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Building in cornfields, part deux

Early Detroit, French "ribbon farms"

Tabula rasa” was a term frequently used by Elizabeth Diller the other night in Charlie Rose’s interview of the Diller Scofidio+Renfro principals. She was using the term to describe an approach they took that implied that each project began with a fresh look, uninhibited by considerations of experience, precedent or philosophy.

The term had been on my mind recently, perhaps through a direct reference but, I think, more through reflection on what seems to be an accelerating number of explorations and interventions focusing on the city and cities in general, but in the domain of this interest, on Detroit specifically. The history of the stories of the decline of the city has been more recently joined by a rapid flow of articles, photo journals, studies, and now competitions all informed by a general (accurate) impression that there is not much left, and that therefore the city is a tabula rasa on which to test, impose on, intervene with, and explore new concepts for the city and for “city,” and, as we’ll see, for “farm.”

I have written briefly about this before. In a quick recap, I had been recalling the concept of “building in cornfields” first advanced by a client, an executive with Chrysler, in the late 80’s. We were in the process then of designing and building a new palace for Chrysler very shortly after its emergence from near bankruptcy with the benefit of a government loan. As we erected four million square feet of new headquarters and technical facilities for them on what had been a large farm north of the city, Chrysler was in effect abandoning Highland Park, a city completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, and the clusters of shops, labs, plants, offices, design studios and other facilities that had been its home, and the home of its workers, for decades.

It was natural to give at least some passing thought to the exit strategy, to the impact of the void that was being left behind. This executive suggested that the best thing they could do was demolish the buildings and plant corn. “Everybody wants to build in a corn field,” he said.

Now, 20 years later, the first step in that vision, that strategy, is apparently about to take place. Among the reports on the web site of the Detroit Free Press today (the “newspaper” is no longer printed but 3 days a week, another casualty of the large outmigration from the city), was the announcement that Hantz Farms was an entity, part of a suburban financial services firmproposing to till and plant an initial 70 acres of the land in the lots and plots that have become progressively abandoned in the steady intentional and incidental shrinkage of the city (there are more than 40 square miles of vacant property in the city) . This would become, in effect, the largest “urban farm” in the world.

Of course, the potential of urban agriculture in Detroit has been made robust by the failure of the leadership of its leading industries to act responsibly and embrace a concept of a sustainable business through a sustainable product. China, a country that itself is rapidly urbanizing and turning its farms in to cities, has developed a vision and a strategy to become the world leader in the development of the systems and products that has resisted and actively lobbied against for years. Planning to become a world leader in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles within three years, China will be doing what the Obama administration has been trying to get GM, Chrysler and Ford to do while they protest that it is impossible to achieve within the decade. Already suffering from a failure of vision and commitment, already on the brink of bankruptcy, the American companies will now feel even more pressure.

So the industry responsible for its urbanization is now responsible for its de-urbanization.

People are leaving Michigan at a staggering rate. About 109,000 more people left Michigan last year than moved in. It is one of the worst rates in the nation, quadruple the loss of just eight years ago. The state loses a family every 12 minutes, and the families who are leaving -- young, well-educated high-income earners -- are the people the state desperately needs to rebuild.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Ouroussoff referenced the faulted and failed urban development policies of the past as part of the reason for turning Detroit into what he calls a ghost town. He seems to accept the notion of a tabula rasa in the cases of many American cities. He calls for radical new solutions, destruction rather than repair, and extravagant imagination.

In this miserable context of continuous erasure, there is this delight of infill attention. Among the attention Detroit is getting includes these--

Rouse [D] is an international ideas competition focusing on "re-inventing the city of Detroit through the use of digital computation methodologies." The organizers of the competition acknowledge the extensive history of other intentions to restore or reinvent the city. They believe that their approach, however, may actually be a catalyst to action and accomplishment. In the context of a tabula rasa approach, they suggest that "every city has its history and Detroit is no different, but now it’s our turn to “bounce back” and maybe not in the traditional or conventional way, but in a new, unprecedented way that is specific to the one-of-a-kind condition Detroit presents to us. So the solution too, will be one-of-a-kind specific to our Detroit." It is a competition about place, illustrating ideas for specific sites in Detroit, and accepting both micro and macro approaches.

The jury is intriguingly international and includes, David Pigram of SUPERMANOUEVR, Marc Fornes of THEVERYMANY, Skylar Tibbits of SJET, Michael Ashley of MASH-ARKT, David Jackowski of ALVATRON STUDIO, Peter Macapia of DORA, Brian Dubois of 2:37AM / 2:37AM STUDIOS and Jason K. Johnson of FUTURE CITIES LAB. Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich of PATTERNS will act as the competition exhibition's keynote speakers.

