Rotterdam Vertical City travalogue

From Venice to Detroit: Laboratories of the Future, Reconsidered

On our way from Boston to Venice for the opening of this year’s Architecture Biennale, my husband and I decided to spend a few days in one of our favorite European cities, Amsterdam: to see Vermeer and Van Gogh, to adjust to the European time zone. We had a tight schedule for our limited time in Venice, and I wanted to hit the ground running, free of jet lag.

I had last been in the Netherlands more than seven years ago, and I was immediately struck by the latest layer of inventive new architecture on the way into town from the airport. I was already aware of Amsterdam’s cutting-edge approach to sustainable infrastructure and planning, its bicycle culture, and the country’s symbiotic connection to nature in all its forms. And still, I was surprised. In its seemingly effortless embrace of sustainable practices, this 750-year-old city, sitting many meters below rising seas, felt more like our future than our past. A new subway line, countless examples of adaptive reuse, exquisitely maintained bicycle paths and streetscapes (with many fewer cars), and expanding waterfront neighborhoods strikingly designed with equity and sustainability in mind. Green spaces were being “rewilded” to promote biodiversity and reduce flooding—and, most significant, the city was bustling and alive in ways that many post-pandemic American cities would envy.

New high performance residential architecture in the heart of bike friendly Amsterdam.


A short day trip to nearby Rotterdam—also known as “Architecture City”—provided me with an even more surprising urban tableau filled with bold contemporary design that only boosted my admiration for the Dutch approach to city-building. Thirty-thousand steps across and through new bridges, museums, parks and food halls left me exhausted, but excited. Out of the ruins of the German carpet bombing of World War II, this port city had truly become a showcase for the future of design, an idea reinforced by the exhibits of a wide range of Dutch designers in the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Museum Park. Fascinated to learn more about how this was all happening, I scrolled through the local news and read that the Dutch had just committed to almost 900,000 new housing units by 2030 to help address affordability, with at least one prominent MP calling for a “greater emphasis on architecture.” It all felt like a good run up to the Biennale and its theme: “Laboratory of the Future.” 

De Rotterdam mixed use “vertical city” by OMA along the renovated waterfront of the Nieue Masse.


Arriving in Venice, I was initially impressed by the exhibitions hosted in the venues of the European Cultural Center under the open-ended theme of “Time Space Existence.” In room after room (where my firm was also exhibiting), I learned about the reconstruction of Beirut, new masonry building techniques in Switzerland, and a wide array of specific housing and sustainability initiatives developed by students, faculty, and practitioners from all over the world. With that as context, I planned my visit to the opening of the Biennale itself, anticipating big crowds and an inspiration overload. However, arriving at the World’s Fair–like grounds of the Giardini and Arsenale, I had an altogether different reaction. First, there was no wait to get in; by contrast, the art-focused Biennale of 2022 had been packed with large and curious crowds. Second, the individual exhibitions felt far more abstract and political than I was expecting. Some social critics found this take on the profession to be refreshingly broad but, as has been reported, there wasn’t much actual architecture to see. While I was excited by the eye-opening focus on Africa and African designers in the central pavilion, most of the national pavilions provided provocations without tangible solutions. After wandering through for a couple of hours, my husband, who is not an architect, told me he felt as though he was being talked down to. I heard someone mutter something about “doom and gloom.” Later, a member of my staff innocently asked me why so many countries weren’t showcasing design work they were ostensibly proud of. I didn’t have an answer for her.

The United State pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale.


As an American, the U.S. pavilion was perhaps the most disappointing. Surrounded by totems of recycled Coleman coolers and water jugs, the exhibit was, by implication, a reminder of society’s unhealthy relationship with plastic and its impact on the environment. Despite the obtusely written description, it seemed silly, and completely non-architectural. We moved on. 

Certainly, there were beautiful and powerful works on display—I particularly liked the Uzbek installation and the new work by the Ghanaian-born architect David Adjaye—but, all in all, I was struck by the relentlessly downbeat nature of the show. Leaving the exhibition grounds, we walked into a Venice filled with crowds of tourists who, I suspected, would never be drawn into such a willfully inaccessible and pessimistic event. For architects and the field of architecture, this was surely a missed opportunity. 

Returning home to Boston, I read and reread the mixed reviews of the Biennale, trying to gauge whether my level of disappointment was warranted or somehow insensitive to the issues at hand. I asked myself what I learned at the Biennale that could be applied to the urgent issues of housing affordability, deteriorating infrastructure, and environmental resilience that Boston was currently facing. I kept returning to what I had seen firsthand in Amsterdam and Rotterdam instead. And what about the inspiration of seeing beautifully designed and crafted architecture? Centuries-old Imperial Venice could always be relied on for that. 

