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"Foreclosed" Reopens the American Dream

At New York's Museum of Modern Art, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream proposes five solutions to the disconnect between the housing Americans need and the housing America offers.

By Fred A. Bernstein

This article originally appeared on Architectural Record.

February 16, 2012
Image courtesy Studio Gang Architects
Rendering of Studio Gang Architects' The Garden in the Machine project for Cicero, Illinois. Click on the slide show button to view additional images.

At 2,500 square feet, The Museum of Modern Art’s Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery, site of the exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, is about the size of the average suburban house. But while that may be too much square footage for the typical family, it is too little for a show this rich. MoMA should consider rehousing “Rehousing.”

The theme of the show, which opens February 15 and runs through July 30, is the disconnect between the housing Americans need and the housing America offers. It opens with an installation by Estudio Teddy Cruz on the absurdities of the McMansion. From there, it turns to presenting new options for America’s inner-ring suburbs, overlooked by developers and abandoned by the affluent for more urban, or more rural, locations.

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Foreclosed had its origins in a research project initiated by Reinhold Martin in 2009. Martin, who directs the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, wondered whether the foreclosure crisis could have a silver lining, by giving Americans reason to rethink one of the most impractical (and wasteful) aspects of the American dream. That, he argued, could lead to the proliferation of new housing types that blur lines between public and private spaces. With Anna Kenoff and Leah Meisterlin, he produced a book, the Buell Hypothesis, last year.

Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, saw an opportunity to test the hypothesis and at the same time create another exhibition in his series of issue-oriented architecture shows. (The last was Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement in 2010.) He and Martin commissioned five architecture firms to tackle the problems of specific suburbs identified in the “Hypothesis” as crying out for reinvention. The architects assembled teams that included not just the usual suspects (landscape architects, structural engineers) but also economists, community activists, journalists, climate scientists, and in one case, advertising gurus, who created TV commercials for a reinvented suburb outside Portland.

That proposal is by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WORKac, for a section of Keizer, Oregon that would be five times as dense as neighboring suburbs, but with three times as much open space. A gorgeous, dome-shaped structure contains a community composting plant. Around it are buildings that recall the best work of Steven Holl, Bjarke Ingels, and MVRDV. One imagines a developer seeing Andraos and Wood’s elaborate 1:250 model, depicting a gently futuristic suburb, and wanting to break ground tomorrow.

The other star of the exhibition is Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect. She and her teammates tackled the problems of Cicero, an older Chicago suburb that is filled with rotting industrial facilities but not the kind of housing needed by its large immigrant population. They decided to play to Cicero’s strengths, as what Gang calls an “arrival city,” by creating modular housing that can go up or down in size as families evolve. They also reclaimed industrial facilities as gardens and, like most of the teams, came up with an unconventional financing scheme. Like the very different WORKac proposal, Gang’s Cicero proposal seems practically shovel-ready, even though, as she pointed out in a New York Times op-ed, it remains illegal under Chicago’s zoning code.

The most provocative idea in the show may belong to MOS—the firm headed by Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample—which focuses on East Orange, New Jersey. The plan acknowledges the lack of pedestrian life in today’s suburbs and reclaims the streets themselves as building sites. That allows increased density without the need to demolish existing housing. But if the idea is strong, details, of what the “ribbon” buildings” would look like and how they would function, are sparse.

Less developed is the plan by Michael Bell and Eunjeong Song to revamp parts of Temple Terrace, Florida, near Tampa. The models and renderings are colorless—if the goal was to avoid tropical clichés, the architects succeeded. Andrew Zago went to the other extreme, covering the houses in his proposed development (part of Rialto, California) in patterning so bold, it recalls the work of Ettore Sottsass at the giddy height of Memphis. One extraordinary rendering appears to have been printed out of register (so that colors overlap in unexpected ways), symbolizing the desired blurring of lines between public and private property.

The Buell Hypothesis—that the American dream is big enough to encompass more than one housing paradigm—gets a big boost from MoMA. One leaves the show with newfound optimism about what architecture can do. As Wood put it in an interview with this writer, “Somehow the American dream became about houses in the suburbs. That’s not the real American dream—the real American dream is about imagining a better future.”

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