Urban Retreat
Motor City Hosts a Probing Look at Boomtowns in the Bust of Times

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007


Mitch Cope, an artist from Detroit, is standing in front of an elegant bench that is rough-hewn and sleekly contemporary. The light-colored wood has a tendency to crack, but still, it's a bench anyone with an eye for design would be happy to own.

Cope's bench was made from a tree known locally as "ghetto palm," a fast-growing species native to China that has taken on opportunistic new life in the many open spaces of Detroit's lost neighborhoods.

"By how old the tree is, you can tell how long the land has been abandoned," says Cope, a soft-spoken man in his 30s. The bench is part of an art project known as "Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop," in which Cope and his collaborators, Ingo Vetter from Sweden and Annette Weisser from Los Angeles, show how an arboreal nuisance, a.k.a. Ailanthus altissima, can be harvested, milled, dried and fashioned into benches -- suitable for use in the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), where it is on display.

It is also part of a dazzling and provocative new international exhibition, "Shrinking Cities," which is so big it occupies two of Detroit's premier museums, the fledgling but edgy MOCAD (which opened in October) and the established and respected Cranbrook Art Museum in the suburbs.

It's rare for an exhibition to feel so dense and elemental and important all at once. But "Shrinking Cities," which originated in Germany, explodes the notion of an art and architecture show by expanding it to include sociology, history, city planning and demographics alongside video, photography, conceptual art, poetry, music and just about every other kind of currently fashionable artistic production. In one gallery you find charts and maps and animated graphs that show how many cities have expanded and imploded over the past century. In another, there's a video about how people in the areas outside Detroit are exhuming their dead relatives from urban cemeteries for reburial, closer to home, in the vastly expanding suburbs.

Holding it all together is not so much an overarching thesis but a theme: how cities shrink, sometimes unto death. Despite its sprawling and sometimes contradictory content -- some artists exult in decay while others seek to mend it -- the tone is consistent. If this show could talk, it would sound like the prose of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the author of "On Death and Dying," whose willingness to simply observe and document the terrifying process of death somehow undid so much of the mystification and panic it inspires in us.

It may seem odd, when newspapers are full of stories about desperate urban overcrowding, sprawling slums and shantytowns, and the environmental devastation of our planet's exploding population, to devote so much attention to "shrinking" cities.

But as cities in Asia, Africa and South America are overwhelmed by growth, others are getting smaller. "Shrinking Cities" focuses on the 25 percent of world cities that are losing, rather than gaining, population (according to the curator's statistics). Over the last century, that amounts to 350 of the world's largest urban areas (defined as cities with populations of 100,000 or more). The project was funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, and is focused on four regions where the change has been precipitous: Detroit, the Liverpool/Manchester area in the United Kingdom, Ivanovo in Russia, and the Halle/Leipzig region in Germany.

Detroit and Liverpool/Manchester lost population as their industrial economies fell into disarray. Ivanovo, a textile city some 150 miles northeast of Moscow, went to seed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when its long-stagnating but subsidized industry simply collapsed under the pressure of competition from Turkey and East Asia. And the Halle/Leipzig region suffered huge population losses and horrendous unemployment as East Germany hemorrhaged 9 percent of its people between 1989 and 2000.

But cities shrink for many reasons, as a haunting animated map in the Cranbrook museum makes clear to visitors as they enter. The map's glowing lights, which represent loss, not growth, show that it isn't just industrial or political winds that scour the urban landscape. Disease, war and natural disasters do their work, too, in places such as Bangladesh, where 1970 floods from a monsoon killed some 300,000 people. In this country, shrinking cities became much more than a Rust Belt phenomenon in the late summer of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.

While shrinkage is a fact of life for many cities, it is a foreign idea in metropolitan areas such as New York, where artists, like everyone else, must struggle to find an affordable niche in the vast, bustling warrens of humanity.

"It wasn't resonating in Manhattan," says the Cranbrook museum's director, Gregory Wittkopp, of a much smaller version of the show that has been seen in Manhattan. And why would it? "Shrinking Cities" is deeply engaged art, passionate about moral and practical issues that don't always animate the contemporary art scene in New York. It has all the edge, the irony, the gamester play with the conventions and boundaries that one expects of a major exhibition of contemporary art in a thriving metropolitan center. But it also has gravitas.

In a section of the exhibition called "Organizing Retreat," the curators examine ideas that would have caused howls of protest among the prickly boosters of Detroit only five or 10 years ago -- accepting shrinkage and using it to advantage, to new environmental or agricultural ends. They look back a quarter of a century to the radical Italian architectural firm Superstudio with a print called "Continuous Conveyer Belt City." The diagram shows a terrifying apparatus, as wide as a city, that chews up raw land and spits out new buildings, which slowly decay, fading back into the landscape like water behind a boat.

