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This text is by stephen garrett dewyer and Craig L. Wilkins in their capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

tying a green ribbon around grit

an interview with Craig L. Wilkins

stephen garrett dewyer

figure 1

tying a green ribbon around grit

stephen garrett dewyer
tying a green ribbon around grit, 2014
Belle Isle, Detroit

heading - grit design

stephen garrett dewyer: I’ve read the book you wrote called The Aesthetics of Equity (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN and London, U.K., 2007) and some of your writings about architecture, aesthetics and race.  You also have some writings about art including the Kara Walker show.  I’ve noticed you’ve done some work in Detroit, too, with bus stops as part of a project in the Detroit Community Design Center at the Taubman College of Design Center at the University of Michigan.  What do you find, architecturally, most interesting in Detroit?

CW: Architecturally, I think the most interesting thing about Detroit is its potential.  I think the city, in its infinite wisdom, has pretty much destroyed a lot of what made Detroit interesting and important.  So, we’re sort of in a moment where people are beginning to look around and go like ‘wow, we’ve lost a lot of not only residential homes’, which I think most everybody understands, but we’ve also lost a lot of our architectural heritage as well.  A lot of the downtown buildings have been destroyed.  Things in the neighborhoods, as well, have sort of fallen apart, like theatres and other important places in Detroit’s history are pretty much no more.  They are just photographs and in peoples’ memories.  So, I think that’s sad.  But, the flip-side of that is, when something dies, something else comes along.  And that’s what I’m interested in and that’s what I find most exciting about Detroit’s architecture: its potential; not so much its past, but its future.

sgd: what direction do you see Detroit potentially going?

CW: Well, I do see people actually much more aware of their physical surroundings.  So, you know, there is a push to save the little buildings we have.  But, what comes along with that is like, well, ‘what do you do with the buildings?  What do you do with schools now closed?’  But they are beautiful schools.  They were built in the 20s and 30s and are gorgeous and, you know, they actually have some meat to them, but the neighborhood is gone. 

People are beginning to sort of ask ‘what to do about closed buildings?’ and not just about downtown, because Gilbert has already decided he is just going to own downtown. 

So, I actually see a kind of aesthetic where people are going to designers—and I see this in art and design in the area already—that it has a certain amount of grittiness (fig. 1).  It adds a certain amount of  ‘you see this as garbage or you see this as something that needs to be torn down, something that needs to be abandoned, and we see it as an opportunity to do something new and exciting and maybe, well, certainly, transitional, but maybe even transcendent.’ 

sgd: could you go more in-depth about what you mean about transcendent?  By transcendent, do you mean geography, or, do you mean transcendent in terms of the divisions here in Detroit?

CW: Actually, I was talking specifically in architectural terms.  But, it’s not just architecture.  So let me talk about the architecture/design part first. 

We’re a young country.  I mean, I’ve got friends from other locations and other places and I travel a lot.  I tell them about our architectural history in Detroit in that we lost a building here or there and they laugh because the building down their street is like four-hundred years old.

Our buildings aren’t old because we have a tendency to tear things down.  We want to start from scratch all the time.  That building was built as a factory.  It is no longer a factory.  Tear it down and we’re going to build somewhere else, even though whatever else we build is going to look exactly like a factory, we’re just going to tear it down. 

So, I think we’re in a moment where Detroit can transcend its own location, architecturally, and begin to show the beauty of repurposing.  It also requires designers to think differently.  To think: we don’t have to tear this down.  It requires them to be inventive.  But it also requires the profession to allow people to do that kind of work and still think about themselves as architects. 

sgd: yea, with Detroit, 30% of the building stock is abandoned or neglected.  What does that mean in terms of rehab and in terms of architecture?   I mean, Albert Khan designed a little bit more than a handful of buildings in Detroit.  The buildings were huge projects and they became abandoned factories.  Perhaps the architectural failure as part of urban planning was not planning for the possibility of a change in the economy.    

CW: Well, for the most part, we always build for our particular moment in time.  Even if you are designing for the future you are using materials on hand.  You are using the materials you have available right now and they only allow you to do certain things.  So, I’m not all that concerned about buildings becoming obsolete because they will. 

