Just inside the entrance to the MoMA exhibition, Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, a video shows men yanking wooden frames out of brick walls and hammering materials into place, providing a glimpse into the ‘tool-houses’ of Mumbai’s urban settlements that mix live-work functions. A passing viewer commented to his companion while shaking his head, “Look at that, they have to build everything by hand. Can you imagine how much work that takes?” This visceral response—a mixture of marvel and estrangement—encapsulates the conundrum of an exhibit showcasing tactical urbanism scenarios in six global cities. Who exactly does the work of tactical urbanism? And what can the architect or designer accomplish in these constantly shifting urban milieus?
Uneven Growth is the third in a series of architectural shows at the MoMA that positions the museum as an incubator of new ideas rather than a reactive repository of culture. Like the two preceding shows in the series, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, and Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, the exhibit is intended to address urgent contemporary issues while testing the boundaries of design thinking. In focusing on urban inequality in the face of ecological crisis and intense population pressure, this show is perhaps the most ambitious in its scale.
However, rather than ask designers to propose complete solutions, the exhibit is framed by the parameters of tactical urbanism—a broad movement that relies on small-scale, low-cost interventions intended to catalyze long-term social change. Rather than projects, the exhibition presents design scenarios and speculative proposals that showcase an architecture that is always in-progress. Six teams were tasked with six cities: Hong Kong, Istanbul, Lagos, Mumbai, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. The interdisciplinary teams paired design practices with research institutes, as well as local practices with international ones. A 14-month process of research and design, which included public workshops and three face-to-face meetings in New York, Shenzhen, and Vienna, have resulted in the exhibition, book, and a Tumblr website collecting crowd submissions.
In the book that accompanies the exhibit, curator Pedro Gadanho takes care to emphasize tactical urbanisms in the plural, to move away from one particular interpretation of the concept and include a broader array of interventions by actors, including specialists like designers and even the state itself. Indeed, the exhibition is a compressed microcosm of scenarios that vary greatly in scale, time horizon, and feasibility. The experience is not unlike that of wandering down a chaotic urban street in an unspecified era, with the voice of Marxist geographer David Harvey making pronouncements in one corner while dance music from Brazil animates another, video kiosks planted against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling images.
Startling projections of the future, such as that asserted in the New City Reader newspaper created by the Network Architecture Lab, are juxtaposed against more quotidian interventions that can be implemented tomorrow, such as the creation of a post-urban development agency in Istanbul’s outer-ring housing complexes that operates like many localized social networking apps in existence today, proposed by Superpool and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée NLE in Paris. A few projects are multi-scalar in their approach, such as the work of URBZ in Mumbai and Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab, which proposed lightweight, flexible structures that can add on to existing homes and large “Supraextructures” which serve as “flying carpet” platforms for development of urban infrastructure.
Other projects veer into the territory of industrial design and rely more firmly on designing architectural objects. The proposal by Rua Arquitetos and MAS Urban Design for Rio de Janeiro is Varanda Products, a line of objects designed for easy installation on Rio’s puxadinhos, or add-on structures. This project envisions that the widespread use of such furniture and small-scale objects will enhance social interaction. The Lagos team, constituted by NLE in Lagos and Zoohaus/Inteligencias Colectivas from Madrid, takes a distinctly infrastructural approach, proposing a variety of urban prototypes that take as their starting point the city center located in water, with energy systems off the grid, connected by light rail and cable car systems.
If there is a theme that brings together many of the projects, it is the forwarding of more collective models of ownership, housing, and infrastructure. Many projects find opportunity for this in unused and vacant spaces, proposing rooftops, apartment landings, and unused air rights as avenues to expand the street and generate funds for community assets. Few projects are as comprehensive as the work proposed by Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra) and SITU Studio, both of which focused on New York’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis. Proposing Housing Cooperative Trusts and Community Growth Corporations, respectively, these projects integrate policy, political, and financial mechanisms to create housing and public resources in ways that seem very pragmatic, and in the case of the housing cooperative trust, are initiatives already set in motion by the housing justice community in New York City.
While the exhibit succeeds in presenting an expanded realm of practice for architects far beyond the design of buildings and physical spaces, it is less clear whether these designs are innovative or catalytic. The wildly speculative series of artificial islands proposed by MAP office for Hong Kong make a number of claims about the kind of spaces needed to relieve Hong Kong’s population and ecological crises, but it is not clear how these islands move beyond the realm of legend, or differ from the much-criticized strategy of urban expansion in Dubai and other cities in the Gulf region.
It is also easy to lose sight of the central preoccupation with urban inequality that spurred this process of inquiry in the first place. The potentially insurgent spirit of tactical urbanism is flattened when, for example, the Eko Atlantic project in Lagos, a privatized urban district in development, is presented as an opportunity area and a model for inspiration. It is also possible to envision that some of the projects, like the work of the Mumbai and Rio teams, remains confined to the level of local improvements, enhancing people’s everyday lives but never building the potential to disrupt the status quo.
While opportunities have been unearthed in vacant and unused spaces, who or what groups will determine those new configurations of resources and infrastructure? Whose priorities and desires will be met? When a proposal relies on the entrepreneurial spirit of city residents, will it be the most disadvantaged residents who will farm, trade, and construct these new environments?
The paradox of tactical urbanism as a category of practice is that it recognizes a subset of people who are enacting strategies for urban intervention that millions of people make everyday around the world in pursuit of survival, livelihood, and community exchange without any recognition. With this exhibit, it appears the jury is still undecided on the potential of tactical urbanism to scale up to the urgent urban problems facing us today.