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July 22, 2011 / Robert Ross

Descent into the future…..


William Livingstone House

As I was “stumbling” through my weekly Stumble-on suggestions, I hit upon this photoblog from the Denver Post. Entitled Captured: The Ruins of Detroit, it is a photo essay taken from a much larger book  by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They have very successfully  captured a moment in the decline of a once great American city. Their book “The Ruins of Detroit“ was published in December 2010.  Many of the photographs that hauntingly and beautifully document this decline can be viewed on their website.

Founded in 1701, Detroit rose to prominence as the country grew, ultimately becoming synonymous with the American auto industry and music in the 20th century . Originally a trading settlement, by 1765 it had grown to a population of 800 becoming the largest city in French America between Montreal and New Orleans. Detroit reached its peak in 1950 as the 5th largest city in the country and has been in a steady state of decline ever since. Losing 25% of it’s population between 2000 and 2010, it now ranks 18th in population.

Outside of war or natural catastrophe, this type of decline is almost unprecedented in history. In the space of a single generation – 50 years, Detroit plunged from its brilliant zenith to become the poster child for urban decay and abandonment. Detroit’s decline began with the societal shifts that accompanied desegregation in the 60’s, but its acceleration can be directly attributed to more fundamental shifts in the economy as it continues to move away from a manufacturing base.

Perhaps most prevalent in the “rust belt”, similar images can be found in almost any American city today. They are indicative a larger problem facing those cities, namely what to do when the manufacturing base that built them fails. These ruins are the physical manifestation of that changing economy.

As a bittersweet reminder of a brilliant past, the ruins represent what is simultaneously the largest challenge and most daunting opportunity for the design community. How to adapt the existing urban landscape and leave a positive legacy. In the face of a rapidly changing economic reality, is it possible to successfully shrink cities and create something greater in the process. Can we discover a way for urban centers to become the vibrant beacons they once were, or are we truly faced with the dark and foreboding future unleashed in the Batman and Bladerunner films?

Downtown Los Angeles 2019 from the movie Bladerunner, Warner Brothers, 1982

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