Inspired by Islamic Architecture, Ghana ThinkTank Brings Community Space to A Corner of Detroit’s North End With Art

The international artist collective Ghana ThinkTank begins each project with a unique premise: tackle issues from the US with help from “think tanks” in “third world” countries like Morocco and Indonesia, as a way to break down the distinctions between the “developing world.” When the collaborators were approached to develop a project in Detroit’s North End, they brought the issue of social isolation that results from urban flight to their think tank in Morocco. They decided that Americans’ obsession with single-family homes were to blame, and suggested looking at Islamic architecture as a way of building community. In practice, bringing the art project to a street corner in Detroit unearthed more issues than just social interaction, and has continued to foster the community in North End in surprising ways. American Riad, Ghana ThinkTank’s Creative Capital Project, opens to the public with a launch event on September 22, 2019.

We spoke to collaborators behind Ghana ThinkTank, John Ewing, Maria del Carmen Montoya (or “Carmen”), and Christopher Robbins.

Alex Teplitzky—Can you describe the project?

Christopher Robbins—Fundamentally it is an attempt to build community through cross-cultural architecture—we are constructing communal housing around an elaborate and beautifully designed courtyard.  But the project is quite complex—it began as a collaboration with the Oakland Avenue Artists’ Coalition—they’re an arts nonprofit that’s focused on bringing back Oakland Avenue in the North End of Detroit as a Black cultural corridor.  The project has grown to include affordable housing organizations as well. And this is in addition to our partners in Morocco, Indonesia, and our lead architect in Syria—the award-winning Marwa Al-Sabouni.

John Ewing—In addition to the art and design, the project encompasses real estate development, engineering, forming a land trust, community organizing and encouraging Americans to learn from Islamic culture rather than fear it.  That’s the thing about the Ghana ThinkTank process—we commit to following wherever a solution might take us and you never know what it will lead to. It has taken us much longer than we anticipated but we’re committed to seeing it through and we learn so much in the process.

Carmen—The context in which the project began is interesting as well. We were working as cultural ambassadors in Morocco through a program called SmartPower, a partnership between the US State Department and the Bronx Museum of Art. Over our 10 years as an arts collective, we had collected a number of problems around the US, and we shared them with villagers in rural Morocco. The Moroccan think tank kept returning to the question of social isolation, how people even in large cities have difficulty forming relationships with their neighbors. The Moroccan think tank pointed to the American obsession with single-family homes, and that even in cities we find ways to isolate ourselves. In Moroccan architecture, there’s a riad structure that centers houses around a shared courtyard, so that you see people as you come and go from your homes.

John—We loved this solution, but frankly back then, it was a bucket-list project. The idea of building a riad seemed pretty impossible because of the resources it would require. However, when we were meeting with members of OAAC in Detroit, they zeroed in on this idea and felt like it aligned with what they were doing along Oakland Avenue.  They also had access to a site that they thought would work well.

Carmen—When we started talking to national funders, they voiced concerns that social isolation was not such a problem in Detroit as isolation from social services—which is definitely an issue. However, people living in the North End of Detroit talked to us about how their neighborhoods were becoming increasingly depopulated. So, your kids don’t have other children to play with, you don’t have as many neighbors to look out for you—without those social networks—emotional health and safety, just getting by day to day can become huge issues.

Kylah, a member of “Grow Detroit’s Young Talent” Program, working on the American Riad by Ghana ThinkTank. Photo: Keviyan Richardson.

Alex—Can you tell me more about the Ghana ThinkTank process?

Christopher—It’s an idea of flipping power dynamics through the power of art, and in this case, through housing justice. Our motto is “developing the first world,” and essentially that means taking issues from the US to so-called “developing countries” to ask for solutions.

We have found that approaching people by asking for help and with the premise that we all have expertise and something to offer and we all have problems and need help, upends the common development dynamic of a powerful expert and a needy victim.

There is a bit of stickiness in bringing the Ghana ThinkTank concept to Detroit, especially with our motto: “Developing the First World.” Whereas it’s “clever” to impose the will of Ghana on hedge fund operators in Westport, Connecticut—a very wealthy suburb—the power dynamic is much more uneasy developing “the first world” in Detroit. It takes a whole other level of analysis in reconsidering how the power dynamics play out in this context.

Carmen—The Ghana ThinkTank Process is also very effective in terms of addressing stereotypes and assumptions between differing cultures in this feedback loop. It was really impactful to our collaborators in Indonesia and Morocco to have conversations with Detroiters about post-capitalist society and what it looks like when these “first world” economic models fail. The ensuing realization that the dichotomy of “first world” and “third world,” is really quite brittle, simply false in fact, is such an important moment in each iteration of the process.

So, there’s the project, but there’s the conversation as well. When these categories fail, we come to understand each other in new, more complicated ways.  This work operates on tenuous ground. As we assemble and start talking to each other, then we get to something real.

