Nicolai Ouroussoff takes one look at the new Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and immediately declares it "a profound rethinking of what constitutes urban revitalization." Mocad, as the museum is known, was designed by the Detroit architect Andrew Zago, who witnessed first-hand how Detroit got stuck in the transformation from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. The museum is housed in an old car dealership, although perhaps a more appropriate setting would be an old auto finance office. Anyway, vestiges of the old dealership remain in the kitschy Fifties red octagonal tile in the showroom and traces of crude remodeling attempts in the interior walls. The exterior walls were painted by a graffiti artist, Barry McGee. Ouroussoff is thrilled by the result, declaring the museum "takes us back to a time when making art and architecture could be a act of dissent."
Ouroussoff's invocation of architecture's past points to the historical complexity of the urban space Mocad occupies. Ouroussoff notes that the museum is near the sports and entertainment complex that includes the Detroit Tiger's retro stadium, Comerica Park. Ouroussoff dismisses the complex as "an ersatz vision of the bustling metropolis, sanitized for visiting suburbanites," a characterization that's hard to argue with, but perhaps a more sympathetic reading of the complex is that it's a mythic space in Walter Benjamin's sense: a return to the past as a collective wish image, contradictory at its core, that invokes the shopping-mall like space that made the white flight from the city possible and magically reconciles it with the trolley-car city of the industrial era. The complex is an expression of nostalgia for monopoly capitalism, but it's not an empty one.
Mocad may not be the perfect rejoinder to Comerica Park, but, as Ouroussoff suggests, it does represent a significant rethinking of urban space. Zago's loose and freewheeling invocation of what Ouroussoff describes as a "forgotten underworld tucked into ruined houses and storefronts surrounded by lots that have been abandoned for so long that they have become overgrown fields" is another mythic space in which second nature--that self-contain world manufactured by people--is receding back into first nature. (This is Benjamin again, from the Arcades Project, in case you were wondering.) This post-industrial mythic space is a realm of transient culture, expressed inside (Nari Ward's Airplane Tears, an instillation made out of discarded television sets and facial tissue) and out (McGee's graffiti). This transient culture, where the old and the new co-exist in a more allegorical tension than the smooth historicism of Comerica Park, offers a more hopeful vision for urban renewal than anything Detroit has seen so far. Or any other post-industrial city, for that matter.