In the heart of Detroit’s North End neighborhood, Ghana ThinkTank’s most ambitious project to date is starting to take shape. It’s unusual, to say the least – an art and architecture collaboration which borrows from the Islamic world to transform an abandoned building lot into a community space. Yet could the American Riad be the key to healing the city’s division and social isolation?
As with Ghana ThinkTank’s previous projects, the American Riad is an exercise in overturning the traditional power dynamics of international development. In short, the group calls upon the ‘third world’ to solve the problems faced by people living in more ‘developed’ countries. By doing so, Ghana ThinkTank hope to shatter global stereotypes, fostering communication and understanding across typically disparate cultures instead.
As Core Artist, Maria Del Carmen Montoya explains, “we saw that there’s this ‘west is best’ and ‘white is right’ mentality, where so-called experts come into a community to determine what their problems are and throw a bunch of money at it. Oftentimes, they cause as much harm as they do good because they’ve misunderstood the context of that culture. We wanted to flip this power dynamic using art.”
Architecture and Social Isolation
In the case of the American Riad, Ghana ThinkTank’s journey began in New York. Here, a number of citizens were concerned with the increasing rate of social isolation and division in America. In particular, the idea that most Americans live in a culture where there is little need nor desire to know your neighbor.
After sending the problem to their network of citizen think tanks located in Iran, Serbia, Indonesia and others, it was the group’s Morocco contingent who really took this issue to heart. “They came up with many solutions, but the one that seemed most unique and impossible in a sense was that our architecture was the problem,” shares Montoya. “[They said] you’re obsessed with the single family home, you hide your doors from the street wherever possible … really you should consider architecture more like ours. In the riad, homes face a shared courtyard with a single entrance. You can’t help but see your neighbors come and go.”
The American Riad
In response, Ghana ThinkTank began searching out opportunities to implement this as a plan of action. “Admittedly this felt like an impossible project,” notes Montoya. “But our vow to the think tanks is that we will make an earnest effort to implement their solutions whether they seem brilliant or crazy.”
As luck would have it, the group were quickly invited to assist in the redevelopment of a nondescript Detroit corner. In collaboration with Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition and the North End Woodward Community Organization, the American Riad project was born.
Islam Meets Detroit
The idea for the site rests on the concept of a shared ‘riad’ space which brings together six business units and ten apartments, all facing inward towards a communal courtyard. Enshrined under an elaborate steel canopy, the riad will be a publicly accessible park with edible gardens, sculptural furniture, a fountain, and an outdoor kitchen.
“We want to mingle the traditional architecture of Detroit’s North End with the soaring arches and arabesques of the Islamic world. But we want to do more than simply add in decorative elements. We are using architectural design to actually create shared spaces for work and the activities of daily living such as cooking and eating meals, childcare, business and leisure.” — Maria Del Carmen Montoya
Designed by rising Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni, the project represents a culture mash-up. Think traditional arabesque wood and tiled muqarnas intermixed with mid-western steel. “A lot of people are, and rightly so, concerned with preserving the language of existing architecture. A lot of that is a dialogic negotiating process, and means working with Marwa to see how we can do both simultaneously.”
“The project has to feel like it’s nothing you can understand easily. It has to insist on questions and raise curiosity. And in a sense, it’s futuristic because we’re speaking to the future of this neighborhood, the future of Detroit.” — Maria Del Carmen Montoya
Given the unconventional nature of this project, how have the local community reacted? “The local community’s response has been very interesting,” smiles Montoya. “Of course, Detroit is very suspicious of people coming from the outside to make changes. [However], people are receptive to the project. It is such an unusual idea and everyone can see how a project to help foster and build community can benefit the neighborhood.”
Ghana ThinkTank prides itself on its slow design approach to the American Riad. “We have been working at this site since 2016,” says Montoya. “We are taking small steps and raising all the funds ourselves through grants. What this process has done is allowed the community to come forth in a very organic way.” For instance, members of the community have been invited to contribute their own ideas and input. What’s more, the group hold regular readings and workshops directly related to the construction of the site.
Gentrification is something Montoya is all too aware of when it comes to renewal projects such as this. “The idea for this site is that it’s an equity co-op and a land trust. Because we’re very aware that art can be the first gentrifying factor, and we want to be conscientious about resisting that, creating the financial and social network to remain resilient in the face of rabid gentrification that’s already taking place in the north.”
While the American Riad is not expected to be complete until 2020, it seems the project is proving to be a force for good within the community already. From giving the residents a shared something to bond over, to acting as a catalyst for people across the city to learn about the vibrancy of Detroit’s forgotten neighborhood, it’s clear that this project has the potential to go from strength to strength in the years to come.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the American Riad is what’s giving this little corner interst and character however. As Montoya surmises, “what we have found is that there is already so much going on in the North End of Detroit, and our approach has to be about finding ways to create partnerships that support all this work.”
To keep up to date with the progress of the American Riad, head here.
For more on urban regeneration, check out our exploration of weather renewal is always a good thing.