Demolition orders are the go-to solution for these derelict homes. But this was a place where people we met had their first kiss, or their first birthday party. Keeping these homes and giving them a new life is a really important aspect of the project for us and to the families that had worked with us to save this building.

Alex—You’ve been working on the project for quite a while—can you tell me about the different issues that came up?

John—It took awhile for anything material to manifest anywhere because of a great amount of (well deserved) mistrust towards outsiders with resources.  There was a history of groups coming in with noble ideas and taking advantage of low real estate prices, experimenting on Detroit, using it as a playground of sorts but then abandoning ship at a certain point, leaving the mess for local residents to deal with or using them as props.  It was years of getting to know people and developing trust and finding common ground before we were able to make real progress.

Christopher—At its best, the Ghana ThinkTank process isn’t something that imposes, it’s something that’s completely dependent on the power and social dynamics of the situation in which it’s taking place. To me, that is just as much an accomplishment as this enormous, beautiful riad project that is being built: the fact that people from the neighborhood are working on it when we’re not there, there’s a summer youth employment program where teens are learning new skills. That was all four years in the making, but it was a great accomplishment.

Carmen—Each aspect of the project, from meeting partners, scouting locations, all of the planning, the architectural aspects have been a project in and of itself. And then there is also the house, which was once someone’s home. When we arrived in Detroit, we saw that the house had been left in a tremendous rush: personal items were scattered throughout the home–photographs, clothing, dishes, even love letters. We worked with local residents and students from SUNY Purchase College to collect all of this, organize it, and save it. A couple of years later we finally tracked down the family members that lived there, and we were able to return these items to the family. That, for me, was such an impressive moment – to be able to talk to the people who lived in that home and show them how we were keeping that place where people had done their homework, made dinner, celebrated birthdays, had a first kiss—a place for people to gather and dwell in community.

John—One of the things we’ve learned is that the city government tends to demolish—demolition orders are the go-to solution for these derelict homes. But this was a place where people we met had their first kiss, or their first birthday party. Keeping these homes and giving them a new life is a really important aspect of the project for us and to the families that had worked with us to save this building. The rehab of the house is an ongoing and important phase of the project that we hope to celebrate when it’s completed.

Christopher—Actually, we were nervous about what the response would be when the family returned to see this project that was happening, but they were so happy to see more life coming back to the North End.

One other wonderful moment happened when I was working at the empty lot where the riad itself is built. One day, I was there alone working on a part of it, and this guy stopped by. He said he had lived in the house that used to be there, and his mother had been killed in a hit-and-run drive by while he was in prison. He never got to go to her funeral, and he said that he considered this sculpture, the riad, to be a memorial in honor of his mom.

Carmen—That’s a really important factor—the city would have opted to raze those buildings, and completely erase the history of that corner of the neighborhood. Because of the slow pace of the project, since we’re not developers, everything takes a long time. Our human scale pace creates points of access that don’t exist in the typical urban development paradigm, giving people an opportunity to participate in the project, change it, and give ideas about what they think could happen here. We’re finding out so much about the intensely local micro-histories of the corner, just from people stopping by.

AlexI find that with the built environment, there are always these competing interests, most of which rarely take into account the people actually living in the community where these building projects happen: there are the city governments, the developers, the architects, and designers. It seems like the people that live in those communities are always considered last, if at all. From what I’ve heard about this project, you have spent the time putting them at the center. It’s a really unique way to build something, so it’s more than an art project.

John—Yes, so much of the design of current development is based on banks and economic interests and we get these cookie cutter results. But I do think that developers, architects, and designers are starting to notice the value of an artwork like this. We’ve been talking to other institutions that are basically echoing what you just said, that they’re looking for new ways to work in communities as ways to build equity. As we formalize the model, we’re hoping to explore this in reports to help other designers and developers to build in communities with equity.

Actually we’ve been asked by the Van Allen Institute—once an architectural firm responsible for such iconic buildings as the Chrysler building in New York—they are now a nonprofit focused on how design can improve cities and make people’s lives better.  They are getting ready to do a ten-city tour across the US with the goal of highlighting best practices for inclusive urban development, and they have asked us to join them in this endeavor.

Christopher—Midtown and downtown have already been gentrified and displaced, rent is much higher now than when we first got there because of the development has been creeping up closer to the North End. Fortunately, people and nonprofit organizations have been able to buy property in the area, but the trick is to find a sustainable way to keep it out of real estate speculation. So, the land trust is an important part of this.

The whole riad eventually will be six businesses, six apartments, and two homes, all part of this big land trust. We’re actually one of two organizations selected by the Detroit Justice Center for pro bono work to create the first residential land trust in the state of Michigan, the first time these laws are being used to fight gentrification. And of course, that’s a legal document that we can share with all these other groups in the North End, Detroit and Michigan.

