The Architectural Imagination

Cynthia Davidson

from Log 37: The Architectural Imagination cataLog

Two years ago, believing that architecture can catalyze positive change in cities, Mónica Ponce de Léon and I conceived the idea of an exhibition for the United States Pavilion at the Biennale Archittetura 2016 that would present new speculative architectural projects for Detroit. We named it “The Architectural Imagination,” signifying both something yet unseen and something that only an architect would envision. When our proposal for the pavilion was selected by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in late May 2015, we set out to try to answer two questions: What is the architectural imagination? And why would the architectural imagination be of value in Detroit? 

In architecture, the topic of imagination is seldom far from discussions of creativity. In 2013, Merrill Elam made a documentary film called On Imagination: Conversations with Architects, in which she asked architects known for original and creative outside-of-the-box projects about the role of imagination in their work. Early in the film, Diane Lewis sets an intellectual framework for Elam’s conversations by recalling Descartes’s declaration that the art of the mind is the imagination. In fact, the ideas of the 17th-century philosopher are never far from contemporary discussions of imagination. As the philosopher John D. Lyons writes, “While Descartes is probably not entirely responsible for the modern tendency to value imagination and to suppose it an important criterion of intelligence, he certainly wrote at a turning point in the history of imagination and formulated effective and memorable recommendations about the place of this way of thinking within a structure of mind.” But it is important, Lyons continues, “to recognize [Descartes’s] consistency in telling us that weimagine, strictly speaking, only when we think about material things, things that we perceive, seem to perceive, or could perceive with our senses.” Descartes might as well have been thinking about architecture, for if nothing else, architecture is the materialization of our senses.

Over the centuries philosophers and psychologists from Kant to Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre to Gilles Deleuze, have developed multiple taxonomies of the imagination. Architects too have acknowledged, directly addressed, and demonstrated the importance of imagination, from Alberti to Quatremère de Quincy, from Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton to Rem Koolhaas’s highly imaginative reading of a “delirious” New York. When thinking about the potentials of architecture today, the work of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai suggests yet another provocative idea of imagination that, different from the more private idea of fantasy, “has a projective sense about it, the sense of being a prelude to some sort of expression, whether aesthetic or otherwise.” When the imagination is collective, a form he attributes to mass mediation and global migration, “it can become the fuel for action,” he writes. “The imagination is today a staging ground for action, and not only for escape.” Because architecture is never completely private, I would argue that the architectural imagination is precisely a staging ground for action, with the potential to engage individual subjectivities and cultural movements.

In this era of media and migration, can architecture still ignite a collective imagination? In the history of architecture we can only imagine why or how Vitruvius, in the first century AD, elucidated the conditions of firmness, commodity, and delight as constituting architecture – conditions that haunt the making of architecture to this day. In the poststructuralist 1980s and ’90s, Peter Eisenman frequently questioned this triad, asking whetherfirmitas meant that buildings must also appear to stand up. Today, the shapes and cantilevers of many contemporary buildings, made structurally possible by advances in design software and new construction techniques, no longer look as if they embody firmness or stability – a quality we take for granted – but suggest malleability. If the meaning of the Vitruvian triad can be reimagined, what other tenets of sociopolitical life can be rethought and transformed through architecture?


Imagination plays a vital role in justifying ideas as well as generating them in the first place. – Timothy Williamson

To conceive of an architecture exhibition without predetermined content is to take a big risk, particularly in the glare of the international spotlight of a Venice architecture biennale. But to consider the idea of architectural imagination, Mónica and I decided simply to frame the conditions for an architectural project: to lay out the idea of architectural imagination and to put it – and architects – to work in Detroit. By commissioning all-new work, rather than selecting completed projects, we risked that the work would not materialize or that the ideas and objects produced for display would fail to engage not only the viewer but also the urban subject. It was, however, a risk worth taking, as the work now shows.

We chose Detroit as the location for “The Architectural Imagination” because of its historical role as a locus of invention and its potential for reinvention. As the home of the automobile industry, the free-span concrete factory, and Motown and techno music, Detroit was an important center of modern imagination in the eyes of the world. Today it looms in the public consciousness as a city with a depleted population and an urban landscape pockmarked with blight. But now that Detroit has emerged from bankruptcy and the city is under new leadership, there is a certain urgency in the air to plan for the city’s possible futures. For some, this means asking how to shore up neighborhoods, for others, how to build equitably, even what to build, and with so much cleared land, new landscape projects are one of the city’s priorities. “The Architectural Imagination” introduces speculative architectural projects into the mix as a way to spark the collective imagination, to launch conversations about design, and to position Detroit as a model postindustrial city, one that is more equitable and prosperous in entirely new ways.

