Crystal Bridges Museum debuts five house prototypes that take on Northwest Arkansas’s housing crisis

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Crystal Bridges Museum debuts five house prototypes that take on Northwest Arkansas’s housing crisis

Totem House: Histories of Negation by StudioSUMO is among the five prototypes designed by architects on display in Architecture at Home at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Stephen Ironside/Courtesy Crystal Bridges)

Architecture at Home
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Bentonville, Arkansas
On view until November

Architecture at Home is the inaugural architecture exhibition of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Curated by Dylan Turk, the exhibition consists of five 500 square-foot house prototypes designed by architects from out of state. The installations, which are built along the scenic Orchard Trail leading down to the museum entrance, bask in the natural light filtered through a forest of Ozark shortleaf pines, and speak to the concept of home, innovative materials, and the role of housing in Northwest Arkansas. “[Architects] that work here are bound to local politics and can only say so much without influencing their projects,” Turk told AN. “How are we going to be critical? Not in a negative sense, but in a way that helps us unpack the problem.” To evaluate Architecture at Home’s meaningful contribution to this discussion, let’s first unpack the problem.

Two things are important to note: (1) As with the U.S. as a whole, Northwest Arkansas is facing serious housing shortages and (2) the economic impact of the Walton family cannot be overstated. The Waltons are behind virtually every major project in the region, including Home Office, Walmart’s new 350-acre corporate headquarters (with an estimated price of $1 billion). The burgeoning region has been named a “Millennial wonderworld” and “the next Austin” largely thanks to creative recruiting incentives and the capital investments of the Walton Family Foundation in cultural amenities and public infrastructure.

In the past 20 years, Northwest Arkansas has tripled in population from approximately 100,000 to 300,000. It’s estimated to reach nearly 1 million by 2045. This has created immense pressure on the availability and affordability of housing. In Benton and Washington counties, the current average home sales price is $390,305. That’s 23 percent lower than the national average, but using Zillow’s affordability calculator, a $390,000 home price requires an annual gross income of around $100,000 (assuming the federal guideline of reserving 30 percent gross income for housing). The Federal National Mortgage Association reports the area median income is $73,200, and 80 percent of that is $58,560. This means that nearly 80 percent of the population makes only half the income required to afford the average home price in Northwest Arkansas.

wood housing prototype
House of Trees : City of Trees by LEVENBETTS (Stephen Ironside/Courtesy Crystal Bridges)
translucent housing prototype
Infinite Openness by Perez Palacios Arquitectos Asociados (PPAA) (Stephen Ironside/Courtesy Crystal Bridges)

Regionally, higher density is the main approach to accommodating this widespread growth. And density is important, but inequity and ecosystem loss will continue to accompany this growth unless the region confronts its crisis of wealth and class inequality. And that’s the point of Architecture at Home. Each installation represents alternative forms of habitation that act both as a process of revision and critique of the planning policies, financing regulations, and land acquisition practices that pose barriers to homeownership for marginalized and working people.

Totem House: Histories of Negation by Yolande Daniels and Sunil Bald of New York City-based StudioSUMO recovers lost narratives of displacement and removal of Black and Indigenous people in Northwest Arkansas. Their prototype is a cluster of four totem-like constructions made from lattices of hardwood that support sheets of plywood. This plywood is a kind of narrative sheathing, with timelines of colonial expansion and forced expulsions CNC-engraved into its surface.

Not My HUD House by Chris Cornelius of Albuquerque-based studio: indigenous is a reflection on Cornelius’s childhood home on the Wisconsin Oneida Indian Reservation, designed and built by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to house Indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to reservations. His prototype is a critique of HUD’s culturally inadequate homes. He addresses this issue by designing a system of spatial triangulations that reflects the cultural values of the Oneida Indian Nation by forming connections to the earth, sky, water, fire, and animal life.

housing protype constructed with various scrap materials
Not My HUD House by studio:indigenous (Stephen Ironside/Courtesy Crystal Bridges)

House of Trees: City of Trees by Stella Betts and David Leven of New York City–based LEVENBETTS implement their cross-laminated timber prototype as an increment of affordable housing development in Bentonville’s Third Historic District. They propose a zoning variance that introduces shared courtyards to interconnect private residential lots, projecting a new planning policy that unites community with nature.

Untitled by Fernanda Oppermann and Jose Herrasti of Los Angeles–based MUTUO sparks creative thinking around homeownership and inclusivity. They were inspired by their friend Abraham, a homebuilder and immigrant from Mexico who finds himself barred from the U.S. housing system. Its plywood walls and off-the-shelf metal framing system are left intentionally incomplete to prompt questions like, “what underlying housing issues are not being discussed? What would make it possible for Abraham and his family to own a home?”

red housing prototype with concrete blocks
Untitled by MUTUO (Stephen Ironside/Courtesy Crystal Bridges)

Infinite Openness by Pablo Perez of Mexico City-based Perez Palacios Arquitectos Asociados (PPAA) is made from aluminum I–beams infilled with translucent danpalon panels, which creates dazzling refractions of natural light and color. While aluminum and plastic are high in embodied carbon, Infinite Openness imagines a lifestyle based on reducing consumption through minimizing interior space, utilizing smaller appliances, and having fewer possessions.

Looming over these installations is Buckminster Fuller’s 50-foot-tall Fly’s Eye Dome, reinstalled at Crystal Bridges in 2015. In many ways, Fly’s Eye Dome is a foil to the surrounding prototypes. Whereas Fuller’s dome is a generic shell for numerous social scenarios, the new prototypes reimagine specific social relationships as the basis for alternative forms of housing.

sphere sculpture with holes
Fly’s Eye Dome by Buckminster Fuller (Stephen Ironside/Courtesy Crystal Bridges)

Through projects such as Crystal Bridges itself, the Waltons have contributed more to providing access to art and culture than in any other sector of society in Northwest Arkansas. Yet their embeddedness in the region’s housing industry via banks, employment, and real estate ventures presents many contradictions. For example, one of Architecture at Home’s main sponsors is Engel & Völkers, a luxury real estate company. The museum’s website acknowledges that Architecture at Home cannot single-handedly solve housing insecurity, but its prototypes address a problem even deeper than that. They demonstrate how the design of housing can adapt to the diverse social and cultural needs of contemporary domestic life, rather than to exclusive market forces. Or as Turk says, “It refocuses the issue of housing on people. We need a conversation that allows for housing to be thought of in a broader sense, and each firm has said that in their own way.”

Architecture at Home will run through November 7, 2022.

Paul Mosley is an assistant professor in architecture/urban design at Kent State.