If a building built for this or that purpose no longer exists, then one way of looking at the building as obsolete.  But this goes back to my earlier point.  I think that building is not obsolete.  I think that building can transform into something else, which is one thing overall in the field we are just now beginning to explore what might mean.  I think the more people work here in Detroit and the more people come to the city, whether they artists or architects, I think they have some of that sensibility already, and, so, I think the city is a great place to develop such thinking and thus disseminate in the U.S. and elsewhere.  And, so, Detroit becomes a cauldron and a generator of thinking differently or innovatively about the environment, the buildings, the things that we have because we can’t afford to tear everything down. 

heading - green ribbon

sgd: what do you think about the greening of Detroit and the fact the city is becoming re-forested in the sense of some company building a tree farm?

CW: Well, I actually want Detroit to become the first 21st century city that combines new physical structures, re-purposed and older physical structures wrapped around and entwined with the most fantastic green space ever.  I really think that is the future of Detroit. 

I don’t think we are ever going to get back to 1.8 million people and I don’t think we want to get back to 1.8 million people.  I think there is something to be said for a very strong and healthy green space for different uses and different configurations and different sizes that will make Detroit as popular as 60 or 70 year ago, but popular for a different reason.  

Places like Portland, Chicago and Minneapolis recognize, encourage and protect significant green spaces.  They also have the resource of water.  We have water as well.  I mean, the River Walk is a great thing and I am glad people are trying it but that is just one sliver of what could be a ribbon of green and water running throughout the city.  I mean, I would love to be able to get on a bike at Grandmont Rosedale, get on the greenway and ride all the way to the East Side to that little hidden canal back there over by Manoogian Mansion.  I would love to do that.  Some of the spaces would be huge and green where someone could play soccer, football or basketball.  Some of the spaces would be small spaces where people could play chess.  We have the land but I don’t know if we have the will to do that.

figure 2

demonstrations in front of demolition vehicles at Taksim Gezi Park on 30 May 2013

demonstrations in front of demolition vehicles at Taksim Gezi Park on 30 May 2013
Istanbul, Turkey
photo courtesy Hürriyet Daily News, 6 June 2013.  

sgd:  well, that brings me to some of the demonstrations that happened in Turkey over urban development plans to put in a shopping mall in a somewhat forested area in Istanbul called Taksim Gezi Park (fig. 2). 

CW: well, it is hard to quantify.  And I understand the difficulty.  For politicians who are trying to solicit funds to get things done, it is hard to say it is going to create jobs.  When you talk about spending, say, 200 million dollars to create a green ribbon, as a sustainable green space throughout the city – and it, actually, would be way more than that – but anyway, when you talk about that, people are going to ask, well, how many jobs is that going to create?  How many permanent jobs is that going to create?   And, can’t we spend that money on making our roads better?  We only have so many resources and you have to prioritize what you are going to do.  And, you know, it’s not going to be done in the next four years.  So, you have to have the political will to say, ‘I’m going to start this and, hopefully, 10 -15 years down the line, the next mayor or how many succession of mayors will continue.  Let’s say you are going to spend a huge amount of money on however you want to organize the city, there is a political risk.  The people who want that position are going to go, ‘well, see how s/he is spending the money.  I am going to put money in your pockets.  I am going to lower your taxes’, which are all viable ways to think about your limited resources.  But, you know, something like a large scale greening of the city is a long-term project.  And it’s hard for somebody who is a short-term official to argue a long-term project. 

sgd: that is an interesting comment because then you talk about the intersection of architecture, politics and urban planning.  Is that, partially, why I see some architectures and urban planners collaborating with artists since artists do not have term-limits?

CW: You mean nobody is going to vote you out of office? 

Let me look at it from a different direction and say that, as I was mentioning earlier, architects need to champion different ways of looking at the environment.   Saying, ‘you know what, we can’t re-habilitate buildings on our own and we can’t build on our own.  We’re client based’ isn’t enough.  It doesn’t mean you can’t, through your work on particular projects, do collaborations with like-minded individuals who try to move the needle of the conversation.  So, while you might be working on the next MGM Grand because that has come across your table, it doesn’t mean you can’t also work with a Theaster Gates or someone else to do smaller kind of interventions that might spark people to start thinking differently about what they can have in the environment.

figure 3

bus stop designed by Craig L. Wilkins at Door Stop Project

bus stop designed by Craig L. Wilkins as part of Door Stop Detroit
Detroit, Michigan
photo courtesy Door Stop Detroit

sgd: and the project you are doing such as bus stops (fig. 3).