To begin, we set two processes in motion simultaneously. The first was the selection of architects, for which we conducted a nationwide call for expressions of interest in “The Architectural Imagination.” American architects were invited to submit a brief history and design philosophy and to illustrate three or four projects (built or unbuilt) by using a template we provided for a uniform submission and review process. We received more than 250 responses from across the country that together represented more than 600 individuals. These included established, award-winning professional practices and lesser-known designers who formed teams to give depth to their portfolios. The 12 firms/teams we chose reflect the range of these responses, and emphasize creative thinking and design excellence across generations. We hoped that this diversity would bring very different approaches to the challenges posed by the sites.

The second and equally important process was to assemble a Detroit advisory board to help us choose those sites. In the months between the Department of State’s deadline for exhibition proposals and our selection as curators, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had named Maurice Cox, who is an architect, as the city’s planning director. Cox’s understanding of the biennale’s international significance, and Mónica’s work to establish Michigan Architecture Prep, a high school program for architecture and planning in Midtown run by faculty from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, helped in the formation of an 11-member group of local advisers, including Cox, from the civic, nonprofit, and business sectors, most of whom work on development and planning issues.

When we met with the advisory board in early July 2015, they presented 20 sites that would benefit from the attention and research a speculative architectural project would generate. Many of the sites far exceeded what we considered to be an architectural scale – for example, the 168-acre former state fairgrounds, now abandoned, where landscape architect Walter Hood is currently developing a landscape plan for the city. Together with the board we selected seven sites for consideration. Mónica and I then revisited these sites to choose four – one for each of the four rooms in the US Pavilion. Our final selections, still very large sites, are spread across the city and reflect typical conditions that Detroit faces today: the historic Packard Automotive Plant and an area along the Dequindre Cut near Eastern Market, both to the northeast of Downtown, and to the west, a former light-industry site in Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit and a large US Postal Service facility between the Corktown neighborhood and the riverfront.
After we selected the 12 teams of architects, we assigned three teams to each site in order to receive three different proposals. The architects were asked to develop programmatic ideas and to produce architectural models and drawings representing their projects. Advisory board members helped to arrange site visits and community meetings that the architects participated in over four weeks in September and October, which included meetings at Vivio’s in Eastern Market, at a Burger King and the Congress of Communities in Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit, at Nemo’s on Michigan Avenue in Corktown, and at the Holy Ghost Cathedral on the East Side. Additionally, some architects used drones to photograph their expansive sites; others made repeat visits and interviewed area residents.

Even with all of this activity, one could not have foreseen the diversity of the proposals the architects would produce. Mónica and I began following their work in December. Through WebEx meetings, phone calls, and e-mailed images, we listened and watched and sometimes critiqued the 12 programs and projects as they developed in 12 very different ways, even when they sometimes drew on the same precedents. The three proposals for each site demonstrate multiple design possibilities and opportunities, each offering varying paths to catalyzing social, political, and cultural change.


Without imagination, one couldn’t get from knowledge of the past and present to justified expectations about the complex future.
 – Timothy Williamson

Nearly 50 years ago, in 1971, at a Motown Records recording studio in Detroit, the Temptations laid down the vocals for “Just My Imagination,” a dreamy love song with a memorable hook and refrain: “But it was just my imagination / Running away with me – once again / Seems it was just my imagination / Running away with me,” in which Eddie Kendricks imagines life with a woman he has never met. A year later Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. would move his company headquarters to Los Angeles, yet another business – this one built in and by Detroit’s community of African American musicians and singers – leaving a city already in the throes of population loss and economic uncertainty. In 1973, construction began on the Renaissance Center, a project intended to counter fears that had been raised by the July 25, 1967, uprising. Designed by John Portman & Associates to be a physical symbol of a new era, the towers were a bastion against future attacks by rioters, a city within a city that siphoned life from the street and installed it in a riverfront citadel. Its image presided over a shrinking city for decades, but today the glistening renovated complex, now topped with the General Motors logo and humming with activity, has become a better “citizen,” with the purchase of neighboring buildings that engage the street.

The best-known images of Detroit now, however, are not the towers of Downtown but the many photographs of abandoned factories and houses fallen into decay, which a Detroit photographer of such sites dubbed “ruin porn.” The human fascination with ruins historically derives from antiquarianism, a subjective nostalgia that was replaced during the Enlightenment by the idea of archaeology. The development of archaeology in the 19th century initiated a more scientific study of human activity through the analysis of remaining material culture – architecture being one of the largest material remnants – and thus established a more collective view of the past.

In 18th-century Rome, when the field of archaeology was still in a formative phase, the architect Piranesi, rather than adopt the new scientific methods of measuring to produce a scaled map, instead adapted them to produce his Campo Marzio project. This work drew on his knowledge of existing monuments and placed them alongside invented plans and fragments of antiquity. As a body of work on the city, Campo Marzio remains one of the great examples of the architectural imagination for its unprecedented juxtapositions of architecture in an urban field. Equally imaginative, and no doubt related to the present condition of Detroit, was O.M. Ungers’s 1977 project, Berlin the Green Archipelago. The antithesis of the city within the city proposed by the Renaissance Center, Ungers’s array of “cities” within the city of West Berlin – a postwar wasteland cordoned off by the Berlin Wall – proposed islands of density in which to gather and stabilize West Berlin’s diminishing population, and thereby its urban life. Cox acknowledges Berlin the Green Archipelago as one possible model for Detroit as it attempts to stabilize depleted neighborhoods across its 138 square miles and adequately serve a population that is now less than 700,000.

