Happily ever after: Boberska sows the seedy

Berenika Boberska, "Fallow City."
Berenika Boberska, "Fallow City."

When you think of Detroit's urban decay, "enchanting" is probably not the word that springs to mind. Yet that is exactly the quality artist and architect Berenika Boberska envisions when she considers the former industrial giant's abandoned neighborhoods.

An artist in residence at the University of Virginia, Boberska has spent the past few months sharing her vision of how rundown urban and suburban areas–- even those cut off from a city's infrastructure–- might re-emerge as vital public spaces. Her contagious passion has set fire to students' imaginations, and chemists, architects, and engineers have all joined in Boberska's "Fallow City" project, a work-in-progress currently on display in UVA's Ruffin Gallery.

For Boberska, "A fallow season creates an interruption where unusual use and forms can flourish." She invited her students to imagine how people might appropriate left-behind structures for new purposes. For example, a fallen bridge or toppled fence draped over housetops might provide stadium-like seating. "Desires lines"–- the poetic term given to entrenched shortcuts across unpaved surfaces–- might continue up and over a neighborhood as elevated bike paths.

Connecting and powering all this new growth would be what Boberska calls "Solar Thickets," web-like canopies that provide light via photovoltaic cells. For the exhibit, she has installed a full-scale model of a "thicket," with undulating branches, crafted from poplar and interspersed with transparent panels screen-printed in orange, that span the gallery and arc toward the ceiling. The effect is magical–- in some places, the thicket resembles stylized trees or giant whalebones; elsewhere, it looks like an oversized neural network.

The "Solar Thicket" also gives flow to the exhibit, leading viewers first to a corner, where a loop of stop-motion animated films brings different aspects of  "Fallow City" to life. Nearby, a full-scale open workspace, paneled in translucent plastic, offers a studio experience of the project's development, with sketches, photographs, and ideas tacked to the walls and scattered across a desktop. Providing contrast, a radio receiver with earphones presents a broadcast from Detroit's industrial heyday.

Just outside the studio, a tabletop model represents Boberska and company's collaborative view of "Fallow City" in a sculptural display that is equal parts architectural planning and fairytale storytelling. Here, an overpass becomes a watchtower picnic area. There, shrubbery engulfs a house.

Although headily conceptual, "Fallow City" is a visual treat. The more one looks, the more secrets unfold. In Boberska's view, Detroit's future is a never-ending story.

Berenika Boberska's installation, "Fallow City," is on view through March 26 at the University of Virginia's Ruffin Gallery. 179 Culbreth Road. 924-6123.