Theatre and The Architectural Directive: Detroit in the Transition to and from Modernism

An engagement with architecture is directed by the navigation of the city which is inherently the navigation of property and power. The power to isolate, direct, regulate, is not reserved to the relevant governing bodies that preside over a city. The only landscape that is “governed” is the designated municipal roadways, and while they do make up a percentage of that landmass that is by no means insignificant in the average urban environment. It has to be considered that the regulation over the navigation of a space is just as much an architectural question as it is a civic one, and is not limited to city owned roadway systems. 


“‘The city,’ like a proper name, this provides a way of conceiving and constructing space on the basis of a finite number of stable isolatable, and interconnected properties.” (1)


 How one operates within an environment that is designed and supervised under the awareness of its own inhabitation, is inherently a performance. 

Olympia Development’s “District Detroit” empire is overseen by some 1,600 surveillance cameras (2). All of which are fastened directly to the land holdings of this company within the 1.4 square mile neighborhood. Thirteen miles west is the Ford employed Albert Khan, who was sensitive to the circulatory system that facilitated Ford’s production systems. He designed the buildings, and factory under single directional movement for the workers and their products, constructing the modern factory, into Ford’s modular network of the Dearborn sub-urbanization experiment. The factory itself, and its entire environmental and spatial restructuring to the inner workings of the Ford Motor Company realized for industrial architecture what could only be theorized in Le Corbusier’s proposed demolition of central Paris intending on desegregating the economic classes in his Ville Contemporaine (3). This architecture would be the backdrop to a 1937 UAW union leaflet campaign at the overpass for the employee entrance. Staged during the 2:00 PM shift change, The Battle of The Overpass left all four union officials beaten to the point of hospitalization. The battle was seen by thousands of employees coming to and from work that day. The architecture of the entrance and mechanized organization of worker’s movements were manipulated to secure intensified visibility of the attack. This wouldn’t be reported until photographs published by the Detroit News. Ford’s widely public anti-union stance would cave three years later due to the political pressure. While Ford and Fordism fully understood Theatre, he would not understand the power of the camera until the end of his life ten years later. Robert Lacey, in response to the personal writings of Josephine Fellows Gomon, writes:


“Ford was confronted with the atrocities which finally and unanswerably laid bare the bestiality of the prejudice to which he contributed, he collapsed with a stroke - his last and most serious.” (4)


Lacey describes Ford’s encounter with the footage of the liberation of the german concentration camps. It was Ford’s Taylorization of architecture and urban planning that would become the framework for modernity, it should be noted that while Adolf Hitler was said to have a portrait of Henry Ford in his office, Albert Khan had designed and supervised the construction of the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, commissioned by the Soviet Government. The camera laced architecture of the “New Detroit (5),” underscores the “Motor City’s” commitment to playing their part in a post-fordist corporate economy. In the broader experience of capitalism and modernity, oppressive infrastructural and social investment in industrial production is the sum of the modern city experience, Terry Smith in his 1986 doctoral dissertation, Making the Modern: Industry, Art and Design in America,  details this:


"With each of these transformations, society is gradually reconstituted along the lines of the newly-dominant labour process; society has to change in order for capitalism to keep on ticking in its new form. These transformations affect the interactions between production and consumption, the forms of the State, the institutions of civil society, the forms of the political organisation of labour, and the social forms of the production, circulation and reception of culture. It is the form of value that mediates these transformations and their interaction; it is the cement that holds it all together. These processes of transformation, however, should not be conceived in a linear fashion. They follow the dynamic of the capitalist social relation and are consequently determined by the antagonism that it constitutes. Society does not automatically become "Fordist" or "post-Fordist." (6)


The irony is not lost in the city built for accommodating the growing specialized workforce to fuel automotive industries in order to act out a competitive role in the modern American economy; who now is forced to regress back into a diverse urban environment, despecializating labor and abate its housing stock in order to stay in step with the contemporary global economy. 

