Seeing the Seediness, and Celebrating It
DETROIT — Ever since the great suburban exodus of the postwar years, American cities have experienced varying degrees of panic about their identities. One result is that more and more cities have taken on many of the qualities of suburbs to survive. Meanwhile, the once-smooth surface of suburbia has cracked open, revealing a dark underbelly that once seemed to be the exclusive realm of the city.
The new Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit is a radical rejoinder to this seismic shift. Housed in an abandoned car dealership on a barren strip of Woodward Avenue, it fits loosely into a decades-long effort to restore energy to an area that was abandoned during the white flight of the 1970s.
But the design springs from a profound rethinking of what constitutes urban revitalization. Designed by Andrew Zago, its intentionally raw aesthetic is conceived as an act of guerrilla architecture, one that accepts decay as fact rather than attempt to create a false vision of urban density. By embracing reality, it could succeed where large-scale development has so far failed.
Mr. Zago is uniquely positioned to grasp this context. Born in Detroit in 1958, he has vivid memories of the 1967 race riots that led the exodus of the white middle class. He remembers hearing white neighbors talk of fleeing to the suburbs as black families moved in. After departing with his family to a northern suburb, he saw the city decline to the point where it became a poster child of decay.
Only later, as a practicing architect in the 1990s, did he begin to see these decrepit neighborhoods as a legitimate landscape for architectural experimentation. “I didn’t want to romanticize it,” he said during a recent tour of Detroit, “but the city had a depth of character, a real substance and integrity. And while you want to do away with the problems, you don’t want to lose that quality.”
The museum, known as Mocad, presented his first opportunity to explore the tensions and ambiguities — between urban and suburban, resilience and decay — on a meaningful scale. The museum stands midway between the gargantuan Beaux-Arts structure that houses the venerated Detroit Institute of Art — a haunting symbol of the city’s faded civic aspirations — and a recently completed sports and entertainment district on the edge of the downtown business district.
Anchored by Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers, the entertainment district’s gaudy signs, generic bars and trickle of pedestrians will be recognizable to anyone who has witnessed the transformation of America’s once-vibrant inner cities into generic shopping malls. It is an ersatz vision of the bustling metropolis, sanitized for visiting suburbanites.
By comparison, Mr. Zago draws inspiration from the squatters’ houses, performance spaces, local bars and grass-roots art projects that have sprouted amid the disturbing stillness of the neighborhoods: a kind of forgotten underworld tucked into ruined houses and storefronts surrounded by lots that have been abandoned for so long that they have become overgrown fields.
The architect had no interest in smoothing over the scars, which are worn as badges of pride. The gallery floor in what was once the car showroom retains its red octagonal tile; the other floors are raw concrete. Interior walls — collages of peeling paint, exposed brick and concrete block — have been left untouched so that you can see the traces of where they have been cut open and patched over during years of crude alterations. (Mr. Zago jokingly calls it his Frankenstein building.)
To save money, he placed the museum’s mechanical systems, typically hidden atop the roof, in a corner of a gallery, wrapped in a chain link fence. Warmth is provided by a series of heat lamps suspended from the ceiling, as they might be in a public parking garage. Art works — a video by Kara Walker, a towering sculpture cobbled from the broken fragments of an old acoustical tile ceiling by Nari Ward — are scattered throughout the galleries with refreshing informality.
The intentionally crude approach echoes museum projects like Frank Gehry’s Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles (1982) and Michael Maltzan’s MoMA QNS, which served as a temporary home for the Museum of Modern Art from 2002 to 2004. Like those projects, resolutely informal, Mocad creates a casual and intimate relationship between art and viewer, shrugging off the weighty air of authority and privilege that is typical of so many museums. It takes us back to a time when making art and architecture could be a act of dissent.
Mr. Zago reinforces that ethos by allowing the art to spill out joyfully onto the sidewalks. Big glass garage doors are set into the Garfield Street facade, which can be rolled up during the summer. For the opening of the museum, the graffiti artist Barry McGee spray-painted the brick facade with bold swirling letters. The graffiti echoes the colorfully painted convenience stores with Lotto signs that have sprouted up around Detroit in former brick bank buildings. (The city’s planning department tends to regard the signs as a form of architectural vandalism.)
But Mocad also sets out to create a genuine community of art. Its three main galleries are arranged around a big room in which an informal bookstore and cafe were conceived as places to exchange ideas rather than a Starbucks for tourists. Its casual disorder affirms what the critic Dave Hickey once described as the social order that sustains any art community — “the way people talk about loving things, which things, and why.”
Museum officials hope to raise $5.5 million for a more elaborate renovation by Mr. Zago that could be completed by 2010. Not surprisingly, his design for this second phase will be more formal than this, but not by much. All of the interior walls will be removed, yielding a big, open, flexible space with a series of small, boxlike galleries embedded along the main facade. A grid of enormous skylights shaped like canted parallelograms will puncture the roof. By projecting some of the skylights down into the space and others up above the roof, Mr. Zago lends character to the interior without creating a maze of walls.
A series of canted windows will project from the Woodward Avenue facade, evoking the building’s previous life as a car dealership. A cafe will push out into the parking lot, which will become a sculpture garden.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Zago’s strategy will be the seed for similar developments. But Mocad is a powerful reminder that the neat distinction between the sterile suburbs and their urban counterpart is now dead. Mr. Zago finds meaning in the forgotten landscape between the two: a terrain that makes room for renegades and outcasts, as the urban metropolis once did.