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Thoughts on MoMA's Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream

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"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."

-- Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

"yes i was wondering how I go about not lossing my house it has been in my wife's famlily for over a hundred years my wife was layed off the morgage company wouldnt talk to us because she was layed off and now we are so far behind we cant get cought up so now we are loosing our home is there help out there for me"

-- unedited comment from MoMA Foreclosed blog (2011)

In Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, part of MoMA's Issues in Contemporary Architecture series, five architects-in-residence and their interdisciplinary teams were challenged to "engage in a rethinking of housing and related infrastructures that could catalyze urban transformation." The investigation also sought to "begin a conversation," on the "recent" (though painfully ongoing) foreclosure crisis by examining suburban housing paradigms through five sample megaregions.

The workshop-exhibition was jointly organized by Barry Bergdoll, MoMA's Chief Curator of Architecture and Design and Reinhold Martin, Director of Columbia University's Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture.

The Buell Center also authored the document that would serve as the unofficial brief for the investigations. The Buell Hypothesis: Rehousing the American Dream (a forthcoming book) is premised on the theory that the culture of the American suburb is driven by a persistent historical fantasy. "What is, or was, this dream?" it asks.

The Hypothesis seems to have taken on the status of operating system, the underlying code for how to perceive and frame the "problem" of the suburbs. It's influence can be read in all the projects. But so can the influence of architecture as a discipline--being somewhat institutionally slanted toward envisioning the American suburb as an intellectual and spatial problem.

To be clear, the mission was not to solve the current foreclosure crisis. Instead, the teams were charged with catalyzing, rethinking, and conversing about it. And they were asked to do this on a massive conceptual scale. Given the enormity of the task, it's understandable if the architectural results are big. How could they not be?

This essay is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of the proposals. It is, rather, a way to begin a conversation about what the proposals could mean in a larger sense. When I first began following the progress of Foreclosed it prompted some basic questions: Does such bigness run the risk of replicating the big problems in other guises? Does the knowledge produced by those other interdisciplinary disciplines get obscured by the big architecture? How does architecture catalyze and coalesce information generated from other fields and then bring this to bear on spatial considerations? Do the proposals either enhance or meaningfully communicate the content produced by, say, economics, geography, history?

The paradox -- and the conundrum for the architects -- is that when the Buell Hypothesis is deployed as a theoretical basis, it becomes almost impossible to escape the trap of replicating the fantasy they are critiquing. Additionally, no matter how compelling the substitute fantasies may be, they run the risk of falling flat in the midst of the larger cultural moment going on outside MoMA's galleries [6]. So not only do these architects have to contend with addressing real problems, they must also responsibly navigate the terrain between the real and dream states set forth by the Hypothesis.

Foreclosure might then be viewed as a framework for re-envisioning the American Dream and architecture's role in that dream.

But really big plans give rise to contradictions. Their bigness and drama and complexity are also problematic, challenging, and even disturbing because they bring to the fore the drastic steps required to address current problems. You have no choice but to send Captain Willard upriver in a boat, to sanity's final station.

They demonstrate that we are still trying to comprehend and map what these suburban configurations are and how they can be constructively acted upon. Often viewed as a long-term degenerative disease that has afflicted America in its recent history, suburbs can have deep roots. While a city or town or neighborhood can be a teenager geographically, they are the result of processes that took hundreds of years to evolve, going back to the nation's earliest land experiments. Thus, they comprise part of the deep structure of American spatial culture and communicate via built form the psychologies of real estate and the economy.

Architecture is here seemingly offering shock therapy to shake us out of a supposed complacent acceptance of suburbs. Repeated shocks, when strategically applied to a stuttering confused middle and working class, can perhaps offer a cure. But is this the real audience? The general public? Or, are the proposals primarily for professional consumption, though in the guise social altruism? One might guess that had they been geared for the general public they might have maintained more of the present tense and exhibited less science fiction.

These totalizing impulses, common to architectural discourse, strive to encompass all possible contingencies by re-defining suburbia along the lines of dense ideal urbanities. Questions of audience aside, such gestures could be taken to be constructive. And, quite possibly, we need such gestures, the insinuation of the new (no matter how fantastic) in order to see our way to potentials hidden in the midst of what we are currently stuck with. Yet in this process, the inherent heterogeneity of suburbs become flattened. They become objects upon which total transformations are imposed.

