Architecture's role as a proponent of urban legibility has been a frequent and recurrent area of inquiry in the history of the discipline. Repeatedly, architects have implemented techniques of figuration, iconicity or imagability in their designs for urban buildings in ways that were intended to make sense of their surrounding cities, represent a public, solicit occupancy or frame common experience. One might note a diverse list of 20th century precedents: the environmental psychology of Kevin Lynch, the haunting associative solicitations of buildings by Aldo Rossi or John Hejduk, the typological practices of new urbanism, or even Lars Lerup's classification of the scenography of Houston's urban sprawl. Operating under the pretenses of an array of conceptual alliances, from collective memory to Gestalt psychology, each of these architects pursued an agenda in which a reading of urbanism could be clarified through the imposition of formative and legible structures. While such speculation has sometimes met charges of a regressive conception of urbanism, or an apparent lack of interest in the social and political issues that underlie the contemporary city, such criticism has not deterred the recurrence of this line of thought. For good reason – a belief that urban architecture might make urbanism legible, thus representing its public and framing common experience, grants the discipline profound agency in organizing the political and social life of the city.
The Empty Pavilion aspires to a method of architectural legibility that is appropriate for Detroit's evacuated urban context. The city's decline and state of ruin has been well documented, both within architectural discourse and the general media. Most of this attention has focused on either the oneiric landscape that has emerged in the city's wake (ruin porn), tactical approaches to retooling the city, or capital's broken contract with Detroit's disenfranchised citizens. The Empty Pavilion aspires neither to celebrate Detroit's decline nor does it attempt to directly address the social and economic impetus that underlies the city's condition. Our intention is not to directly oppose the modes of inquiry that the city most often hosts, but simply to test of one of architecture's most historically theorized disciplinary capacities within the most extreme of urban conditions. Breaking with the dominant (and apparent) narrative of Detroit's deterioration, the Empty Pavilion is conceived under the naive suspicion that a latent and viable urbanism exists within the city's now diffuse urban context, and that through the imposition of a figurally solicitous architecture, that public may be made extant.
The pavilion is designed as a collection of architectural figures drawn-in-space. Each figure is derived as a single line tracery of an underlying lattice of closely-packed platonic solids. These lines are then "relaxed" to loosely approximate the rigorous geometry underlying their inception – thus yielding a fleeting legibility of geometric intricacy, as well as a mood or affect of entropy that resonates with the surrounding city. From a distance, the project engages the onlooker in a visual game of fleeting figuration. From certain vantage points, and only momentarily, the project recalls familiar architectural elements that may entice memory – like the roof-line of house, a chimney, a hallway, or a staircase. From other vantages, the project presents clear, and yet unfamiliar, architectural figures – thus soliciting projective association. Up-close, the pavilion is meant to encourage physical interaction. Elements within the design suggest differing modes of occupation, such as seating, lounging and climbing. Constructed of bent steel tubing, foam and rubber, the pavilion is counter-intuitively soft to the touch, begging tactile engagement.
The relationship between the pavilion and its site is meant to lend definition to the otherwise unvariegated surrounding emptiness and vaguely recall the site's history. The project aspires to distribute just enough material across empty space – an element Detroit has in excess – to make that space legible and promote interaction. Located in an empty field that was once divided into a series of residential lots, the project loosely describes the volume of the house that once sat in its place. The design of the ground plane further recalls the absent house, drawing the shape of its shadow in gravel surrounded by the painted profile of that cast by the new pavilion. From within, the pavilion frames views out to historically important civic buildings. For example, traversing a passage carved under and through the pavilion, the project directs one's view out to the empty shell of Detroit's monumental Michigan Central Railroad Station. From the opposite direction, the project frames a view of the Renaissance Center, General Motor's headquarters in Detroit.
Empty Pavilion will remain in place for a year. The relationship between the pavilion and its surrounding public will be documented in video and photography. Thus, the project's successes and failures in soliciting a latent public will become part of the research.
McLain Clutte and Kyle Reynolds (University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning)
Project Team: Ariel Poliner, Michael Sanderson, Nathan van Wylen
Photography: Oleksandra Topolnytska