It’s not news to anyone that the suburbs have become increasingly unsustainable on various levels. But when subprime mortgage lending went off the rails four years ago, the dream of private home ownership was no longer realistic, and, to some degree, no longer desired.
Not much has changed since then, other than a palpable awareness that design might be able to fix things. In recent years various books, films and masterplans have appeared that imagine a new suburbia filled with greenery, sustainable energy sources, and higher-density neighbourhoods that champion mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly streets.
All these virtues, and others, make their appearance within the five projects presented as part of the ambitious exhibition now on view at the MoMA in New York, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream.
Curator Barry Bergdoll invited five prominent U.S. firms to re-imagine an existing region that has been hit hard by foreclosures and unemployment: Studio Gang Architects in Cicero, Illinois; WORKac in The Oranges, New Jersey; Zago Architecture in Railto, California; MOS in Keizer, Oregon; and Visible Weather in Temple Terrace, Florida.
The firms were further informed by The Buell Hypothesis, a study published by Columbia University that argues that if you change the dream, you change the city. In other words, if private housing is no longer the goal, the process of redirecting suburban sprawl can begin.
While each of the proposed master plans outline solutions – such as increasing density to help reduce energy consumption – there are distinct differences between them. Studio Gang proposes a housing system that allows spaces to expand or contract as needed. As couples become families, they can add rooms, for instance. And mixed-use zoning would allow for a more flexible integration of commercial and residential space – a combination that’s currently illegal in Illinois.
MOS proposes a system of “portable mortgages, where ownership isn’t tied to a particular space.” And rather than tearing down the old and building new, it suggests an in-fill approach, where new and old structures coexist: streets of traditional single-family houses are juxtaposed with the new ribbons of development.
Each project touches on the complexities that come with changing entire tracts of land into new enterprises. They also reveal how massive, and potentially myopic, new ideas can be.
Last week, Diane Lind, editor in chief of Next American City, wrote in her op-ed column that Foreclosed “seethes with disdain for the suburbs and a lack of an empathetic understanding of how the suburbs function and are changing. Ultimately [it] makes the exhibit look less visionary than ignorant.”
She notes that the architects are all urban dwellers themselves. “We need to stop demonizing the suburbs,” she writes, “and start recognizing that we are all in this together. Is it better to annihilate suburbia or perfect it?”
In a review of the show in Metropolis, titled “MoMA Misses by 99%,” Byran Bell concludes that the projects are disconnected to reality with very little on-the-ground research informing them. “The exhibit takes design back 10 years… We’ve returned to top-down architecture by star architects and curators who do such things as divide the country into five regions, reminiscent of King Charles II,” writes Bell.
Finding solutions for post-suburbia is one of the most critical issues facing North America and this exhibition, not surprisingly, has touched a nerve with observers well versed with the pitfalls of pie-in-the-sky planning. With or without its contentious POVs, Foreclosed has nonetheless opened a timely and critically-loaded discourse to broader audiences.
Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dreams is on at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and runs until July 30.