CW: it’s kind of like that.  It’s a very small sort of intervention that can replicate, hopefully, and will duplicate in different parts of the city.  But it is also designed to get people to start thinking about why can’t we have seats at the bus stops.  Why can’t the buses run faster and better?  Why do we accept that we have to wait two hours at a bus stop?  We shouldn’t accept that. 

Do I have any illusions that twenty benches around the city that are artfully designed from used materials are going to make a huge difference immediately in the lives of the 300,000 Detroiters who take the bus every year?  No.  It’s going to affect those people who are waiting for a bus for however long those stops stay there because all the benches we’ve installed in the city have disappeared.

Has it tipped the needle in the direction as far as I would like it to go?  No.  But it has, I think, tipped it somewhat.  People like those benches.  They recognize those benches.  They have some place to sit while they wait for the bus.  And, when they are gone, they are irritated.

sgd: what possibility do you see with a future collaboration with DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation) or SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) bus?

CW: I don’t know.  It’s interesting: one of the first ones we installed was actually on site the longest.  In fact, I think it remained for three weeks.  I just drove by there today.  In that very spot, the city has now put a bus shelter right where we had our bench.  That was not a coincidence.  Has it tipped the needle?  Maybe somewhat.  But the point is: the DDOT bus shelter cost somewhere between $2,500 - $4,000.  Our bus shelter, if we have to buy every single piece, would cost maybe $500.  So, for $2,500 you can have one shelter or five and employ local artists.  For the cost of two bus shelters: I’ll give you at least ten and I’ll employ local artists.  Why would that not be a smart thing to do?

sgd:  yea, as an artist, collaboration between artists and city agencies is an area I don’t see happen a lot here in Detroit.

CW:  It’s priorities. They are trying not to go belly-up.  In the large scheme of things, bus shelters and benches just don’t rise to the level of importance at the moment.  But in the overall quality of life issue it is important.  A third of the bus riders in Detroit are over 55.  Now, you tell me you are going to ask a 60 year-old grandmother to stand and wait in the cold for two hours for a bus to go to a doctor’s appointment?  What kind of quality of life is that?  Now, I can’t make the buses run faster.  But I can give them a chair.  In the scheme of things, a bench is a bench.  But, when you put on another pair of glasses, it is about caring and nurturing the people who live here so they want to stay.  It doesn’t have to be a struggle all the time, you know?

sgd: yea.  To return to your point, it seems to me we are talking about austerity.  Austerity, in the sense of cutting social programs and what has become widely known as the privatization of social services.  I am wondering if austerity becomes an area for critique for you.  When we even talk about quality of life issues, we can also talk about the austerity in Greece and the financial crisis.

CW: There is a really good book called The Shock Doctrine (Klein, Naomi.  Picador: New York, NY.  2007) about some of the socio-economic moments in our time.  There are many theories, but there is one theory that these crises are simply cover to enact draconian measures that, in times of prosperity, no one would ever allow.  Which begs the question: are these legitimate crises or were they made to happen as a way to instigate draconian measures.  But there are only so many things, as an architect and designer, in which you can engage.  For most architects, socio-economic fairness questions are not questions in which you can easily see how your skills are helpful.  Do I think architects should be more political?  Absolutely.  Do I think the profession of architecture should be more politicized?  Absolutely.  But, do I think architects are going to be the ones who keep draconian measures from being implemented?  No, that is not going to happen.

heading - professional ties in urban planning

sgd:  In what respect do you see the role of activism in architecture, if any? 

CW:  I actually think architects should be activists.  Most architects, especially good ones, consider themselves artists.  We tend to do everything artists do except for two things.  One, artists are free from the direct demands of clients.  Artists are free to critique conditions in the world as they see fit.  I mean, that is kind of what I think makes interesting art.  You are trying to say something about the environment in which you exist.  Architects, to a certain degree, do that as well but they are not as free to do it because, again, we are a client-based business. 
Architects, their art, has to be functional.  Now, do I think architects can be activists?  Absolutely.  Do I think they should be activists?  Absolutely.   Because, we have a monopoly over the practice of architecture; you can’t wakeup in the morning and say you are going to be an architect and put out a shingle.  You have to go through hoops.  But, you can wakeup tomorrow and say you are an artist.  You could be a bad artist, but there is nothing that is going to keep you from doing that.  Because of that monopoly, it is our responsibility to work for the entire society even though we are paid by a particular client. 

sgd: it makes me wonder how much the public/private dynamic affects the client-structure in architecture.

