In the mythologized version of recent American history -- which is to say, the part where the suburbs devolved from the wholesome backdrop for family life into ground zero for a devastating foreclosure crisis -- we essentially got what we asked for.
Americans demanded gleaming houses on individual squares of lawn far removed from urban centers, and the people who finance and construct real estate delivered the goods. This is how we wound up with expanding rings of suburban sprawl orbiting every metropolitan area. This is how we turned ever-larger swaths of open space into grids of look-alike homes, the inventory that came to be tinder for the foreclosure inferno. The developers, bankers, salespeople and their government enablers were merely working to satisfy a public craving.
But the real estate bubble was in fact an orgy of profiteering run by and for the benefit of special interests that stuck the public with the cleanup. Investment banks poured money into housing because mortgages had become raw materials for a lucrative business churning out mortgage-backed securities. Homebuilders carved acreage into subdivisions far in excess of demand because money was free and volume was good for share prices. Money was free because the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low while Fannie and Freddie kept guaranteeing mortgages. Land was accessible because the government expanded highways and subsidized gas prices.
Yes, this constellation of industry and government did cater to a genuine American inclination toward single-family housing, a spirit that has delivered millions of families to the suburbs for generations. But the contours and scale of the suburbia that has in recent times emerged has been shaped less by the appetites of ordinary people than the business models of the institutions that have profited through constructing a calamitous bubble.
This basic idea -- that our suburbs are the product not of the free market, but of conditions tailored to enrich bankers and homebuilders -- is the jumping off point for a sorely needed exhibit now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream."
The exhibit (which runs through August 13) is an architectural meditation on how we might rejuvenate communities that have been assailed by overbuilding and calamity. It unfolds as an examination of possible ways to refashion places hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, focusing on communities located near New York City, Chicago, Tampa, Fla., Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. Along the way, it grapples with a much broader and crucial set of questions: How can we reclaim housing and urban planning for the benefit of regular people? How can we make more efficient use of limited public goods -- energy, water, land and tax dollars -- while producing pleasing homes in proximity to jobs, shops and recreation? How can we shift from churning out houses engineered chiefly as tradable commodities to instead produce housing in the public interest?
The result of this thinking is on display in the form of a provocative series of plans and models for the five sites. Collectively, they illustrate the innovative capacities of modern architecture, offering an antidote to the dispiriting sensation that the American landscape seems irretrievably destined to become a monochromatic blur of ranch houses, strip malls and glass-fronted office parks -- a sensation that finds reinforcement on the edges of seemingly every decent-sized city.
At a site in Keizer, Ore., the New York architectural firm WORKac reimagines a nature city -- a dense complex of town houses and a high-rise apartment tower built of arresting angles and curves, set amid Douglas fir and oak forests with corridors for wildlife. An internal mountain of waste yields compost, heat for public outdoor swimming pools, and methane that generates electricity via fuel cells.
In Cicero, Ill., Studio Gang Architects envisions turning an abandoned factory site into a cluster of shops and apartments, with housing units than can be reconfigured in modular fashion, allowing families to expand or shrink their living space as their needs change.
None of these designs is likely to be built, and their individual merits and aesthetic appeal are largely beside the point. The point is the exercise that produced them: setting aside the conditions that have constrained our housing choices -- applicable zoning, traditional ownership structures and standard financial models -- to imagine what communities could become were architects free to consider only fruitful living and the best usage of resources.
The exhibit is at root an attempt to exploit the trauma at hand -- a foreclosure crisis that has swept through suburbs with malevolent force -- as an opportunity to reexamine the conditions that got us here. For decades, homebuilders and their financiers marketed an appealing version of the American dream, the idea that nourishing family life plays out in new single-family homes, the trophies of upward mobility. That vision has gone cancerous. We are wasting hours in traffic and dollars on gasoline. We are squandering land on individual lots that could be used as broader green space. Government is surrendering vast sums to maintain highways when it could repurpose that money toward energy-efficient mass transit.
The aim, says Barry Bergdoll, the museum's chief curator of architecture and design, is to use the crisis to change American housing by altering American aspirations, replacing the propensity for sprawl with an updated appreciation for denser living.
"What we really hoped to do was enter into the window of opportunity in which the clichés of development, of laying out new subdivisions across greenfields and sprawling out, no longer seemed to be part of the fulfillment of a dream, but has come to seem like a problem," Bergdoll told me. "We don't want to show the best ways that architects can solve problems under existing conditions. We want to question those existing conditions and change the boundaries of what is possible."
The design for the Oranges in New Jersey, a collection of New York City suburbs, proposes eliminating many public streets and filling them in with angular apartment blocks, office spaces and retail shops set smack against existing single-family homes, yielding a concentrated walking city anchored by rail connections to New York City. Much of the new development would be dedicated to public housing. Properties would be sold using "portable" mortgages that separate the right to live in the community from claims on specific units, making it easier for people to move without buying and selling as their family composition changes.
Many people may be put off by the concept of living in such close confines. Many will resist the elimination of streets as an unimaginable inconvenience. But the drawing is less a literal prescription than a critique of existing conditions. The thinkers at MOS Architects have forced us to examine how maintaining those streets, many forlorn, has sapped municipal finances. They have compelled us to consider how our mortgage model effectively transfers wealth from households to financial institutions by requiring that we engage in expensive real estate transaction to move.
Most of the proposals on display would not be allowed under existing conditions. Zoning codes often require the separation of industrial and residential developments -- a legacy of efforts to protect households from the environmental hazards of smokestacks. But these restrictions now spawn modern environmental ills as people drive greater distances between home to work, spewing pollution. Our legal and financial apparatus is resistant to vague lines of ownership. This is the central insight of the exhibit: The rules at play are depriving us of potential solutions to our problems.
The Cicero plan may be the most intriguing, because it is crafted for a community that holds large numbers of recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America. We may tend to think of the suburbs as an expression of inclinations to break free of the city and get closer to nature, but these residents are generally not motivated by urban escape fantasies: They want to be closer to jobs and they want the opportunity to start businesses, and want access to good schools for their children and decent housing at an affordable price. For them, separating residential and commercial life is an inconvenience and a hardship, a relic of housing policy best relinquished.
A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Chattanooga, Tenn., where limited mass transit is exacerbating unemployment. People who are out of work and who can't afford cars are effectively stranded, unable to reach many jobs. The resulting story provoked an outpouring of comments, many of them sharply judgmental: These people who needed to ride the bus were losers depending upon a government program to get to work, some declared, in contrast to those of us with cars, who can take pride in being in charge of our own destinies, the very models of self-reliance.
This is powerful mythology, the sort of free enterprise fantasy talk that has turned public coffers into corporate welfare for bankers and homebuilders. The roads got there because of a government program, one that has subsidized debilitating suburban sprawl.
We need another housing boom. This was my takeaway from this inspiring exhibit. Not another boom that redistributes wealth from middle class families to financial executives while sapping public coffers, but one that works in reverse, yielding reinvigorated communities built to last, adapt and thrive.