Mexicantown, Detroit
Project for the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale
U.S. Pavilion, The Architectural Imagination

Designers: Jackilin Hah Bloom, Florencia Pita
Project Team: Rachael McCall (Team Leader), Ivan Bernal, Kyle Branchesi, Javier Cardiel, Charmaine Lam,Nader Naim, Hyo Seon Park, Shane Reiner-Roth, Sandy Sanchez, Nithya Subramaniam, Claudia Wainer
Model Builders: Zaid Kashef Alghata, Cristina Macia Briedis, Coleman Butts, Albert Chavez, Isabela de Sousa,
Wan Sun Kung, Diastika Lokesworo, Matthew Momberger, Nader Naim, Hahn Nguyen, Pinar Seven, Simon Sun
Consultants: Russell Fortmeyer (Arup, Los Angeles), Rodney Rojas (Sci-Arc Fabriction Shop, Los Angeles), *Special thank you to Sci-Arc for their support on this project.
Curators of The Architectural Imagination: Cynthia Davidson, Monica Ponce de Leon

The New Zocalo is an urban platform. A Spanish word for “base” or “footing” that in Mexico can also refer to a town square or plaza, zócalo is here understood as an elevated plinth. Hovering above street level and aligned with the adjacent rail yard, the plinth’s colorful textured paving traverses a series of gardens while broad oblique walkways connect formal and informal destinations. The raised platform is accessed from below, where parking is available on grade. The platform supports six clusters of buildings, some of which break through its plane to also engage the street level with lobby entries. They include a theater with a restaurant, a recreation center, a winter garden with a cafe, a marketplace that accommodates indoor and outdoor retail, an outdoor band shell, and a cultural center. By raising the public plaza, the project affords visitors new views of the rail yard and surrounding neighborhood and allows public space to coexist with busy vehicular flow at street level. 

The plan of the New Zocalo derives from Augustus Woodward’s plan for Detroit, devised in the wake of the Great Fire of 1805 by the newly appointed Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory. Woodward proposed a repeating hexagonal pattern of triangular blocks with major and minor intersections and alleys. We took this street pattern and extended it from what is today the Grand Circus Park Historic District – one of the plan’s few enduring traces – to Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit to imagine its hypothetical effect on our site. Using a series of animated drawings to graphically manipulate, exaggerate, erase, and reconfigure the plan’s scale and geometry within the triangular site bounded by Livernois Avenue, Vernor Highway, and the railroad tracks, we created the platform’s jagged, irregular edge. This irregularity tempers the site’s stark geometry while underscoring its particularity as an urban condition – a convergence of commercial, residential, and industrial activity.

The New Zocalo constructs a new urban narrative with combinatorial building forms connected by a raised plaza, creating a campus-like destination for Mexicantown and for all Detroiters. The design process combines the two-dimensional contours of plans and elevations found in Detroit theaters, industrial structures, and houses to generate novel yet familiar hybrid forms. The tracings of these typical Detroit buildings are merged both to produce new wholes and to define space with figural contours. The frameworks and forms delineate a kind of virtual poché on the interior and exterior of the buildings that suggest that Detroit is a city on the verge of transformation. 

The plinth’s surface is a vivid, graphic reconfiguration of the Woodward Plan depicted through a combination of landscaping and hard paving. The layers of color palettes found on and around the site, are methodically blended, faded and oversaturated, to produce an unexpected new color medley for the hard paving and certain building facades, coalescing the buildings and ground into an immersive public place.  Through the reimagining of familiar Detroit settings and the visual synchronization of color and form, The New Zocalo is conceived as a place where cultural and commercial buildings reside together on a raised plinth that domesticates a busy intersection of commerce and industry to make a true place of public exchange.