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Constructing the Urban Imaginary: Photography, Decline and Renaissance

Care for Detroit, Grand Circus Detroit, 2012. Wes Aelbrecht
Care for Detroit, Grand Circus Detroit, 2012. Wes Aelbrecht

In his book, Wesley Aelbrecht, lecturer in Architectural History, discusses the construction of three distinct urban imaginaries during two cycles of urban redevelopment: urban renewal (1940s-1960s) and downtown renaissance (1970s-1990s) in Chicago and Detroit.

The book, Constructing the Urban Imaginary: Photography, Decline and Renaissance uses a wide variety of images including photographs, films, maps, graphs, and murals. It explores how these images were initially used for research, education and promotion supposedly to save the city from obsolescence; and later for social and political activism to gather support for preservation of landmarks and communities.

To study how urban imaginaries shape the rebuilding of the city, in other words, how visuals shape thoughts, actions and interactions that could justify one mode of city building over another, the book focuses primarily on the visual and material exchanges between images, the city and its citizens.

During the period of urban renewal (1940s-1960s), the book investigates how voluntary Citizens’ Councils in both Detroit and Chicago used blighted images as reform publicity to rally private organisations, public institutions and individuals to support and help organise the clearance and selling of large tracts of land to private developers.

By contrast, during the period of downtown renaissance (1970s-1990s), the book tracks how public-private partnerships produced images of iconic buildings, skylines and multicultural festivals to pave the way for efforts to revitalise both downtowns. But even as downtown renaissance booster campaigns attempted to create a community of believers (and eventually consumers), images of decline resurfaced, disseminated by individuals and groups who together constructed a powerful counter-imaginary in order to spur popular resistance to the wholesale destruction of buildings, neighbourhoods and communities.


Dr Wesley Aelbrecht

Dr Wesley Aelbrecht

Lecturer in the History and Theory of Architecture

+44 (0)29 2087 5962