Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: Foreclosed

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream by Barry Bergdoll and Reinhold Martin
MoMA, 2012
Paperback, 188 pages

In five years as Chief Curator for Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Barry Bergdoll has tended to alternate between proactive explorations on contemporary areas of importance and exhibitions that raid the MoMA vaults and presents works aligned across a particular theme. In the former camp are Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (2008), Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront (2010), and Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, organized with Reinhold Martin and on display until August 13, 2012. In these exhibitions, architects are commissioned to develop designs and materials on, respectively, prefabricated dwellings, rising water levels around New York City, and the housing crisis in the United States. Foreclosed assembles MOS Architects, Visible Weather, Studio Gang Architects, WORKac, and Zago Architecture.

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
[The Oranges, New Jersey - MOS Architects]

Foreclosed began with The Buell Hypothesis, a document created by Columbia University's Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, headed by Reinhold Martin. The text, which can be downloaded in full here (35mb PDF) and whose prologue is included in MoMA's exhibition book, argues for a new "American Dream" in response to the mortgage crisis and the changing face of suburbia. It also outlines the sites that the five teams will tackle with their designs: The Oranges, New Jersey (MOS Architects); Temple Terrace, Florida (Visible Weather); Cicero, Illinois (Studio Gang Architects); Keizer, Oregon (WORKac); Rialto, California (Zago Architecture).

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
[Temple Terrace, Florida - Visible Weather]

Foreclosed, the book, is basically split into two sections: the prologue from The Buell Hypothesis (the argument) and documentation of the five designs (the responses); documentation of the workshops that took place in 2011 at MoMA PS1 are also included at the end of the book. The five projects collect the exhibition materials -- drawings, model photos, film stills -- along with descriptive text by Bergdoll/Martin. Answers to the same set of questions are included for each project, but for the most part the architects' designs are left to speak for themselves. The results are a grab-bag of formal responses that have been criticized for being too avant-garde when more practical solutions should have been proffered. Yet the architects are not being asked to remedy suburbia as is; their designs are meant to respond to The Buell Hypothesis' proposition that fixing the situation requires redefining the dream of home ownership. "Change the dream and you change the city."

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
[Cicero, Illinois - Studio Gang Architects]

The call for redefining the American Dream is explored in a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon. As if the idea of having two Greek philosophers discuss globalization, home ownership, suburbia, and infrastructure was too esoteric, the dialogue is presented as a screenplay as the two drive down Interstate 95. (Of course, if this screenplay were actually realized on film, it would be the equivalent of My Dinner with Andre on wheels.) This prologue to the Hypothesis and the Foreclosed designs does a great job of explaining how the mortgage crisis is based on global finance -- ergo, so is home ownership. It also illustrates how suburbs are increasingly city-like, in terms of demographics, economics, and social conflict. Therefore changing conditions locally and globally necessitate a reconsideration of the suburban milieu, not just quick fixes to the existing infrastructure. But do the five designs point to effective "dreams" for Americans to consider?

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
[Keizer, Oregon - WORKac]

Just about all of the speculations add density to their suburbs and increase propinquity, basically making the suburbs more urban to reflect their actual social and economic conditions. The two designs that I am drawn to are by MOS Architects and WORKac. The former fills in certain streets with three-story buildings that look like they arrived at their locations through a random throwing of sticks or the like. The architects determined which streets are best served by public transportation, and therefore added mixed uses to the streets that are proposed to be devoid of cars. In WORKac's project, human, animal, and natural patterns coexist on a gridded plat where boundaries of rowhouses surround a variety of different forms: towers, a hilltop over a compost plant, "arena housing". In some instances the design seems to collage the ideas explored in their earlier 49 Cities.

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
[Rialto, California - Zago Architecture]

When the various speculations are viewed through the framing of The Buell Hypothesis, the American Dream is inverted from home ownership to social and economic cooperation. In this sense it's not surprising that people are dismissive of the exhibition. But if people are looking for ideas that maintain the suburban status quo, one may ask why they haven't been discovered and implemented yet? A handful of architects will not have the answers to such a great problem, especially since it involves, as The Buell Hypothesis attests, global finances and infrastructure. The projects attempt to give the viewer and reader something to think about, but ultimately it's the group at Columbia's Buell Center that sparks this more than the models, drawings, and films from the architects.

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