Kristy Balliet, Assistant Professor at the Knowlton School of Architecture, is the Columbus-based half of BairBalliet, who will be presenting their work as part of the Pavilion of the United States at this year’s Venice Biennale. Her research focuses on the exploration of volume as an architectural medium. Balliet's interest in the city of Detroit began long ago. Related to her interest in contemporary forms of volume, her research started to reimagine the typology of the architectural "midrise" (10-15 story building). Detroit, along with other Midwest cities, requires an innovative tactic for urban infill and associated embedded volumes. This topic has been explored within her own work and as a topic for research design studios at the Knowlton School of Architecture.
In 2013, Kelly Bair and Balliet each submitted separate entries for a competition held on the iconic downtown Hudson Department store site in Detroit. At that time, they recognized an affinity between their individual contributions. There was a productive overlap in design ambitions of volume and figure. While they had worked together in various capacities as co-creators of the Possible Mediums Projects, ‘a series of events showcasing design investigations based in speculative architectural mediums’, they had never partnered as designers. The call for proposals for The Architectural Imagination prompted them to consider a joint submission. There is an architectural tension between Balliet’s focus on contemporary volume, which explore ideas such as room to room relationships and spatial connections and Bair's interest in flat, recognizable shapes.
Early on in their discussions about the site they acknowledged that the design required consideration at multiple scales due to the surrounding context. The Post Office site, as it is called by the curators, borders a light industrial and low rise residential neighborhood to the north and an expansive waterfront to the south. The site is not particularly "frontal," according to Balliet. The project addresses the site on all four sides, including a deliberate extension of the western skyline along the waterfront. Specific to Detroit, they identified the nuanced problem of infill, asking "what are modes of infill beyond physical expansion?"
Since Bair and Balliet each reside in different cities, the initial design concepts were developed over a series of design charrettes in Chicago. As the project progressed into full production mode, the team recruited students and recent graduates from the University of Illinois, Chicago, College of Architecture and The Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture.
Reflecting on the design process, Balliet described the experience as "enjoyable and intense", and is excited to reunite with the project in Venice. Students were able to see previews of the twelve foot elevational model, which was assembled in classrooms, fabrication shops, and corridors throughout the building. One of the models was briefly on show for students and faculty when it was transported in pieces to the "main space" for a several day photo shoot, before it was packed up and shipped off to Venice.
The Knowlton School of Architecture, and its students, have a history of involvement with Biennale projects, assisting Jose Oubrerie, Stephen Turk, and Jeffrey Kipnis with Piranesi Variations in 2012, and offering research assistance to Ashley Schafer for OfficeUS in 2014
"Architects should seek opportunities to engage dialogues that challenge and expand our imaginations," said Balliet. "Whether in Detroit—or anywhere—architects contribute expertise that is invested in the spatial imagination." She hopes that not only does this project speculate on the architectural potential for a complex site in Detroit, but it also captures the attention needed to address other urban scenarios that could benefit from prioritizing the architectural imagination to make spaces that promote connectivity and multiple subjectivities over a singular vision.
The U.S. Department of State selected the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan to organize the exhibition of the United States Pavilion in the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon are co-curators of the U.S. Pavilion.