The Design Observer Group

Posted 05.15.09

Whitney Moon

Reclaiming the Ruin

DDD Project
DDD Project, 2005. Images courtesy of Object Orange.

But there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins. There has to be (in our new concept of history) an interim of death or rejection before there can be renewal and reform. The old order has to die before there can be a born-again landscape.
— J.B. Jackson [1]

Detroit may be littered with ruins and abandoned lots, but it is not empty. In response to architectural neglect and decay, individual acts of appropriation suggest that the remedy for postindustrial ruin begins with ad hoc, underground, and unsanctioned practices. By calling attention to derelict and downtrodden conditions, Detroit residents are, in a variety of ways, initiating an urban revival. Resuscitating Detroit will require a multilayered strategy, one that is currently bringing signs of revitalization, but whose future is uncertain. [2]

In a city where demolition far outpaces construction, what role can architecture play in revival? In Detroit architecture is seen more often as the problem rather than the solution. But if bulldozers and wrecking balls are the default tools in an effort to counteract apathy and abandonment, the unintended consequences are becoming clear. In Detroit, erasure has led to a new crisis of emptiness.

But the emerging solutions are not about large rebuilding plans, big architectural gestures. Opting for raw over refined, many in Detroit are employing limited economic resources for maximum effect. Throughout the city we can see many examples of the bottom-up, ad-hoc transformation of abandoned spaces. The urban future of Detroit lies in these informal networks.

Stages of Reclamation
Creation or collapse, the accident is an unconscious oeuvre, an invention in the sense of uncovering what was hidden, just waiting to happen.
— Paul Virilio [3]

In The Original Accident, Paul Virilio argued for the inevitability of the industrial accident, suggesting that catastrophes are “the fruit of Progress and of the labour of mankind.” He suggested the need to “uncover what was hidden, just waiting to happen.” [4] Virilio’s approach is not nihilistic, nor does it glorify catastrophe: he argues that it in the accident the substance of progress and invention is revealed. Because progress invariably wreaks havoc, disaster is intrinsic to growth. In this sense the architectural ruin is not a sign of  failure, but evidence of the potential for rebirth.

Detroit possesses a rich history of optimism when confronted with disaster. It was destroyed by fire in 1805, and its residents were determined to rebuild. The city’s official seal, adopted in 1826, reads: “We Shall Rise Again from the Ashes / We Hope for Better Things.” [5] Featuring two female figures — one representing Detroit’s recent loss and the other its promising future — the seal reflects the city’s dialectical relationship with renewal. In the background, the city is illustrated in flames; in the foreground, a new city is born. While symbolizing resilience, the seal also exposes the paradox of rebirth: loss is necessary for something new to emerge.

The following case studies show how the reclamation of Detroit follows three stages: 1) highlight, 2) appropriate, and 3) transform. Varying in scale and ranging from the anti-institutional to the institutional, they present emergent strategies for architectural reform. Analysis of their pros and cons implies a projective fourth phase, in which “the city full of holes” is seen as a raw network of architectural potential. [6]

Pick up a roller. Pick up a brush. Apply orange. The dialogue is going. Our goal is to make everyone look at not only these houses, but all the buildings rooted in decay and corrosion. If we can get people to look for our orange while driving through the city, then they will at the same time, be looking at all the decaying buildings they come across. This brings awareness. And as we have already seen, awareness brings action.
— DDD project [7]

The first stage of reclamation might not only be anti-institutional, anonymous and ephemeral — it might also be illegal. Flying under the radar, unsanctioned acts are early signs of life in the aftermath. Quick to be seen, heard, and felt, their immediacy not only attracts but also refocuses attention. Derelict buildings might seem suspended in a state of ruin, where entropy is assaulted, suspended, celebrated or accelerated. The result is a new relationship between art and architecture, where art uses architecture’s public facade as a canvas for announcing failure through constructive practice.

To expose the city’s crisis of abandonment, an anonymous group of four artists, calling themselves Object Orange, carried out such an act of ruin reclamation in 2006. They called it Detroit Demolition Disneyland (DDD). Armed with Tiggeriffic Orange paint (a cheerfully vibrant color from Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” series), they transformed a collection of abandoned structures marked for demolition. Object Orange sought to build awareness of neglect and encourage residents to participate in direct discourse with the ruins around them.

Such covert interventions are clearly not a solution. Indeed, as a result of DDD, four of the eleven painted houses were immediately demolished. [8] But as a provocation, Operation Orange challenged the city’s own failure to come up with solutions. Why create voids without plans for recuperation? “If the city doesn’t rebuild, will it be better to have nothing there rather than an abandoned house?” [9]

Here we ask: might the best way forward for Detroit be a phenomenon that is being acted out every day by thousands of self-interested homeowners who are merely making do? If so, might we as planners and policy makers learn how to better learn from what people are already doing? [10]
— Interboro Partners

The second stage of ruin reclamation might at first be invisible, but ultimately it seeks institutional sanction and acknowledgement. It operates by means of bottom-up, self-initiated, everyday urbanism. Embracing the gradual and organic appropriation of abandoned sites by residents, the architects and planners at Interboro Partners have identified a practice of lot expansion, or “blots.” They see this as an indicator and an example of a “New Suburbanism.” Defined as “the process through which entrepreneurial homeowners take, borrow, or buy adjacent vacant lots,” its “cumulative effect will be a gradual rewriting of the City’s genetic code.” [11]

By identifying and documenting these practices, Interboro hopes to facilitate the informal, uncoordinated practice of staking claim to Detroit’s abandoned sites. Rather than creating voids or highlighting ruins, New Suburbanism seeks to return these now city-owned properties to responsible private hands. It also builds on an already thriving practice of “urban husbandry,” where residents lay claim to abandoned sites to plant community gardens. [12] A loose new infrastructure could one day sanction such activity and allow growth.

