Hissing About Suburban Lawns

Hissing About Suburban Lawns

Studio Gang Architects’ proposal includes converting a factory to housing in Cicero, Illinois.
James Ewing

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through July 30

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream is an ambitious and significant attempt to rethink the design of American suburbs. Positing that academic and intellectual leaders in architecture have played a too-small role in the recent production of suburbia, the show’s curators, Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, and Reinhold Martin, Director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, offer a high-profile forum for the architectural practices MOS, Visible Weather, Studio Gang, WORKac, and Zago Architecture to demonstrate their capacity to imagine another future in five economically-challenged American suburbs.

At the heart of the show is The Buell Hypothesis, a booklet written by Martin with the Buell Center’s program director Anna Kenoff and research associate Leah Meisterlin, which serves as a provocation and source of knowledge for the show’s architects. The booklet’s core is an imaginary Socratic dialogue between two philosophers trapped on Interstate 95, a form that allows the authors to summarize current research on housing by architectural and urban historians, cultural critics, urban planners, and economic theorists. The dialogue traces how our most important private national dream—owning the single-family house—is actually made possible by public policy and infrastructure. Rather than separating us into private realms, the Hypothesis argues, housing forcefully connects us to each other through mechanisms of finance and governance.

Architectural model (left) and a still from an animation (right) for Zago Architecture’s Property with Properties project for Rialto, California.
James Ewing (left); Courtesy Zago Architecture (right)

Translating the insights of Hypothesis into built form was the challenge given to Foreclosed’s architects. They were encouraged to make politics, the economy, philosophy, and dreams part of architectural form-making, and to rethink the divide between public and private space in American suburbs. The show also asked architects to engage with community activists, economists, urban planners, ecologists, and experts from other fields, suggesting that architecture does best when it can manage complex input from a wide variety of professionals. To complicate things further, the design process itself became public through a series of charettes, presentations, conferences, and blog posts, all of which are archived—and worth looking through—

Rendering of Studio Gang Architects’ The Garden in the Machine project for Cicero, Illinois
Courtesy Studio Gang Architects

One of the strongest projects was New York firm WORKac’s “nature city” in Keizer, Oregon, which packed offices, food processing businesses, productive landscapes, a giant compost pile, and play spaces for both people and animals into a landscape of towers, trees, and townhomes. Wielding both program and form, the stunningly detailed model of the Nature City captivated viewers. A series of brief video advertisements by the advertising firm Weiden & Kennedy accompanied the model. The irony of the ads kept them from seeming market-ready, but WORKac nonetheless showed how much images and media must be mastered to construct desire for new suburban prototypes.

Architectural site plan model (left) and a rendering (right) for MOS’s Thoughts on a Walking City project for Orange, New Jersey.
James Ewing (left); Courtesy MOS (right)

Chicago-based Studio Gang admirably generated new spatial forms for suburbia and integrated these with financial mechanisms for making them affordable. Gang proposed restructuring the single-family house to accommodate a wider variety of family structures emerging in Cicero, Illinois, a diverse inner-ring suburb whose use is poorly aligned with its design. Studio Gang’s diagram rewriting zoning code for Cicero is one of the strongest statements in the show, demonstrating the degree to which legal changes are necessary for architects to do innovative work in the suburbs. Other parts of the proposal are more challenging. Gang suggests that people who can’t afford suburban single-family houses might instead occupy adaptively reused factories on remediated brownfields. It’s one thing for artists to choose to occupy potentially noxious former factories, as they did in SoHo in the ’70s, but another to imagine that Cicero’s poorer residents trade health for square footage.

Health is the explicit theme of New York City–based MOS’s proposal for a Walking City in The Oranges, New Jersey. Echoing ideas of the architectural avant-garde of the 1960s, MOS boldly suggests replacing all streets with buildings and walkways as a strategy to combat obesity, diabetes, and other bodily ailments associated with sedentary car-centered suburban lifestyles. But a latent theme of the project, made clear in a video rife with doubts about architecture’s claims to power, seemed to be the challenge of using architectural techniques to resolve larger and more complex behavioral and biological problems. Could architecture really achieve all that was asked of it by the show? MOS’s skepticism provided an important counterpoint to enthusiasm of the other projects.

A rendering (left) and an Architectural model (right) for WORKac’s Nature-City project for Keizer, Oregon.
Courtesy WORKac (left); James Ewing (right)

Such an ambitious show is bound to have weaknesses. The most glaring for me is that the exhibition is not really about the foreclosure crisis; instead, the crisis acts as an opportunity for architects to reclaim disciplinary territory ceded to other professions. Given that speculation is at the core of so many suburban challenges, what if we had seen post-speculative cities? It also would have been wonderful to see more work by people tackling these problems already: designers like Interboro Partners, Damon Rich or Teddy Cruz come to mind. Foreclosed features a lovely project by Cruz showing a crazy-quilt exurban house “designed” from residents’ dreams at the entrance of the show, but what would have happened if he’d been a sixth participant? And where were global suburbs? The projects produced for the show silently evoked China’s new eco-cities and the dense, walkable, transit-connected suburbs built in Europe during the 1970s. It would have been fascinating to see these precedents taken on more explicitly.

Foreclosed‘s great achievement is the strong signal it sends to the culture-consuming public: in two of our most important architectural institutions, there’s an ambition for architecture to take on a more socially and financially relevant role. This is exciting. It will be even more so if Foreclosed helps to create structures of legitimation and appreciation for much more ambitious attempts to take on these questions in practice.