CW: It’s the nature of the beast.  And I think that is always the tension, one of the major tensions: just where does your allegiance lay?  Does it lay with your client?  Does it lay with your employees who depend on you to get projects in so you can pay them?  Does it lay with society in general who trusts you enough to give you the monopoly of designing building and not destroy the environment in the process and to allow us to work, play and live in those buildings and remain healthy and enjoy the rest of our lives?  Does it lie with yourself?  I mean, you have to manage all those moments of responsibility.  And it’s hard.  It’s easier to pick one and stay there than to re-evaluate every time you put pen to paper or mouse to desk.  It is easier to pick one and make yourself become o.k. with that position and stay there and never try to navigate any of those other things.

sgd: in the role of urban planning, especially in Detroit, there seems a very direct political relationship.

CW: Urban planners are always about politics.  And I appreciate that.  Planning is politics.

sgd: with a number of different organizations working in Detroit, there is an effort to re-brand sections of the city.  I was wondering what your response would be to some of these re-brandings and what would you propose do in response to those re-brandings.

CW:  It happens.  The name always comes first.  If you are trying to gentrify an area, the name will come first.  I guarantee you, when you hear people start talking about a neighborhood that always was called one thing and now it is called another, you know gentrification is coming.  So, the issue is: who, ultimately, gets to benefit from this new interest in that particular location?  And, almost always, the people who have kept that area alive rarely get to enjoy the benefits of their work.  So, it is not so much a name change, as what that change signifies.  And it usually means somebody is about to get screwed.  I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s not necessarily about calling Cass Corridor “Mid-town” or “Cultural Center”, or, Black Bottom becoming Harmonie Park or Paradise Valley again.  It’s not really about the name so much as what that signifies: what is coming down the pike.  How can we make sure that that is an equitable exchange and not one that, again, gives someone the entire burden and none of the rewards?

sgd: what is your response to Mike Duggan’s plan, when he was running for Mayor, to make incentives to relocate from homes on blocks largely abandoned to abandoned homes on blacks largely inhabited. 

CW: Bing talked about that as well.

sgd: In some ways, the so-called incentive program was a measure to re-locate.  But in a city with a geography that Detroit has, is that a program you would find agreeable or would you have to see more concrete details?

CW:  It makes some sense, but, I think, now that they are going through bankruptcy, it becomes much less of a necessity.  But does it make sense?  Sure, it makes sense.  Some people may think, ‘my family lived here since 1900 and I’m not moving.’  Some people might take you up on it, and I think that is fantastic, but some people might not.  Do you punish people who do not take you up on it?  I don’t know, I don’t think you can.

sgd:  I appreciate you taking the time.  Do you have any additional words for the interview?

CW:  You know, just to reiterate I’d really like to see for the Detroit a green ribbon that comes through the city that waxes and wanes in certain neighborhoods and links people together.  We talked about how, politically, it was impossible to do and financially it was impossible to do, but, you know, in the 1950s, we had a county that was linked by very small highways and byways, you know, Route 66 and Lincoln Highway and many different famous highways that ran from one end of the county to the other, and Eisenhower comes in and says ‘we are going to start an interstate system.’  The interstate system has got to be the biggest public works project certainly in the United States and maybe in the world.  They built roads all across the country.  And people worked on the roads to the point they retired from them.   While, yes, building a road is a temporary job, if you keep building roads for twenty years, it becomes a career.  I am pretty sure there were people who were like ‘we don’t have the money for it.’ 

I am not so sure we don’t need another kind of public-works project to turn Detroit into that 21st century green city that it could be.  It would need that kind of broad thinking and that kind of visionary person who can say ‘you know what, this may not complete in my term, but, ultimately, this is what we are going to have when we are done and we are going to find the funds to do that.  And, we are going to hire people at a decent salary so you can make a living doing the thing and maybe you become an expert, so maybe you become an expert so when, for instance, Cleveland decides to do the same thing, you can go to Cleveland and have work, even a business, because you have skills in demand.  I want to believe that can happen because this city is so right for it, but, if we don’t make such a project a priority, as soon as we’re out of bankruptcy and money starts flowing to the city again and starts flowing to currently empty lots, soon, we won’t have the land and space to do it.  We need to designate in such a way where development can use units around the project as an amenity to sell while the project area is for future Detroiters.  We are saving that for future Detroiters.

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