The Romance of Detroit, Institutionalised

Photo by Fabrizio Constantini of the New York Times

The most salient feature of the ruin’s enchantment, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is “aura,” the distance one feels temporally from art. The Acropolis, the Pyramids, the temples of pre-Mughal India — all these embodied some mythic conception of the past and its tragic downfall. In other words, the romance of the ruin was enabled by passing time; in an earlier age, the ruin would have been viewed for what it was, mere structural decay. Perhaps a portion of an aqueduct would be used to channel water somewhere, or a temple wall dismantled for new homes, but otherwise, the use-value of such crumbling structures was denigrated, and with it their worth. So it was until enough time had passed and a bard like Byron or Shelley sung (for whatever purpose) the long lost virtues of the time that had produced the forerunner of ruin.

Detroit is not yet of age. Its factories, stores, churches and homes have lain fallow a mere four decades while suburban Michigan prospers and progresses with precision linearity into cornfield after cornfield to escape the blight of urban detritus that a nomadic population, on the run from the past, has left behind. Put another way, Detroit’s ruins are still seen by many as the failure of use-value; its forlorn, forgotten ironworks and auto assembly plants not objets d’art but underutilised machinery. Its abandoned parks and graffiti strewn alleys are not the touristic fantasia that animates that paragon of ruin, Pompeii, but reminders of an insurmountable failure. Detroit has not yet commoditised its failure; it merely wallows in it.

It is at this moment that Andrew Zago has unveiled his new Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the embodiment of Detroit-as-Pompeii, the romanticisation of its still-ostensible wounds.

Mocad is feted as a triumph of quotidian celebration; it is seen to be the visual expression of the Detroit of low-slung warehouses and tagged walls. This is a structure, we are told by Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times, that “accepts decay as a fact rather than attempt to create a false vision of urban density”. For his part, Zago claims he “didn’t want to romanticise” Detroit, but endeavoured to capture its energy. “The city had a depth of character, a real substance and integrity,” he explains, “And while you want to do away with the problems, you don’t want to lose that quality.”

In the act of attempting both, however — to both do away with Detroit’s problems through the kind of revitalization Mocad represents, as well as preserve the “quality” of its leitmotif of urban decay — Zago achieves the very mythicisation he has set out to avoid. Decay is preserved, in the form of a museum embracing avant-garde high culture. Those who come to worship at the shrine of Kandinsky and Warhol will find themselves puzzled by the shrine’s very exterior, by the raw walls attesting to a Detroit they had sought all their lives to avoid. The natural inhabitants of this Detroit, meanwhile, may be as at home with the familiarity of the museum’s design as alienated by its contents. Zago’s showpiece has something for everyone, everything for no one.

Is this an educational tool, or a means to keep both reverence for the underbelly of Detroit, as well as for high art, at that very apogee where their fusion can be touched by none other than that artistic and architectural avant-garde that Zago and the artists exhibited within represent? Are Detroit and the outsiders who have sponsored its revitalisation via this museum really to intermingle and learn of one another’s worlds, or will they find one another still far too distasteful to even contemplate?

The ruins of Detroit remain dismissed; the elite of Southfield and Grosse Pointe shelter in their Georgian colonials rather than embrace even that timid rapprochement of ruin and romance represented in so many North American cities by the phenomenon of the loft. As long as that is true, there will be no attraction among the bourgeois patrons of the art world to the ruins of their former livelihood. The wounds are still fresh, the downfall still too real, too vivid, to recede into the auretic.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Monday December 04 2006at 03:12 pm , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “The Romance of Detroit, Institutionalised”

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    I feel compelled to mention the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, Lowell Boileau’s ancient (by internet standards) campaign to preserve Detroit’s decayed and abandoned buildings.

  • C. Szabla says:

    Good call, Chris.

    By the way, this Google Ad is perhaps the most appropriate of all.

  • Matt Muma says:

    Yay, Detroit. The ruins are kind of pretty. The warehouses are full of music. And last time I was downtown (when was this, over a year ago?) a man who “had just gotten out of prison” asked a friend of mine and me whether or not we could “give him a job painting something.” We declined.

    Anyway, who’s calling who a nomadic failure, pushing further and further into cornfields? For your information, we’re definatly hitting forest by now (you should see where this friend of mine lives when he’s home) and the nomads aren’t sitting in colonial mansions and sniffing–they were always there; we masses mostly live in cheap, very gnarly mcmansions now, or trailer parks, but anyway, didn’t Southfield turn majority black a couple years ago? If you want to chat about specifics you’ll find me on the deck at the Coffee Bean someday, when I get out of this crazy land of 40 story bedroom communities.

    I should really be typing up that, uhm, other stuff that I’ve be scribbling into a blue notebook over the past month or so….

    But somebody here had to speak for fair Detroit. (because we Detroiters are all a might oversensitive about others speaking for us, since we tend to get plastered with mythic qualities we don’t entirely want, the wounds being too raw and…all..nomads…sigh…yeah…true…whatever…)

  • Matt Muma says:

    Disclaimer: I’m being cheeky.