Having worked in Detroit for more than 10 years with her partner Jean-Louis Farges at the Akoaki studio, architect Anya Sirota explores meaningful approaches which aim to allow citizens to reclaim public spaces. From temporary interventions to the overhauling of urban environments, each of her projects is an opportunity to combine collaborative action, interdisciplinary approaches and cultural strategies.
Your Akoaki agency is based in Detroit, although neither you nor your partner Jean-Louis Farges are from Detroit: what drove you to set up your business there?
Detroit is a city that represents the trauma of postmodernism: what happens when, despite an optimism rooted in progress, things stop working? Due to its industrial reputation, this city initially attracted many people very quickly, including a large African-American community. A major musical heritage was born there thanks to artists such as Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker, who have gone on to significantly influence contemporary music. But Detroit is also a city heavily affected by issues of segregation and has seen its civic structure break down, experiencing an extreme economic collapse. For many researchers, architects and urban planners, Detroit is a model for reflecting on the city of the future.
I came to teach architecture at the University of Michigan in 2008. Jean-Louis Farges and I thus moved here, planning to stay one year, two years at most! But we quickly became attached to this city: it allows us to work in a way that it is impossible to replicate elsewhere.
Your various projects promote citizen initiative. How can architecture or design succeed in mobilising people where politics appears to have failed?
The issue of non-participation is prevalent in Detroit. In 2016, we didn’t meet a single person under the age of 50 who voted in the US presidential elections. The feeling of marginalisation is all-encompassing, especially for young people who have lived their whole lives in an atmosphere of social and economic trauma. The creation of public spaces that promote a social experience and include all of us is at the very core of our work. From this perspective, architecture and design have a responsibility to renew our sense of civic responsibility, showing that they can change the shape of our city, and therefore of our lives. The conceptualization of these places is an unambiguous action in response to the preconceived notion of a failing city. People need to meet, to handle their differences and their traumas in a real, physical way.
What role can the smart city play in this public mobilisation?
Detroit is a unique context: one third of the population does not have regular access to electricity, water or heating. So we are moving slowly, but technology can already offer us the ability to use fewer resources in a fragmented city, such as, for example, allowing for smarter bin collections, using a more contextual systemic design.
The incredible ability of technology to bring us together and create new urban experiences goes hand in hand with an ethical responsibility: it can be used as a mechanism for social control as much as it can be used to make life freer, more egalitarian and attractive to as many people as possible, with minimal investment.
In your opinion, what is the role of culture in urban reclamation?
We feel that culture can be expressed in cities without necessarily relying on formal structures. We want to create spaces without doors, without entrance fees. This should make it possible to reflect on what a contemporary agora would look like. We’re talking more about a cultural landscape, because working outside institutions can be very productive when it comes to opening up the field of possibilities and restoring our shared imagination. In postmodern cities like Detroit, there is a danger of erasing stories and cultures. This risk is the conceptual force behind many of our projects: we seek to create spaces where personal narratives can be revealed, even if they are not included in institutional movements.
One of your first projects, The Mothership (2014), has become a symbol of the city. Why do you think this was so successful?
The North End district is a kind of blank slate, with 70% of the buildings having been demolished: passers-by might think that no one lives there anymore. To counter this impression, we wanted to tell the story of these places. This story is the birth of funk music in America. In the minds of all the inhabitants, the musical collective Parliament-Funkadelic began on their street! We were thus looking for a symbolic object, and we immediately thought of the flying saucer which the group used in their staging. The Mothership was initially intended to be a temporary object, until it became an informal cultural centre for more than 4 years!
This project shows that there is local talent, an audience ready for a collective experience and a need for lasting cultural infrastructure. We see this prototype as a kind of programmatic research aimed at creating a collaborative network. The collective imagination is what brings people together.
Even if urban planning is context-dependent, could the models that you are developing somehow be applicable elsewhere?
We are convinced that a deeply contextual approach can be transposed to any city using similar methods, but that the result will be radically different. If we had worked with the same methods in New Orleans, for example, we would also have created collaborative networks, used symbols, created activism for public spaces, but the visual expression would be completely different, as would the cultural content.
However, micro-structures in cities are increasingly popular, particularly in the United States. We practice a kind of intense urban self-reflection, because we live in a time when the idea of identity is important. This is why most of our work focuses on questioning the definition of a community.
Anya Sirota's interests find an echo in the theme of the 2019 edition of the Institut français Ateliers (AIF) : “Being together, in the city, in the world”. Held at the Ecole nationale supérieure d'architecture de Versailles on the 18th and 19th of july, the Institut français Ateliers (AIF) are a time of exchange, sharing, discovery and creation dedicated to the staff of the French network for cultural cooperation and action and its partners.
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