The citizens of this imaginary dystopian city strive to live in the newly made spaces freshly spun out of the machine. The reality, for most of them, is to live far from the citymaking machine, at a point along the continuous "conveyer belt" where things are rusting and decaying and sinking into ruin. It is a succinct diagnosis of how unsustainable urban environments function, and a withering commentary on how our misguided ambition for the new drives environmental degradation. Twenty-five years after Superstudio created its dark fantasy, suburban sprawl makes it seem all too real.

Throughout both parts of the show -- the more sociological and documentary pieces at Cranbrook, and the artistic "interventions" on display at MOCAD -- there is a profound sense of the paradoxical. Urban decay is ugly, but ruins are beautiful. Shrinking cities are emptied of their vitality, and yet that seems to unleash unpredictable artistic forces, and eccentricities.

It's unlikely that "Slim's Bike" (a bicycle decorated to baroque excess by one of Detroit's more colorful citizens) or "The Heidelberg Project" (a collection of old houses encrusted with trash, dolls, stuffed animals, etc., by Detroit artist Tyree Guyton) would exist except in a city too wounded to care about suppressing its creative and anarchic instincts. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the spectrum of creativity abhors gray spaces.

As the exhibition also makes clear, it is often economically depressed cities that court the most ambitious and flamboyant architecture. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and Daniel Liebeskind's Imperial War Museum in Manchester were both, in part, exercises in a larger project of local economic redevelopment.

"Shrinking Cities" also looks at individual adaptation, from brooms and flashlights made from trash, found in Ivanovo, to a bike shop in Chicago which has become an impromptu community center. "Survival Manual," which "teaches" basic foraging and underground economic survival skills (how to distill hard liquor) to Russians displaced by deindustrialization, does so with satirical darkness.

Another project demonstrates that as people in Detroit purchase the empty lots around their houses to assemble large urban yards -- or "blots" -- they are effectively "surbanizing" the old city. And in a collection of photographs that document urban agriculture projects in Detroit, there are heartbreaking pictures of one man who has given up all hope -- yet he remains in the city. His home is a fortress; the windows have been shuttered and painted over, and his yard converted to a small farm, fenced off, like a last redoubt, from the city around it.

By focusing not just on one city but on four urban areas, "Shrinking Cites" removes the stigma from urban blight. The message is not "Detroit is a failure," but rather that Detroit, like so many other cities, has suffered from forces beyond its local control. The people of Detroit have also made mistakes, indulged in fears and hysteria that have their roots in racial animosity, and the consequences of that fear are written everywhere on the urban landscape.

But those failures are seen in a wider international context, from the misguided assumptions about the need for new construction and a possible economic boom in newly liberated East Germany to the steely, even callous tone of Margaret Thatcher during a painful period of deindustrialization in England. The larger lesson of these very different cities might be put this way: While individuals are very good at valuing and protecting their homes, our leaders have often failed to protect and maintain a larger sense of home -- the devotion to a place and a past and a shared environment that the Germans call "heimat."

The breadth of "Shrinking Cities" lets it tell contradictory but simultaneously true stories. When Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, news accounts hailed the economic development of the "new and improving" city -- with its glistening new stadiums, casinos and loft housing. Which was true, to a degree. But not far from the new development, the old Detroit lingers on, block after block of snaggletooth neighborhoods in which only a handful of ramshackle houses still stand in prairielike vacant spaces. "Shrinking Cities" is broad enough in its narrative to tell both parts of the story.

This isn't a matter of some kind of intellectual or curatorial objectivity. Rather, it's about passion, about seeing hope and despair simultaneously -- glistening new glass-fronted office towers and small, wooden homes with paint and roof peeling off -- in such proximity that each makes the impact of the other more emotionally powerful. Even the two spaces hosting the exhibition, Cranbrook, an architectural gem by Eliel Saarinen set in a posh, leafy suburb, and MOCAD, a gruff, raw space on what was once one of this country's most elegant avenues, create a striking counterpoint.

Fantasies of great new cities are often pregnant with fantasies of those same cities in ruins. The American painter Thomas Cole's five-painting cycle "The Course of Empire," which isn't part of the show, charts a city from "the savage state" into which it intrudes, to "Desolation," a fantasy of a city in ruins. Just as painters have long seen the skull beneath the vibrant flesh of youth, they have also gloried in seeing the ruins beneath the polish and the plaster. Two paintings by the 18th-century French artist Hubert Robert (reproduced in the extensive double-volume catalogue for the exhibition) show a splendid art gallery, first filled with art and people, and then as a ruin.

We even build lovely ruins from scratch, as anyone who has seen the old Capitol columns reerected like some wayward Roman temple in the National Arboretum well knows. The power of "Shrinking Cities" is not, in the end, a set of moral lessons about urbanism. Rather, it is the eerie sense that, unlike so many exhibitions focused on people, this show gets at one of the scarier truths of life: We build, and strive, and plan, and fantasize great things, and in the end it all comes to ruin. The pilings of architecture are set in futility. Why do we carry on?

Who knows. But of course we don't have much choice, and that's life.

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