Architecture on Film: Detroit Wild City / Detroit: City On The Move + Q&A

Tues 8 March 2011 6.15pm / Mon 11 April 8.45pm

The Motor City's past and present - a UK Premiere and archival footage. Plus a Q&A with Detroit Wild City director, French artist Florent Tillon. 

Q&A chaired by Lawrie Robertson, Head of Strategic Planning, Happold Consulting. Robertson is is currently leading Happold Consulting's team as part of the Detroit Works Project - the 20 year strategic transformation plan for the city which has just been initiated by Detroit City and DEGC.

Detroit Wild City (UK Premiere)

France, 2010, Dir Florent Tillon, 80 min

Artist Tillon meditates upon contemporary Detroit, a deserted urban landscape where grass grows over the parking lots and voluntary wrecking crews clear abandoned homes. A documentary examining the ongoing transformation of the city - from the home of the automobile industry to that of eagles, coyote and urban farms - with a cool gaze full of visual poetry.

The motor industry jumpstarted Detroit's rise and made it the most industrialized city in the USA, until a mixture of economic, industrial and demographic forces combined with the automobile's own promotion of sprawl and suburbia to lay the city's core to abandonment. Tillon finds new communities and citizens emerging from the Motor City's skeleton, as a future grows from Detroit's troubled past.

Can new ideas grow from the ruins of the 20th century's faith in industry and progress? What does it mean to be a pioneer or settler in the 21st? A glimpse into the face of the post-urban, and a city searching for its future.

"A cinematic tour de force..." - The Huffington Post

"A hypnotic visual exploration of Detroit's urban landscape" - IndieWire

Detroit: City On The Move

USA, 1965, Dir Jam Handy Organization, 18 min

Commissioned by the city of Detroit in its (failed) bid for the 1968 Olympic Games, narrated by its mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, and produced by General Motors' favourite filmmakers, this film proudly proclaim's Detroit's status as a city of sparkling new skyscrapers, infrastructure, industry and multiculturalism - where ‘design skill blends with imagination and experience.' A fascinating slice of archival urban-promotion; all the more bitter-sweet for its production just two years before the city's infamous race-riots.

Image: Detroit Wild City, courtesy Florent Tillon

Programme Notes by John Gallagher

Detroit Free Press journalist, and author, Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City

Watching the films City on the Move and Wild City back-to-back, one might be tempted to conclude that the first depicted Detroit as it was then, and the second shows Detroit as it is now. Reality is more complex. The Detroit I know - the Detroit I've covered as a journalist for nearly 25 years - reflects the reality founds in both of these films. Much of the vibrancy that City on the Move boasts of - the great hospitals and the great urban university, and the sense of a city on the edge of great things - all that still exists in Detroit today. Indeed, Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center are bigger and busier today than when City on the Move captured them in 1965; they employ more people and train more students and pump more money into the city's economy. Yet the Detroit that Florent Tillon shows us in his Wild City exists, too, and often just a short stroll off the bustling campuses of either Wayne State or the DMC. Point a camera almost anywhere in Detroit, and scenes of urban vitality co-exist uneasily with vistas of overgrown lots and abandoned factories.

Taken together, then, these two films present the dilemma of Detroit as it is today. Detroit remains a city of thriving neighborhoods yet abysmal abandonment; a city of highly educated professionals that is filled with illiterate drop-outs; a city of soaring achievement in medicine, the arts, and industry, yet a city that presents some of the most dispiriting vistas in urban America.

Which version of Detroit is more true? Detroit today balances on the edge, leaning toward the dystopia that Wild City depicts even as thousands of Detroiters strive mightily to nudge it toward a brighter future. Even a cursory drive-around of Detroit today will reveal that both visions of the city - the vibrancy and the abandonment -- can be found in Detroit's streets today. These two Detroits exist side by side, often overlapping, neither one ever fully vanquishing the other.

Put it another way: Both these films offer unique, highly idiosyncratic, visions of the same city. Neither vision is beyond challenge. The harmonious racial brotherhood celebrated in City on the Move was mostly a façade: Detroit in 1965 was just two years away from some of the worst racial riots in American history. The city's population had already begun to move out by the mid-1960s when City on the Move proclaimed the city's strengths. Suburban sprawl and deindustrialization already were gnawing away at Detroit's foundations. What was barely visible in 1965 would become hideously obvious with each passing year.

Yet the back-to-nature emptiness of Wild City, that Sunday-morning vacancy in downtown streets, is also highly selective. Wild City's small cast of bohemian outsiders - armchair philosophers, connoisseurs of urban ruins, subsistence farmers - are but a handful of a vast and much more varied populace of Detroit today. Every moment of Wild City may be true; my years of roaming around Detroit have made that all too clear to me. But even with big chunks of its landscape empty, Detroit offers a lot more of interest even to the casual viewer. The city sports some of the grandest architecture, the best music clubs, the savviest entrepreneurs, and the hardest-working people in America.

Perhaps the truest comment in Wild City comes from my friend Larry Mongo, the club owner interviewed near the end of the film, who notes that young people today will write a new book about Detroit without regard to anything that came before. That's Detroit's way of doing things. The city of the 1800s - a city built on mining and timber fortunes - looked nothing like the city of the Auto Century that followed. Everything changed - the architecture, the economy, the very scale of the city, the languages spoken by the workers, the music they listened and danced to, the lives they lived.  With Detroit now shedding its 20th century skin, those of us who call Detroit home anticipate with eagerness whatever will emerge. We know that something will, and it will be new and different and at least as interesting as what came before. What that day comes, a film like Wild City may look as distant as City on the Move appears now.