The imposition of professional, taxonomical knowledge obscures the complex social, spatial, economic, and cultural aspects of these territories. The realities of the suburbs--their spatial and cultural resiliencies, their persistence (not to mention formal mechanisms of governance)--suggest that big plans cannot rule the day. Foreclosed can thus be contextualized in the history of urban renewal, slum clearance, public housing, and other such large-scale, top-down housing policies that have failed. History seems to demonstrate that micro-transformations, house by house, lot by lot, bottom-up renewal, will most likely define the limits of suburban change.

But projects that explicitly demonstrate a micro-incremental future still contained in the current suburban framework are not dramatic enough. Thus architecture tends to leap forward, unfettered by the constraints of process and history--even though ostensibly grounded in the interdisciplinary data.

As one example, MOS Architects (undoubtedly under the influence of The Buell Hypothesis) dismisses the street, the block, and the playground as spatial mythologies. They probably didn't mean it the way it sounds. However, as indicated earlier, their solution reaffirms the same trope by superimposing Constant's New Babylon-redux upon the old neighborhood--a new fantasy in place of the old.

While the issues posed by Foreclosed can be theorized at the scale of the neighborhood, the city, the megaregion, it is very possible that they cannot be solved at this scale. The proposals have to reclaim the specifics of heterogeneous and historical contexts--context that could only have arisen over long periods of time and cannot be replicated with a swiftly and dramatically articulated master plan.

In architecture we have become inured to the special effects of formal bigness and dramatic constructs. We have been trained to think in bold terms. Architectural history, after all, privileges the heroic, not the minor. Thus in Foreclosed, Architecture strives to surpass the ordinary. Thus many of these projects foregrounded the assumption that suburbs are just too boring, too pedestrian.

Do these towns really need the drama of design spectacle? What is the ontological value of the ordinary in contemporary architecture? Does architecture accept the consequences of alienating itself from everyday things? Maybe the interdisciplinary teams should have included a representative from the respective communities. Oh, but they don't know what they want or they want the wrong things. So, this would have caused trouble.

Of course, there are expectations for drama that come with anything associated with MoMA. These are proposals designed to stir audiences. What comes across in some of the videos, however, is a mixture of boredom and malaise. The bored might be the archi-geeks who have already seen such things in countless presentations. Those appearing baffled are probably members of the lay public wondering why architects are making such radical, disconnected proposals and why they have never seen anything like this out in the real world. To them, this is further evidence of the irrelevance of what architects have to offer in terms of solving real problems. Not good for marketing, that.

This is a shame because there are some valuable ideas. Ironically, most of those are contained in the boring data taken from economists and social scientists. Were the architects trying too diligently to spatialize the data? Though, coming from architecture, I can appreciate the designs, they also make me somewhat suspicious. The projects all seem to dissolve in their quest for mass solutions, broad connectivity, and constructed diversity. They might have succeeded more by discretely focusing on a few foreclosed properties rather than globalizing entire neighborhoods and megaregions. As unsettling as the damage the financial crisis has wrought on the fabric of dwelling in America, the distance these proposals travel away from what caused these foreclosures is equally unsettling.

Thus for example, would people really favor cooperative over individual ownership, or is that being proposed because one proposal assumes the American Dream is already gone? Is the detached dwelling on a postage stamp lot to be done away with for sustainability reasons or is it simply a case of detached homes being conceived of and sited in the wrong ways? Should we all be farming, riding bikes, and taking light rail? This doesn't take into account patterns of employment and assumes people can afford to live close to where they work. One of the dominant forces that drove the suburbs was affordability, not just a flight from urban congestion, pollution, and crime. People keep moving further and further out because of the lure of ownership that is affordable, not because they are necessarily escaping something. To make any of these proposals tenable the economic system that has been eroded for the last thirty years has to be re-built. That dirty word, socialism, could get them off the ground!

The path to rehousing the American Dream is going to be a long and winding road of economic and political adjustment. The spatial ambitions shown in the architectural proposals do not represent the suburbs as we know them, but this is the point. They do, however, begin to indicate how the suburbs and property could be re-imagined. As for rehousing. That has to be deferred, yet again. In the meantime, construction indicators show lots of new apartment developments going up.

The Foreclosed exhibition runs from February 15 to July 30, 2012.

A version of this article previously appeared on Archinect.com.