Performance still of Detroit Poetry Society performing at an early prototype of the American Riad by Ghana ThinkTank, 2017. Photo: Christopher Robbins.

Alex—To get back to the actual structure of the riad, I’m also curious about Islamic values, and if any of those have been successfully communicated to this community. 

John—We’re really excited and honored that Marwa Al-Sabouni agreed to work on the project and be the lead architect. She lives in Homs, Syria, and has been rebuilding her destroyed city by applying Islamic principles of design to encourage “mixity,” overlapping between different groups of people. She authored an award-winning book that documented how the colonization of shared Islamic architecture into isolating “Western” architecture contributed to the wars in her country.

Carmen—Dr. Al-Sabouni describes how the perceiver should be able to feel the inward resonance of an idea or a way of life in the architecture of a place. This happens when the built environment embodies a philosophy in every detail of the building and especially in its manner of production. This work has been and is being co-created with the people of the North End.

Another thing that has been a tremendous point of interest for me personally is what is coming to the fore about the history of Islam in the US—it’s such a long and rich history. Mainstream, xenophobic, right-wing thinkers imagine the Muslim person as a stranger from afar. In reality, the African-American Muslim is a central player in the US civil rights movement. Reconnecting with that history through conversations with our local partners has been a source of connection between cultures.

Alex—You’ve been using this riad as a space to gather and host programming. What are your hopes for this space as it’s being completed, and into the future?

Christopher—OAAC ran an art camp the past two summers, a sports camp, and the Detroit Poetry Society did an event. There have been workshops in which kids repaired their sidewalks with mosaics, wood-working, construction, plumbing, how to build furniture from scavenged materials. When our collaborators came from Indonesia, they held a workshop on DIY water filters. As you know, there are issues in and around Detroit with water. In Yogyakarta, where the Indonesian think tank is located, they were also having issues with their water supply, and had figured out how to make their own filters. So, there was a jam session between Indonesia artists and people in the North End neighborhood to figure out how they could adapt those ideas in Detroit.

This summer, the construction had been dangerous so we had to close it off, and that’s why we are premiering on September 22. We’re kicking off the re-opening with the return of Detroit Poetry Society performing in the space, as well as several local artists.

Carmen—We want to be clear.  We’re not saying that we came to the North End and created community. Our goal with the American Riad is to foster the creative community that is already here. The North End is full of life, there are urban farms, poetry societies, the community meetings happening in people’s homes every week.  It is exciting to get to be a part of that and to help create a shared space where this can continue to grow.

Alex—So what are the plans now moving into the future? Are you handing over the keys to the community, or do you plan on being there for a while?

John—There’s quite a bit more to be done: the land trust has to be finalized, we have bylaws and a draft of a memorandum of understanding. Working with the Detroit Justice Center, we are creating a self-governance document for running and maintaining the riad. We’re working with Marwa Al-Sabouni on the architecture of the buildings and courtyard itself. She’s designing how the actual riad structure will integrate with 1920s architecture of Detroit. Next we’re going to be cutting a two-story hole into the house to create a fantastic door and window.

There’s an enormous project of rehabilitating the commercial/residential space, a 12-unit building which is being done by Central Detroit Christian. So there’s a ton more to be done, this is the launch of the riad itself—this public space and the sculpture that creates it.

Alex—You received the Creative Capital Award for this project in 2013, and as I can tell so much has happened since then. How has Creative Capital been helpful?

Carmen—Oh my god yes! Creative Capital has been so helpful. Creative Capital helped us completely rethink our approach. Before, we just thought of Ghana ThinkTank as an art project. Creative Capital made us realize we also have to think of it as an organization.

Christopher—Yes! There were things that seem simple now that weren’t then: Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you can’t have a mortgage, use spreadsheets, do five-year plans, budgeting—it’s all essential. They gave us the confidence to operate as an organization, bringing on new team members. Those Creative Capital workshops allowed us to take on projects larger than ourselves.

John—It also gave us the context to switch our model. Ghana ThinkTank had been operating on a model that was driven by whatever gallery, community, or museum would invite us to do a project for six to 12 months, and then we would move on to the next thing. So, we were wondering how we were going to have an impact with these short-term projects, especially since our project is critiquing development projects, for which three years is considered a short time-frame.

Christopher—Creative Capital gave us the context to focus on a larger project, and when museums approach us with “opportunities” we have to figure out how it’s relevant to the project. It’s up to us to figure out how these other smaller opportunities are all feeding the bigger project. So, that was a really helpful outcome of Creative Capital.

Initially, the money part of the award was the biggest amount we had received before, but since then the impact on our whole project has been so much more valuable. We wouldn’t have been able to do all the thinking and organizing that we had to get here if it wasn’t for Creative Capital.

Read more about Ghana ThinkTank and American Riad on their website.