How Naperville can present its suburban sprawl in its proposed bicentennial museum

Naper Settlement officials suggested they want to build a museum for the city’s 200th birthday:

Naperville’s 200th birthday is still about 16 years away, but Naper Settlement officials already are thinking about what the city should give itself to mark the occasion.

Their answer is Scott’s Block, a history museum made to look like a downtown building that existed between 1854 and 1975 as a bank and a gathering hall.

Imagined as a 31,000-square-foot museum to be built on the Naper Settlement campus at 523 S. Webster St., Scott’s Block would give Naperville’s historical stewards space to tell stories beginning with the city’s founding era in the 1830s. Stories of war heroes, women business leaders, even iconic ice cream shops could be displayed in the new space the settlement hopes to build in time for Naperville’s bicentennial in 2031, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, president and CEO…

Scott marked the nation’s 100th anniversary by building a gathering place, and the city marked its first 100 years in 1931 with the creation of Centennial Beach. Next for the city’s 150th anniversary came the Riverwalk, and Tamayo-Calabrese says now it’s time to think about what should commemorate the 200th year…

Having additional space would let the settlement bring many of the 55,000 artifacts it has in storage out for all to see in themed exhibits that could rotate throughout the year.

Naper Settlement primarily emphasizes the city’s early decades after the community was founded in the early 1830s. While these are important years, Naperville was quite small until after World War II. It is since then that the community grew to over 140,000 people and over 35 square miles. The Naperville of today is built on some of these early decisions but looks quite different now. So, what could Naper Settlement present about this era? I offer three key things Naperville residents and leaders like to discuss and one other feature that might be a bit harder to present:

1. The role of Harold Moser, known as “Mr. Naperville.” Moser ended up building dozens of subdivisions as the city expanded. The first major one was Moser Highlands just to the southeast of downtown. Moser was also involved in the community, giving lots of money and serving in a variety of roles.

2. The opening of Bell Labs in the mid 1960s just northwest of the intersection of Naperville and Warrenville Roads. The East-West Tollway opened in 1958 and Bell Labs announced the construction of a large facility in 1964. The arrival of high-tech white-collar jobs helped kick off a boom in such positions in Naperville. Today, the city is home to a number of notable companies.

3. The construction of the Riverwalk about the DuPage River. This park was part of a mid-1970s plan to help revive Naperville’s downtown that was facing stiff competition from areas like the newly-opened Fox Valley Mall (where the developer had sided with Aurora rather than Naperville). Volunteers and civic groups helped put together the first small stretch and the Riverwalk has expanded since then. It is a lively attraction during the summer and helped bring people and businesses to the downtown.

4. The one feature that might be harder to present because it doesn’t emphasize a particular person or event is the willingness of Naperville to annex land. After World War II, many suburbs across the United States had opportunities to expand. Naperville truly pursued this, annexing multiple large chunks and expanding to the north to encompass land around the interstate (capturing some of this white-collar job growth) and particularly to the south and west until finally running into other communities (Aurora in the 1970s, others in the early 2000s). One of the remarkable features of Naperville is its size and wealth; few communities its size have its level of wealth, good jobs, low crime, and low poverty.

Further discussion of MoMa’s “Foreclosure” exhibit

A few months ago, we wrote a couple of times about the “Foreclosed” exhibit at MoMa (see here and here). Here is an extended “roundtable debate” about the exhibit and a paragraph of argument from the four participants:

It is equally interesting, and maybe troubling, that the overwhelming majority of the projects did not take up practices of participatory design that also date back to the 1970s and even earlier. Still, it is worth noting that the more recent codification of “bottom-up” approaches to housing, particularly in Latin America, has coincided with neoliberal “structural adjustment” in the global economy. In the case of sites-and-services and other models of user-generated, low-income housing — in which municipalities provide only minimal financing and basic infrastructure (e.g., water, electricity, sanitation) and depend upon residents to construct their own shelter — this has often meant, among other things, offloading the material cost of that housing onto the backs of already dispossessed residents. This reality in no way delegitimizes vital efforts to empower residents in the provision of housing; it merely marks one of the potential contradictions — the fact that residents are often compelled by implicit, seemingly horizontal power relations to participate in processes that validate and perpetuate their own dispossession. And it suggests that empowerment from below must center on developing the political resources with which to contest — intellectually and pragmatically — the very structures by which this occurs…

That said, public-sector officials can help to encourage both for-profit and non-profit private developers to actually make diverse and inclusive housing — housing for all. Let’s say that we — we the people, via our elected representatives — insist that housing be provided for 100 percent of the population (and actually none of the Foreclosed teams addresses this most basic goal). As a robust player in the housing market, public housing would not only ensure that everyone has adequate housing; it might also spur other housing sectors to better performance. In other words, if the private sector cannot meet the large social goal, then public agencies will develop housing and in this way make the market more competitive. (In the ongoing medical insurance debate, it’s become clear that that the one thing both private and non-profit players will do almost anything to avoid is government competition, which in the case of health care might extend the proven success of such popular programs as Medicare.) It is important to acknowledge that housing is a tool of political power. Just as high jobless rates work to drive down wages (thus hurting workers and helping employers), so too high rates of homelessness, as well as overcrowding and substandard housing, serve to inflate the profits of real estate developers and mortgage bankers. At this most fundamental level, the threat of homelessness gives the 1% greater leverage over the 99%. If we guarantee that as a nation we will uphold the right to housing codified in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then we will empower the poor — a class which these days is expanding to include many who once felt secure in the middle…