Despite the expansive nature of lot appropriation, New Suburbanism remains wedded to a vision of Detroit’s ultimate demise. Although blots may prevent the decay and demolition of some structures, they do little to address the primary problem of shrinkage — that “[u]nbuilding has surpassed building as the city’s major architectural activity.” [13] Rather than positing an inventive new urban vision for Detroit, New Suburbanism settles for the effects of entropy, regularized through the expansion of property lines.

Courtyard blot
Courtyard blot. In context, with blots shown in pink; and below, the evolution of the blot and its reorientation over time. Illustrations by Interboro Partners.

I didn’t want to romanticize it...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. [14]
— Andrew Zago

The third stage of ruin reclamation is formal, sanctioned and semi-institutional. It incorporates the first two stages — highlighting and appropriating — but goes further to transform abandoned buildings and vacant lots into vibrant new sites. Advocating conservation rather than demolition, transformation preserves traces of the past while turning attention to the future.

Architects may be active agents in facilitating such incremental progress, using the ruin as a frame for creative reclamation. Often conceived in phases, transformation necessitates both immediate and long-term actions. And since limited financial resources often prohibit realization of elaborate visions, the resultant strategy must balance pragmatism and desire.

Opened in 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), designed by the architect Andrew Zago, is one such project. It highlights and appropriates an urban ruin, but also transforms it into a vibrant cultural center. Occupying a former car dealership abandoned in the 1970s, at a time of mass white flight, the 22,000-square-foot museum evokes Detroit's past as a center of automotive production. Amid the slow revival of a derelict downtown, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called MOCAD “an act of guerilla architecture, one that accepts decay as fact rather than attempts to create a false vision of urban density.” [15]

Zago, a Detroit native, viewed the project as a chance to contribute to downtown renewal, but in a way that would draw inspiration from its current state. [16] Taking cues from “squatter’s houses, performance spaces, local bars and grass-roots art projects,” Zago took advantage of the transgressive potential of the ruin. [17] He employed the vernacular of urban blight as an operative strategy, celebrating the city’s underbelly. 

Zago had initially designed a more significant intervention. But the museum’s limited financial resources and its desire to open immediately necessitated scaling back to a quick-and-dirty Phase 1 that involved such pragmatic maneuvers as installing lighting, plumbing and a parking lot. [18] Zago’s adaptation celebrates the ruin's raw aesthetic: walls showcase layers of peeling paint; a patchwork of floor surfaces suggests a long history of interior alterations.

Such scars not only contribute to the visual appeal of the building but also tell a story of endurance, adaptability and survival. In turn, the museum has inspired different forms of ad hoc engagement from exhibiting artists, where the architecture itself serves as a site for creative reclamation. [19] As Ouroussoff explained, “[i]t takes us back to a time when making art and architecture could be an act of dissent.” [20]

For Phase 2, Zago has proposed a more extensive renovation, introducing a high degree of refinement: sculptural skylights, storefront windows, mechanical upgrades, a sculpture garden, a cafe with outdoor seating and a bookstore. Although these additional alterations would maintain the allure of the industrial ruin, they are guided more by aesthetic than operative urgency. But the critical need to stake a claim on Detroit’s ruins, paired with economic recession, suggests that these architectural refinements would be unnecessary, if not inappropriate. The urgency of MOCAD is conveyed by its comparative roughness.

MOCAD (Phase 1)
MOCAD (Phase 1). Woodward Avenue facade with mural by graffiti artist Barry McGee. Photo courtesy of Zago Architecture.
MOCAD (Phase 2)
MOCAD (Phase 2, unbuilt), rendering. View along Woodward Avenue. Images by Zago Architecture.

Reclamation: A “Second Coming”?
Perhaps the prime problem for the immediate future is the indicating of ‘no-present-use’ for a place, but nevertheless signaling that the city centre is not dead, only resting; that it is becoming available, a place for the nature of change to make itself manifest, a place of change for the better in a climate of hope.
— Alison Smithson [21]<

Focusing on ruins is not only an act of initial reclamation; it is also an operative strategy in the subsequent stages of architectural appropriation and transformation. In recent years Detroit's problems have received extensive public attention. The enduring solution to the city's protracted decline might well be the kind of relatively loose and informal practices I've described above. Furthermore, each stage — Highlight, Appropriate, and Transform — lays the groundwork for a subsequent mode of renewal: raw urbanism.

Raw urbanism is a form of urban recuperation that encourages sequences of individual operations. It posits a larger infrastructural framework that accepts the city as a unified yet heterogeneous fabric. In this view, abandoned lots are no longer seen as isolated and singular but rather as part of a greater whole — as part of an urban fabric composed of surface interruptions, whose discontinuities must be understood as integral ecologies and whose potential is essential to the survival of the whole.

Raw urbanism implicates architecture as an active agent in the recuperation of Detroit, rejecting grand gestures that offer false hope for salvation. Such grand gestures — casinos, ballparks, and corporate headquarters — have not only failed to resuscitate the city; they stand out as monuments to disappointment. What the city needs is hope — hope that a solution to current crises will emerge and that it will transcend the myth of salvation.

Detroit needs strategies that aim not merely to preserve or suspend the city but also to launch it into an uncertain future where it can “make itself manifest.” [22] Rather than making promises, raw urbanism constructs networks of possibility, where the “city full of holes” is understood as a city of untapped potential. As the essayist Rebecca Solnit has explained, “Detroit will never be built as it was.” Rather, “it will be the first of many cities forced to become altogether something else.” [23]

MOCAD (Phase 2), model.