Perhaps a side effect of the downturn in the housing market in recent years is a willingness to think boldly about a new future for American suburbs. “Foreclosed,” a new exhibit at MoMA, proposes several solutions:
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…
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…
Inner-ring suburbs are in need of some solutions as they often face big-city problems without the resources or attention they need to truly innovate.
Now the trick is to try to implement one of these options. (See some images here.) While it is interesting to consider what might be done, it would be useful to ask the architects about how they would go about putting these plans into action in particular suburbs. What would suburban governments and residents approve? Where would the funding come from? A prominent composting plant? Gang’s plan requires changing a lot of zoning laws? Looking at some of the comments to this story, there is some skepticism. If these designs are in a museum, is the exhibit intended to be more art or practical design?
Also, I always wonder about the assumption that better design will automatically lead to population, cultural, and economic revival. In other words, if you adopt these new methods, your suburb will improve. Alas, these things don’t come with money-back guarantees.