Detroit UnReal Estate Agency is about documentation. They say they will "produce, collect and inventory information on the 'unreal estate' of Detroit: that is, on the remarkable, distinct, characteristic or subjectively significant sites of urban culture." The tabula rasa for them is acknowledged in their intention to aim "at new types of urban practices (architectural, artistically, institutional, everyday life, etc) that came into existence, creating a new local ‘normality’ and a new value system in the city of Detroit." Rejecting the "renovation" tendencies of Richard Florida, and the "artistic" opportunities in urban ruins, they  instead seek to "support stimulus strategies for urban transformation...and, simultaneously, to re-interpret and built on the value of decay as well as the intrusion of wildlife in the city." Among the questions they pose as a means to generating new concepts is "How to imagine a new equilibrium between the city, the human communities and the natural elements (plants, water, wilderness)?"

Detroit Unreal Estate Agency has a similar international origin. It is a project of Partizan Publik centered in Amsterdam. They call themselves a "think and action tank devoted to a braver society." Their intention is to "explore, produce and implement social, political and cultural instruments which generate positive and sustainable change to people and their surroundings." The Partizans are Christian Ernsten (founder) and Joost Janmaat (founder), as well as, Amir Djalali, Bart Blaauw, Arthur Huizinga and Jeroen Visser.

[bracket] is at the core of the matter, developing a web publication about farming in general, but with a number of urban farming proposals and with Detroit specific explorations. [bracket]'s platform for its first issue, On Farming, is broad. "Once merely understood in terms of agriculture, today information, energy, labour, and landscape, among others, can be farmed," they say. "Farming, beyond its most common agricultural understanding is the modification of infrastructure, urbanisms, architectures, and landscapes toward a privileging of production."

Bracket, also international in scope, is supported by the Graham Foundation and is a collaboration of Archinect and InfraNet Lab. They put together an annual publication intended to document "issues overlooked yet central to our cultural milieu that have evolved out of the new disciplinary territory at the intersection of architecture, landscape, urbanism and, now, the internet...a publishing platform for ideas charting the complex overlap of the sphere of architecture and online social spheres."

One of its projects, entitled "Your Town Tomorrow (Detroit 2007)" explores the form and history of the farming that was at the foundation of the city, noting that "it has been over three hundred years since Count Ponchartrain sent word back to Paris describing Detroit’s landscape as '...so temperate, so fertile and so beautiful that it may justly be called the earthly paradise of North America.'” The brief implies an exploration of a return to the agriculture that lies under the industrialization and de-industrialization of the city.

With all of this as promise, in a sense, the concept of "tabula rasa," seemingly so free, clean, and airy, nonetheless seems to carry a bit of baggage. Considering the concept, it seems there are at least 6 ways to think about, employ or resist it.

  1. It's the wrong approach--There is no such thing as a tabula rasa. No matter the level of destruction, abandonment and decay,there is, resident in this place, a lingering memory of rights and wrongs that should never be dropped, overlooked or assuaged, and will always make its play.
  2. It's the right approach--Every tendency to bring complexity to this kind of problem is to defer its
    solution; the approach should be unencumbered and should uncover and deliver its effectiveness through simplicity, clarity, cleverness and insight brought from freshness, innocence, care, and creativity.
  3. It's not a physical concept--Declaration of the city as without fact and without history allows you to see what you want to see, not what is there;it is a political act that is about power not benevolence, about dominance not compromise.
  4. It is essentially a political tool--When everything else about the city's administration is corrupt or collapsing, when an entire half century can be measured only in decline, when the effect of its politics and policies has created the tabula rasa, the right approach is a political approach and should engage new modes of representation and administration.
  5. It is at its best as a physical concept--Perception is reality. The complication and compromise involved in almost every plan that acknowledges the political and social eliminates the ability
    to see things in new way; approaching the land and space as open and clear will allow new ideas to be implanted, leading more effectively to new perceptions generating more effective politics, plans and policies.
  6. He who throws the first stone--Those who promote and use the tabula rasa approach should be without sin; the concept has a sense of purity associated with it and its intentions and executions should be free of self interest and of the taint of past acts.

I'd be pleased to have your comments about any of the topics in this post.

As I write this, I've been interrupted by comments from my wife who has picked up Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road. She is reading it's post-apocalyptic vision in the context of the economy, not of the the bomb. She carries the sense of the tabula rasa in that case as gray, not the white (or green) I have been imagining.

She conjures up an image of a park in downtown Detroit, a "neighborhood" very close to the CBD and immediately adjacent to the city's newest and best high school. It is difficult, as you move through the area, to see someone who is not disabled in some way, moving on crutches, in wheelchairs, hobbling, or in grocery carts. There is no "order" in this neighborhood, and the streets are effectively public space for anything, not simply thoroughfares. There are only scattered buildings around, windowless, odd elements conjuring some sense of an earlier time before they, too, are demolished and memory erased. There are those who come to the park in generosity to prepare food on outdoor grills and around whom, on a sensed or known schedule, huge numbers of homeless gather, aroused from their otherwise dispersed sleeping areas around the park.

In this case, it is no job, no health, no home, no place, no security, no resource, that makes up the tabula rasa. And it is expanding.

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