The Decline and Revival of an American City
An Architectural Cautionary Tale
When MoMA’s curator of Contemporary Architecture and Museum Design not only finds occasion to go to Flint, Michigan, but has reason to wax on about it, it is quite worth paying attention. Brought there to opinionate on architectural submissions for a pavilion, Pedro Gadanho found himself in a state of thrall upon discovering a side to the city that did not involve depressing abandoned houses and decrepit shopfronts. It had to do with the citizens themselves and what they had accomplished during these difficult times. Not to mention the Renaissance tapestries at the renovated Art Institute...
The other day I went to Flint, Michigan. With so many exciting places to visit in the world, one could be led to ask why I should ever go to Flint, Michigan. The fact is, I had business there. I was to take part in a jury for an interesting architectural competition. The theme of the competition was in itself not uncommon – it requested ideas for putting up a pavilion or temporary installation that could help reactivate a specific urban space. Its strangeness, so to say, was that this particular call for ideas wasn’t emanating from one of those hubs of cultural diffusion that have the ability to instantly catapult the reveries of young architects to the category of bold, celebrated media happenings. This competition rather took place in what could be your average, half-forgotten, Midwestern American city. Actually, Flint is the place you would never have heard about if it weren’t for a documentary that hurled the previously unknown Michael Moore into the unique realm of celebrity activist filmmaker. At the time Michael Moore brought out his very first feature film, Roger and Me – an independent, ad hoc production that a big Hollywood studio unpredictably decided to distribute, thus making it one of the most popular documentaries of all times – the city of Flint hadn’t yet earned the online epitaph of “hallmark of America’s economic crisis”. Although Moore was urged to action by a dramatic shift in Flint’s role in the glorified history of the American automobile industry, by 1989 – the year the documentary came out – it would have been difficult for even the inquisitive Michael Moore to anticipate the level of decay that the city was to endure in the coming years. The only reason why one hasn’t heard much about that decline, particularly outside the States, and why the broken city of Flint ended up slowly falling into oblivion, is actually because the (recently declared bankrupt) sistercity, Detroit, stole all the dim limelight in regard to contemporary ruin porn. After all, Flint missed-out on both the sweet Motown soul searchin’ and the grand tragic urban dimension that were required to keep our brains attuned to the alluring beat of past glory gone astray.
When Michael Moore went on his quest to get General Motors CEO Roger Smith on celluloid, Flint was only a proud community expressing its indignation at massive layoffs by an industry that had started fleeing elsewhere. In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, the American car industry went into profound restructuring, and the birth city of Cadillac, Pontiac, and so many other legendary household automobile names – later amalgamated as General Motors – was one of the first to suffer the effects of these changes. After the initial layoffs of over 30,000 people, entire plants were quickly dismantled to avoid further costs. In their place remained only contaminated brownfield sites that until today remain Flint’s most visible, open scars. As a mono-functional industrial city, Flint went into speedy deterioration. After unemployment came despair, alcoholism, and violence. After social and economic depletion came the fiscal crisis and the incapacity for the city to sustain itself. Whole neighbourhoods and entire sections of the city were foreclosed and left to abandonment, arson, or demolition.
Fast-rewind three decades into the present: enter Stephen Zacks and his colleagues, urban planner Jerome Flou and artist James Andrews – a collective that in 2011 decided to promote an initiative called the Flint Public Art Project. Zacks, himself a recognized reporter on architecture and urbanism, lives in Brooklyn and continues to be a dynamic actor in the bottom-up urban renaissance that has given much vibrancy to that now fashionable New York borough. When it comes to endeavours such as the Nuit Blanche New York festival, it would have been perfectly logical for him to remain in his comfort zone and to go on producing events that are more than welcome by the Williamsburg hipster crowd. He is, however, also a native of Flint. The prolonged crisis that his own city underwent during the last 30 years became, at some point, too poignant for him to ignore. And after all, even if his urban activism had its perfect laboratorial conditions blooming in the cultural hotbed of Brooklyn, the true test should perhaps come from a place that really needed urban regeneration.
When Stephen Zacks welcomed me to Flint on a rainy Sunday afternoon last March, he was almost excusing the city for its sad and void appearance. It seemed as if the urban landscape I was contemplating – which to my eyes really looked much like other typical, empty-looking American cities I had recently visited – could maybe deliver an image more desolate than what Flint’s recent story had hinted at. I was actually quite aware of such a suggestion when I reached my hotel: it smelled as if it had indeed stopped in time, possibly around when ‘Roger and Me’ premiered in the late 1980s. The following day, still drizzly and grey, Zacks drove me around town and I saw the full vocabulary of what urbanists call a ‘shrinking city’: main street shops that look like dusty museums of long gone interior design styles; large brownfield sites with cracking concrete expanses and uninviting signs referring to undergoing decontamination; and streets after streets of depressing ghost houses with assorted levels of architectural corrosion, from boarded-up windows and burnt-down ruins to nature gone wild.