The new stage set for this role is one that has two competing audiences, both understanding the direction of Detroit to be for their consideration. Michel Tournier describes a similar situation in the separation of East and West Germany following the second world war:


“You French people, you see only the healthy side of Germany, and it impresses you with its meticulous growth rate, a currency that is worth its weight in gold, a balance of trade perpetually erring on the side of large profit margins and a better-paid, more disciplined and more productive work force than any other country in Europe.

“But there is another side. The Oder-Neisse line that cuts off half of West Prussia and a whole of East Prussia from the body of the nation, East Germany, Gray and embittered, and Berlin, That pseudo-capital like a running sore in the middle of Europe. German prosperity is like the parable of the cripple with the mighty arms.”

“Very well, but what of the left side? If you think it looks so bad, if you dislike it so much, isn’t it because you are looking at it the wrong way around? Perhaps East Germany wasn’t designed to be seen from the west? Do you know how it looks from Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Russia?” (7)


This is particularly relevant in looking at Detroit’s biggest architectural insecurity, and the events that led up to that abandonment. In 1990, Detroit began a process of dissolving its vacant areas through a report titled “Survey and Recommendations Regarding Vacant Land in The City”, with demolition work beginning in 1993. Outrage followed from media coverage describing the city of Detroit Abandoning itself while simultaneously Devil’s Night Arson had been a well documented opportunistic ritual of vigilante city planning. In the writing for Charles Waldheim and Marili Santos-Munné, ”Decamping Detroit” they describe the contested urban policy:


"The combined impact of these two activities, each deemed illicit by differing interests, was to coordinate the public display of social unrest with the administration attempts to erase the visual residue of Detroit’s ongoing demise. For once, with the Detroit Vacant Land Survey, Detroit’s planners were up to speed with events on the ground, even if they were momentarily out of step with popular public opinion formed by the media and fueled by equal parts nostalgia and denial."(8)


Within the conflicting expectations is a performance of addressing them. Media coverage that embodies the broader national ethos had not been on the side of the planning department's decision to downsize and decommission. The “performance” can be understood and critiqued under two modernist theories of theatre. 


On one side is the constructivist actor’s directive in demonstrating the utility in successfully merging labor and play to adopted by the labor force (10), as was the case with the cities decision to demolish housing alongside the annual Devil’s Night events that were consistent in Detroit right until 2018. The other is the theory of theatre as a ghost (11), or an encounter with memorial, with the curtain being the division of real and imaginary allowing the passage of time to collapse. This would have been the means of production for the “nostalgia and denial” mentioned in “Decamping Detroit.” In many ways the city was forced to act in both roles, through the initial downsizing and the current reconditioning of its collection of modernist architecture that is underway throughout the city. 

End Notes:


1: Michel De Certeau, “”Making Do”: Uses and Tactics,” The Art of Everyday Life. trans. Steven Rendall, (Berkely, University of California Press 1984) 29-42. 


2: Nancy Kaffer, “Illich cameras are watching you: why you should care (even if you don’t like hockey),” accessed December 10, 2019,


3: Le Corbusier, Ville Contemporaine, Architectural Model, (Paris, Salon d’Automne, 1922.)


4: Robert Lacey, FORD The Men and the Machine, (New York, Little Brown & Company 1986.)


5:“Our History,” New Detroit, accessed December 10, 2019


6: Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1994.)


7: Michel Tournier, Gemini, trans. Anne Carter, (London, Methuen, 1985.)


8: Detroit City Planning Commission, “Survey and Recommendations Regarding Vacant Land in the City,” (Detroit, Detroit City Planning, 1990.)


9: Charles Waldheim and Marili Santos-Munné, “Decamping Detroit,” in Stalking Detroit, eds. Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim and Jason Young (Barcelona, Actar Publishers, 2001) 104-121.


10: Jeane D’Andrea and Stephen West, eds, The Avant-Garde in Russia 1910-1930 New Perspectives, (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1980.)


11:Alice Rayner, Ghosts: Deaths Double and the Phenomenon of Theatre, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2006.)