Art (not) imitating life: MoMA hosts foreclosure-themed exhibit

July 26, 2012

The long-awaited recovery in the housing market could finally be taking shape, some economists believe. Housing starts are up. Home sales have risen from their cyclical lows. Inventory levels are down sharply from cyclical highs. Builder sentiment is gradually improving.

But should developers, architects, marketers and financiers just hit the restart button and repeat the patterns that led to the U.S. foreclosure crisis? According to the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” the answer is no.

Instead of letting the recent crisis go to waste, the MoMA’s Architecture and Design Department and Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture created some dynamic new architectural visions to address the needs of American communities.

“Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” was jointly conceived and organized by Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator for architecture and design, and Buell Center Director Reinhold Martin.

The project asked five teams of architects – including members with expertise in economics, finance, housing, and public policy – to think in new ways about relationships among land, housing, infrastructure, urban form, and public spaces. Bergdoll told Reuters in an interview:

The financial and foreclosure crisis was such a psychic shock that it created the perfect moment to have this discussion.


Before the crisis, the ubiquitous American Dream image being marketed to people was the suburban house of the 1950s — living in the perpetual hereafter of television.

When the rumbling financial and foreclosure crises disturbed that dream, a new conversation became possible, Bergdoll said. Topics and ideas that had been “‘foreclosed’ by the housing boom, could be re-opened” after the bust.

While cities have been the traditional focus for people who want to change what is built and how land is used, the MoMA exhibit examines the dilemmas of the older suburbs that ring cities, and which developers have long left behind in order to build bigger houses farther and farther from the urban core.

Those older suburbs are poorer and more diverse than what many people envision when they think of suburbia. In 2010, poverty in suburbs reached its highest level since the Census Bureau began recording income statistics in 1967.

And in another “extraordinary reversal,” immigrants tend to go straight to suburbia, bypassing the traditional urban ports of entry, Bergdoll said.

The 1950s and 1960s vision of suburbia has nothing to do with current reality; ethnically, racially, and in terms of family composition, 21st century suburbs are often every bit as diverse as cities.

For the “Foreclosed” project, five sites – near New York; Chicago; Tampa; Los Angeles; and Portland – were chosen for characteristics associated with the international financial downturn: significant foreclosure rates and ample, publicly held land available for development.

The five interdisciplinary teams of architects – led by principals at MOS Architects, Studio Gang, WORKac, Visible Weather, and Zago Architecture – were each assigned a site within a U.S. mega-region. The teams spent time in their assigned megaregions, visiting potential sites for intervention, meeting with local residents and officials, and considering what type of architectural program would respond to the local needs and realities of the existing population. Then they developed proposals to address the issue of foreclosure in each area, based on ideas drawn from The Buell Hypothesis, which rethinks housing and infrastructure in ways that could transform American suburbs.

Each team engaged in a cross-disciplinary conversation, analyzing and eventually imagining the redesign of their specific sites, from older East Coast suburbs with rail connections to newer subdivisions accessible only by highway. As a result, the proposals developed for the five sites provide radically different visions of a rethought suburbia.

The proposal for Cicero, Illinois, responds to the need of multigenerational housing for new immigrants. Added Bergdoll:

In the housing boom, people bought ‘product,’ something generic, instead of saying, ‘This house has to work for my family and my grandmother and also my cousins who are coming from Honduras.’

The proposal for Temple Terrace, Florida, calls for a new financial structure that transfers ownership of land from private developers back to the taxpayers, and proposes a reconvening of the town meeting as a forum.

We want to question the model of private-public partnerships. With the crisis in local governments and their budget deficits, there’s an enormous temptation to sell public land to private developers.

But if a municipality sold the use of the land without the land itself, “more of the realized value of the land would go for public purposes rather than private wealth,” he said.

The exhibition’s model for East Orange, New Jersey (seen as it currently is below) suggests transforming public streets into mixed-use ribbon buildings.

The installation for Keizer, Oregon, seeks to increase the density of the city to increase the public’s access to nature.

The Rialto, California proposal adds variety to the existing identical large-scale housing system.

At the center of the exhibition are models, drawings, renderings, animations, and analytical materials produced by the five teams developed during the workshop period. Says Bergdoll:

Our hope is that with the slow recovery of the economy, we wouldn’t go back to business as usual; that people would say they want a ‘new normal’ and would come back and invest in the resources of those inner suburbs in a rational way instead of adding another layer of unsustainable fat at the edge of a metropolitan region.

In the forward to the exhibit’s catalogue, MoMA director Glenn Lowry says it is fitting that the museum should present these new formulations since 80 years ago, the museum’s “‘Modern Architecture; International Exhibition’ not only promoted the aesthetic principles of the International Style but … advocated housing reform in the slums of New York and other cities as the effects of the worldwide economic depression began to make themselves profoundly felt.”

There’s still time to see “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York before it closes on August 13.

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