Nonetheless, there was also another side to Flint that had endured through years of crisis. This was the city of citizens, somehow contrary to a visibly decaying urban landscape. Michael Moore felt the urge to portray his city with no lack of a sense of humour. Stephen Zacks came back with a programme that wants to change people’s perception of their urban environment, and to stimulate new attitudes and cultural entrepreneurship. And others had the resources to persevere and were able to sustain the community bonds much needed for a slow recovery. It was certainly surprising to discover huge Renaissance tapestries formerly in the possession of Popes in the recently revamped Flint Art Institute, one of two local partners in the Flint Public Art Project. As its proud director was telling me, the Institute not only boasts pieces donated by families and individuals that were once at the forefront of the car industry, but also welcomes a pulsating arts school onto its premises. And others, such as local architects and the Mayor himself, have emerged as full supporters of the initiatives proposed by the Flint Public Art Project.
Zacks, Flou, and Andrews first organised public events and workshops that were intended “to inspire residents to re-imagine the city”. In the festival that was organised in the summer of 2012, they reclaimed a vacant, never finished building in the very centre of the city and reactivated it for temporary use, with music, live projections, and performances. What many considered an eyesore deemed for demolition, became a canvas for a renewed urban vitality. And this year, for the second edition of the festival – which, in this instance, occupies the brownfield site left by a previous Chevrolet factory from 3-5 May – they have proposed a call for ideas for interventions in a parking lot that had incidentally become the voided, symbolical heart of the downtown. The Flat Lot Competition thus addressed how eight parking spaces in this faux public space could be subtracted from private usage and effectively given back to the people during the summer of 2013. The project brief proposed new uses and the implicit notion that architectural imagination would come to bear on people’s hopes for a city that could again feel alive. Fostered by the ambition to connect Flint to “regional, national, and global movements dedicated to revitalising neighbourhoods and cities through art and design”, the open competition attracted 221 entries from more than 30 countries. The best idea would eventually come from a London based design studio, Two Islands, founded by William Villalobos, Cesc Massanas, and Tomas Selva. Evidently aware of the urban context for which they were designing – unlike so many of the competition’s participants, one should say – the winning project was woven around a fictional narrative that directly evokes the complex psychological and social aspects of Flint’s recent urban history. As the authors put it in their statement: Mark’s House “tells the story of an imagined Flint resident, Mark Hamilton, whose family loses a home to foreclosure.” Clad in mirrored surfaces, a Tudorstyle house is apparently suspended in mid-air, above a platform that can perform both as a stage for events and, one imagines, a mist-filled dance floor.
While Mark’s House first echoes the resurgence of reflective surfaces in contemporary architecture – i.e. while it smoothly enters the flow of some of the current trends in architectural discourse – its narrative also establishes a clever emotional connection to the city’s need to envision a way out of its current situation. On one level, the shiny surfaces act as a device that evokes the visual play of Dan Graham’s pavilions, the comeback of a taste for mirrored glass directly inspired by the vernacular Postmodern architecture of the 1980s, and, ultimately, an ability or aspiration for architecture to ‘reflect’ its surrounding urban context. On another level, however, while it provides for a reassuring sublimation of existing problems, the architectural concept may also appear perverse. In very Freudian terms, the project doesn’t offer much more than a ‘mirror stage’ onto which the city can reflect its own identity crisis and its most basic necessity to devise a strategy for urban survival. As the young architects put it, “the house serves as a metaphor for what the city has lost, as well as for its ongoing revitalisation.”
Curiously, this strategy of architecture performing a subtle aesthetic sublimation stood in stark contrast, and ultimately prevailed over the tactics deployed by the only other finalists who also offered a clear ‘contextual’ response to the competition’s brief. In Building Bodies for Work, a team from Ball State University’s well-known community-based design programme suggested that the discarded materials of nearby ongoing demolitions were to be collected and used as building materials. The resulting constructions in Flint’s central car park would be the product of an open-ended workshop, one that would enroll unemployed members of the local community. In this case, it could be said that the aspiration for social engagement overlooked the psychological needs of Flint’s full-status citizens, but, in a way, also the inherent prerequisite for architecture to offer an affirmative vision and a soothing way out. Confronting people with the debris of their recent urban tragedy proved to be an aesthetical shockstatement that presumably the local population was not yet ready to stomach.