Detroit’s former industrial sites – large, empty, and often unsafe – are equally in need of attention. Recognizing the coming deindustrialization in 1960s Britain, Cedric Price famously proposed to transform unused infrastructure in the Staffordshire Potteries into mobile teaching units and housing modules, elements to support a new approach to university education. His Potteries Thinkbelt project (1964–66), like many of Price’s ideas, remained only an illustrated concept, but his proposal for the former industrial landscape and other similar projects – including Detroit Think Grid (1969–1971), which envisioned a flexible and responsive education “system” – influenced many architects who followed him: the experimental group Archigram, especially their Walking City, Richard Rogers’s industrial aesthetic for the flexible Pompidou Center in Paris, and even Greg Lynn FORM’s proposal for the Packard Plant in “The Architectural Imagination,” which brings together industry, research, and education.

The 20th-century precedents in particular portend some of the issues that face Detroit and other postindustrial sites, where demands to address reality often leave little room for architectural imagination. 


Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. 
– J.K. Rowling

There will be those in Detroit who are disappointed in the results of “The Architectural Imagination” because they offer no concrete solutions for a city beset by real problems, at a time when “problem solving” has become the mantra of a new social agenda for architecture. Let me state clearly that we never set out to solve specific problems. The projects produced for the sites in Detroit propose powerful ideas and architectural forms that will seem both liberating and alien, intended as they are to challenge the status quo and raise it to another level. These are not traditional development projects designed to meet a bottom line. They are speculative projects born of an architectural imagination to serve precisely as Appadurai’s staging ground for action.

For all of their differences, for all of their alien qualities, there is little sense of exclusion in these proposals. Rather, there is a conceptual porosity, or what I call a porous wall: a wall that is less the symbol of division, of inside and outside, of being on one side or the other, and more the idea of a permeable medium, of something one can pass through almost without friction. There is no evidence in these projects of the solid impenetrable bearing wall that once divided those within from those without; no strong evidence of the modern grid, which appeared to open up the wall but was also a net sheathed to seem impermeable; no wall of glazing suggestive of the transparency that claimed to open business and government to public scrutiny, but in most contemporary instances simply turns outsiders into voyeurs who at best catch a glimpse of themselves reflected in the hardness of the glass separating inside and outside.

It is perhaps a fact of their unfinished quality, their still very speculative stage, that these drawings and models seem to suggest the metaphor of a porous wall rather than a divisive partition. Yet in parts of the Pita & Bloom proposal there are no walls at all, only a series of frames, which in one arrangement suggests the grandeur of a secular nave open to anyone. A(n)Office proposes to use air – the most universal and shared “material” of all – to shape new living spaces with literally permeable concrete. BairBalliet drills through a seemingly impenetrable building to open up views in and pathways out onto a playful and loosely organized landscape of new forms that are perpetually unclosed. SAA/Stan Allen Architect and T+E+A+M both strip away walls and floors to make the Packard Plant literally porous before introducing new, conceptually open forms to the remaining structural system. Greg Lynn FORM, on the same site, tops the rejuvenated plant with a mobile and conceptually open lattice of forms with no evidence of insularity. Preston Scott Cohen Inc.’s project is not only permeable but also reverses two icons of 20th-century Detroit: where the Renaissance Center pulls the city into its center, Cohen’s center is a traversable void; where the ruined Michigan Theatre became a parking garage, Cohen proposes a parking garage that could someday become a grand theater. And Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects propose no walls at all; rather, their abstract model and drawings allow for anyone to “enter” in search of the spa or the laundromat or the place to get lost: to use their own imaginations to explore both the idea of a community and of a building that does not exist.

I could make this argument about porosity – about access – for all of “The Architectural Imagination” proposals, not only to suggest its value as an architectural idea but also, and more importantly, for its value as a metaphor for the city. It is one thing for an architect to produce a form so arresting, so compelling, that it ignites discussion pro and con, both in the discipline of architecture and with the public at large. It is quite another to produce a form that can be read as inclusive, as a permeable layer through which anyone can pass. Such an architecture, for Detroit, glimmers with the possibility of helping to heal a divided city. A city of porous walls is a more accessible and equitable city. This is the power of the architectural imagination, and its potential value to Detroit and cities everywhere.

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Cover for the Temptations’ single release of “Just My Imagination,” 1971, featuring vocalists Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, and Paul Williams.

Cover for the Temptations’ single release of “Just My Imagination,” 1971, featuring vocalists Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, and Paul Williams.