Detroit Architecture Firm Prepares to Showcase Motor City at International Exhibition


Detroit-based architects and designers Anya Sirota and Jean Louse Farges have been invited to present work from their firm Akoaki at the 10th edition of the St. Etienne International Design Biennale in France. Biennale is a month-long exhibition featuring installations from architects and designers worldwide that starts on March 9 and draws more than 250,000 people.

Sirota and Farges are currently setting up three large scale installations in St. Etienne’s Cité du Design, a former arms manufacturing plant in a town she says has a “rich, post-industrial history like Detroit.”

“This Biennale is huge, and people come to see the best and most exciting design products worldwide, and for all the designers to come and talk about how design is impacting urban conditions where they live. “We’re totally excited to be a part of this, and to bring all of our experiences from Detroit on an international stage.”

Once the exhibition opens, Sirota and Farges will be joined by 30 of their Detroit collaborators. Part of the exhibition includes a series of concerts curated by the Detroit African Music Institution, conversations with the Detroit Culture Council, and 10 farmers from the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm who will talk about their experiences in Detroit. Sirota says she’s excited to hear everyone “speak for themselves,” and that the exhibition will have a lot of “Detroit buzz.”

Sirota feels she and Detroit have a lot to contribute, but also a lot to learn from the other designers exhibiting their work at the Biennale.

“I think it’s fabulous that Detroit isn’t being treated like a site that needs to be fixed by design of external experts, but that the city is uplifting its own assets,” Sirota adds. “It illustrates that there are local solutions that others want to learn about, and it turns the table on what we typically associate with these types of exhibitions.”

Since founding Akoaki in 2008, Sirota and Farges have been using architecture and design to “activate underused and unlikely spaces,” throughout the city, most recently focusing on the North End of Detroit (near Woodward Avenue and W. Grand Blvd.). One of their collaborative projects, the One Mile garage, which has become a cultural venue, will be featured as an installment at the exhibition next month.

“Every context is very specific, of course, but there are a lot of common points,” she says. “At this point, everyone understands that architecture, design, art, and cultural activity can really activate and catalyze the economy in ways that have been proven globally. In Detroit, there’s a lot of sensitivity about the point we’re in, and about the possibility of gentrification, so in the Detroit context, and in the context of this project, we’re looking at how design can lead to equitable development.”

While much of Detroit’s economic renaissance has occurred in Midtown and downtown Detroit, Sirota believes people have already begun to turn their attention to the North End, and that there’s a lot of interest and speculation in the area. She adds that design tends to evolve where there’s “great community and culture,” which isn’t necessarily contingent on resources.

“Part of what we’re working on is to ensure that local residents invest and own portions of their neighborhood in preparation for the economic changes that are bound to happen,” she says. “We focus on how can we ensure that people stay secure in their communities, and also benefit from the economic upswing that design, and also something like a UNESCO City of Design designation is bound to herald.”

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