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Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream at MoMA

New York’s Museum of Modern Art joins the conversation about the national financial/housing debacle

We’re supposed to do things big here in America. This is a big country with big ambitions that prides itself on big accomplishments. We put a man on the moon. We made a vaccine for polio. We invented the skyscraper. You should see what a roll of paper towels looks like over here. Huge, and also super-absorbent. We’re a special people.

In the housing department, our propensity for hugeness has not entirely accrued to our advantage. You are familiar, no doubt, with the many sins of the McMansion: tasteless design, environmental degradation, social divisiveness, dubious financing. Maybe we all couldn’t swing a McMansion, but for a while there it seemed like everyone had a mortgage on a dream house with a lawn out front and a two-car garage. It was our birthright, the American Dream, and it must have been true because we saw it on television, the government wrote it into law, and our banks didn’t object.

WORKac, Nature City

WORKac, Nature City

Of course it couldn’t last, and didn’t. With Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, the Museum of Modern Art joins the conversation about this national debacle. Those not paying close attention have seemed to mistake it for a standard architectural exhibition, and in their defence it does have some very swish models – this is MoMA, after all.

But this is not a show about form, in the old MoMA tradition. It is about shifting expectations, somewhat more challenging terrain. Its underlying thesis is something called the Buell Hypothesis, the product of Columbia University architecture students and faculty, that argues that the American dream must be reinvented wholesale for the 21st century. 

Studiogang, The garden in the machine

Studiogang, The garden in the machine

Taking this as its conceit, the show presents five case-study scenarios on how the American suburb might be reinvented, each the work of an architect-led team supported by experts in finance, housing and public policy. The resulting projects, for actual American suburbs, are predictably varied in practicality and architectural flare.

A proposal for an Oregon community designed around a compost mountain by the New York firm WORKac seemed especially daring. Chicago’s Jeanne Gang proposed the retrofitting of a derelict factory, and used it to piggyback an argument for better design and smarter financing options on the opinion page of the New York Times. Taken together, the projects would seem to suggest that the American suburbs should look a lot more like Europe, or really Holland. That is, they should be more dense, less dependent on the car, more flexible, and more environmentally friendly.

MOS architects, Thoughts on a Walking City, New Jersey

MOS architects, Thoughts on a Walking City, New Jersey

The response to this show has been almost overwhelmingly negative, which is unfortunate. The projects, so speculative in nature, have come in for a good deal of criticism, some of it valid, as to their practicability and humanity. More broadly, however, they have been attacked as condescending visions imposed on the suburbs by urban-dwelling architectural elites. The idea was to drum up discussion, not to breed polarisation.

In some ways, the show represents an about-face for MoMA, which only recently, with its Small Scale, Big Change exhibition of socially driven design projects, seemed to suggest that the days of large-scale projects are over. It should perhaps not be so surprising that a show with such a broad ambition – to change the very culture of the nation – might have difficulty finding traction. One might ask, even, if architecture is really a meaningful actor in this crisis. Just last week the Times reported that, with profits on the rise, American banks were once more investing in compromised mortgage securities. Here we go again …

Fact File

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 13 August

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