A few weeks later, with the Biennale still on my mind, I had the opportunity to take a side excursion to Detroit from a family gathering in central Michigan. I hadn’t been to the city in 25 years, and the last time had been so depressing that I remember wanting to cry as I drove around a pockmarked and vacant downtown, afraid to get out of my car. 

This time was very different.  

Although the vast Motor City has continued to lose population (from nearly 1.8 million in 1950 to roughly 650,000 today), the stabilization and rebirth of the city’s core was palpable. We saw stylish hotels (ours was in the city’s former Fire Department headquarters), full blocks of modern housing (Brush Park, by Merge), world-class restaurants and nightlife (Lumen at Beacon Park, by Touloukian Touloukian), and rode a new tram line linking the theaters and arenas, hospitals, universities, and tech centers up and down Woodward Avenue (tech-town master plan by Sasaki). Downtown streets, which I remembered as desolate and abandoned, were now active with pedestrians of all ages and marked by significant construction and unique shopping, including local brands like Shinola. 

Woodward Avenue: The Q tram line, The Shinola Hotel, restaurants, and new mixed use high rise construction (on the long vacant site of the former JJ Hudson’s department store).


Across the city, the restoration and reuse of landmark structures, like the nearly completed Michigan Central Station, were complete or underway. These were the same buildings, documented as ruins in film and photography, that were still circulating globally as the portrait of this once great city’s collapse. Scattered around these signature projects on the site of reclaimed parking lots and brownfields, a greener landscape filled with temporary festival venues, art installations, and new parks was rising in their place.  

On that particular weekend, there was a Tigers baseball game at Comerica Park, a sold-out Taylor Swift concert at Ford Field, an outdoor jazz performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, weddings, graduations, and huge crowds for the Pride Celebration at the riverfront adjacent to John Portman’s iconic and reimagined GM Renaissance Center. “Detroit Pride” was cosponsored by General Motors which, despite certain threats of political retaliation, was showcasing its latest EV technology to an exceptionally diverse (and appreciative) audience. It was all, quite frankly, astonishing. I wanted to go out and buy a Chevy.

To be clear, the devastation of 70 years of depopulation is still painfully obvious throughout the metro area, like war scars, creating surreal landscapes of monumental urban architecture set against the waving prairie grasses of demolished neighborhoods; but so too is the evidence of stewardship and good governance. Stunning mural art and beautifully manicured landscapes of trees and flowers heralded our arrival to the neighborhoods of Corktown, New City, and Midtown. Less than a few miles from downtown, we found greenhouses and urban farms amid thousands of acres of reclaimed nature ripe for reinvention (or rewilding). New enclaves of homegrown retail and contemporary architecture are springing up in a refreshingly loose and organic fashion. It’s clear that the city is turning an important corner, both physically and psychologically. 

The restoration of the Michigan Central Station and adjacent park is nearing completion in Corktown.


Which, in thinking about exhibitions like the Biennale, brings me back to the power of optimism itself. The people of Detroit are proud of what is happening, and they know that they accomplished it largely on their own, acting locally. The grassroots reinvention of this latest version of Detroit pays homage to its legacy industries and its glorious past but is being rebuilt around and by local communities of color, artists, chefs, entrepreneurs, makers, philanthropists, and the largest concentration of commercial and industrial designers in the country. Together, they are all looking forward, not backward. More than a renaissance, the city’s rebirth is an act of defiance.

When I headed out to Detroit from Boston, some people asked me why, with eye-rolling incredulity. As someone who grew up near Pittsburgh, another “city of reinvention,” I know an old reputation is a hard thing to shake. But I see now that, like Rotterdam after the war, Detroit is emerging as a design driven laboratory for a post-industrial future and, happily, architects, landscape architects, and planners are involved. I’m told it is already a very different place from what it was just a few years ago.  

It’s an inspiring and uniquely American story. 

Note to the curators of the U.S. pavilion for the 2025 Architecture Biennale: Our architects and designers have uplifting stories to tell and lessons to share with a world that already knows all about the problems of plastic but doesn’t yet know that cities like Detroit might be the real laboratories for a brighter, more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful future.

That kind of message might also draw a bigger crowd.

Featured image: OMA’s Vertical City by Tim Grafft. All other photos by David Hacin


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