose ongoing reality is, to a great degree, the attempted imposition of precisely that direction by precisely those structures; and in the claim that the speculative architectural projects in The Architectural Imagination “address inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation, and much, much more,” we hear an attempt to co-opt the work of organizations that are actually working with and for the communities dealing with those issues.

In a final exercise of word substitution, let us substitute the imaginary “community activists” invoked by the curators of The Architectural Imagination with actual community activists currently resisting mass water shutoffs, mass foreclosures, mass evictions, racial injustice, police violence, food insecurity, education privatization, and other threats facing Detroit’s residents: We the People of Detroit, Detroit’s People Platform, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, Black Lives Matter Detroit,Detroit Eviction Defense, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, People’s Water Board, and many other groups—none of which the curators of The Architectural Imagination apparently saw fit to engage.

When seen in the context of the work of these groups, we cannot understand the engagements with “inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation,” and the other issues the curators claim for The Architectural Imagination as at all serious. Moreover, we also believe that “architecture”—whatever that contested word is taken to mean—can find much more inspiration, agency, and relevance by learning from and working with communities and activists engaged in issues around inequality, sustainability, insecurity, and segregation than by claiming those engagements by little else than fiat.

In the introduction to The Architectural Imagination published in the project’s catalogue, Cynthia Davidson approvingly quotes the following words of the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai: “The imagination today is a staging ground for action, and not only for escape.” If Davidson had turned the page in the book in which Appadurai wrote these words, she would have read Appadurai’s subsequent qualification of his claim: “It is important to stress here that I am speaking of the imagination now as a property of collectives, and not merely as a faculty of the gifted individual (its tacit sense since the flowering of European Romanticism).” With its celebration of the work of “visionary American architectural practices” and its tacit disregard for actually-existing communities, The Architectural Imagination advances just the model of imagination that Appadurai is writing against. We think, then, thatThe Architectural Imagination fails to meet its own standard for imagination. Seriously.

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