“Can This Suburb Be Saved?
At MoMA, curators and architects seek a way out of the cul-de-sac.
By Justin Davidson
A few years ago, an architect with a global reputation was walking me through his busy studio, boasting of his exhaustive experience. I asked if he had ever designed in the suburbs; he looked at me as if I were out of my mind. Architects tend to treat the zones where half of all Americans live as a backward, inhospitable wilderness. The suspicion is mutual: Who needs a fancy designer when builders all over the country know how to construct a peaked-roof single-family house?
The Museum of Modern Art’s small but magnificently ambitious new show “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” makes an overwhelming case that the two camps need each other now. Today’s suburb has little to do with the outwardly tidy, seething, monochrome world of Updike or Revolutionary Road. It’s got its own new set of dysfunctions: boarded windows and weedy lawns, acres of sparsely used parking lots flanking clogged roads, immigrant workers jamming by the dozen into houses conceived for the Cleavers, household food budgets eaten up at the gas pump. Then there are all the old urban ills of poverty, violence, drugs, and racial friction, which have migrated to places that were designed for escaping them.
Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of MoMA’s architecture-and-design department, and Reinhold Martin, director of the Buell Center at Columbia University, believe that architects can help by rethinking the whole concept of what a suburb is, whom it’s for, and how it works. For several months, five teams of architects, economists, engineers, lawyers, landscape designers, and other specialists took up residence over at P.S. 1 and fantasized about how best to fix up a disparate selection of troubled suburban sites. Their presentations were critiqued, videotaped, tracked on a MoMA blog, then whipped into shape for “Foreclosed.” Now visitors can wander into a single gallery on the museum’s third floor and encounter inventive solutions to formidable problems they may have thought little about. Bergdoll has used the museum’s clout to create a glass think tank, a place where the public can keep an eye on experts at work.
Some ideas in the show sit on the border between bold and silly. You might be skeptical of the wisdom of introducing African elephants to a Southern California subdivision, as Andrew Zago has proposed. Maybe you doubt that Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith’s notion of filling in the streets of downtown Orange, New Jersey, with apartment buildings would strengthen the community. Or you wonder how much enthusiasm residents of Keizer, Oregon, could muster for living atop the smelly compost-to-methane-fuel plant that Amale Andraos and Dan Wood would build there. Fair questions, all.
As a whole, though, the show merges daydreams with pragmatism. Bergdoll nipped at the visionaries’ heels when they strayed too far into speculative territory. He handed them a statistics-rich research report prepared by the Buell Center and insisted that teams ground their reveries by figuring out what fire codes and zoning laws would have to be rewritten, what financing mechanisms would make projects feasible, where the residents of these brave new suburbs would work, how they would commute, and how much energy they would consume.”
Via: New York Magazine
Image: MOS Architects
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