These are just a few examples of thinking big/starting small. Central to all is the belief that design matters. For decades now, we have waged a battle between Architecture (high design) and architecture (social design). But as with public and private, this is a false debate. Ultimately good design must be aesthetically engaging, economically viable, environmentally responsive and socially just. There is no either/or. If we are to meet the goal of housing for all, good design must be part of the process. This is why Foreclosed is compelling; regardless of the criticism they’ve inspired, all of the projects grappled with the power of good design to reshape housing. And yet they all neglected one final quality of good design: the ability to be actionable. Let’s pair them with more agile, smaller-scale innovative processes, as a first step in realizing their big-scale visions…

Finally, we need an open, democratic approach to long-range planning. I don’t believe it when planners and designers talk about “smart growth,” “retrofitting the suburbs,” and “transit-oriented development.” These seem to me the new mantras for professions that lack the courage to confront the real problems and challenge the dictatorship of developers. The urban planning profession fully endorsed and helped create suburban sprawl when it chose to collaborate with the homebuilding industry and accommodate itself to the highway system. It is now obediently following the market trend towards denser development without critically engaging with and supporting the widespread movements that place quality of life over growth.

These are some big issues to tackle: the impact of neoliberal capitalism on housing, providing housing for all, marrying design and social design, and long-range planning that doesn’t just cater to developers. One exhibit can’t solve all of these concerns but they are important ones that more people should be discussing.

I had an interesting conversation with an architect a while ago that touched on some of these issues. He was interested in partnering with social scientists who could help him better understand how structures fit within a community. I wonder if this isn’t the route more architects will go: looking for a broader understanding of planning, design, and social life. This would require some openness from both sides but there is a long history of overlap between the two parties.

Quick Review: the Chicago History Museum

I recently had a chance to visit the Chicago History Museum, a place I had visited several times as a kid but hadn’t been to in at least 15 years. Here are a few thoughts about the museum:

1. The best exhibit, in my opinion, is the dioramas of key moments in Chicago’s history. While these are now decades old, they still look quite good and effectively tell the story of Chicago’s early years. Here is the classic diorama of the 1871 Chicago Fire:

2. The museum has some interesting historical artifacts, ranging from Native American items to modern-day Chicago neighborhoods. My favorite: the Pioneer locomotive which made the first run on the Galena & Chicago Union railroad (the first railroad running out of Chicago and currently the Union Pacific West line in Metra nomenclature) in 1849:

3. Moving beyond my favorites, I think there is a larger issue with the museum: who is supposed to be its target audience? School kids? Tourists? Local residents? This drives another decision: how much detail should the museum present? I think there is a surprising lack of detail about major events which seems particularly appalling since Chicago is a world class city and urban sociologists still talk about (or perhaps joke about) Chicago being the quintessential American city. The second floor covers more modern Chicago history but it does this very quickly and without much context for each event/issue. For some of these modern topics, say transportation or Chicago neighborhoods or suburbanization, you could fill whole museum rooms and really inform the public about what happened and what it means for the future.

4. I also noticed that there is a very little in the museum about recent politicians (say, since the early 1900s). No commentary on the two Daleys and Harold Washington? I assume part of this might be driven by the fact that the Daleys are still around but there is a lot of potential material that could be covered here. For example, there is a small display about the 1968 Democratic Convention and a clip from a History Channel documentary on the subject but there is very little commentary on it. The lack of political material is quite noticeable when talking about the history of a city with powerful (and sometimes problematic) politicians.

5. The lobby of the museum is pleasingly eccentric. If I remember correctly, the museum used to a grand staircase in the lobby which gave it a very traditional look. But here is what one of the lobby looks like now:

Overall, the Chicago History Museum has some good moments but I don’t think it lives up to the world-class standards of Chicago. When the best exhibit consists of decades-old dioramas, there is room for improvement. In a city known for its museums, culture, and history as well being a center for urban study, the museum could be so much more.

New MoMA exhibit “Foreclosed” reimagines suburban life

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.

Museum exhibit on the social construct of race

There is no question that the idea of race has had a profound impact on Western history, particularly the American experience. A museum exhibit in Boston helps attendees see that race is a social construct:

Developed by the American Anthropological Association, the exhibition draws on science and culture, history and politics. It surveys race as concept and the almost always unfortunate consequences that concept has had and continues to have.

Race is a relatively recent term, dating from the Age of Discovery, with its many European encounters with non-European others. (Of course, go back far enough, and we’re all non-Europeans, humankind having originated in Africa.) The first legal use of the word “white’’ in America wasn’t until 1691, when the increasing importance of slavery added a whole new dimension of complexity to the concept of race.

A better word than “concept’’ would be “construct.’’ That’s what race is. Black and white and yellow and red aren’t biological categories as, say, male and female are. Race is more of a social, or even psychological, category, as class is; and, like class, it owes far more to culture and society than it does to genetics.

Sociologists would say the same thing about race: it is a construct based on skin color, not inherent biological characteristics.

I would be interested to know if a museum exhibit like this changes people’s minds about race. There would be an easy way to find out: give a pre-test including questions about race to all those who enter the museum. When the visitors leave the museum, give the same test and also ask which visitors went through the race exhibit. Compare results and see if the group that went through the race exhibit have different views.

Designing kitchens for the people who work in them

An exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City explores the changing design of kitchens in the 20th century. While this room may indeed be a functional space, designs were often based on clear ideas about what kind of women were to be in such a space:

These days, there are magazines and television programs devoted to kitchen design, but in 1926 it was a new idea. In fact, curator Juliet Kinchin tells NPR’s Robert Smith, designing a kitchen was actually a political act.

“There’s always been that political dimension to kitchens,” Kinchin explains.

“For centuries, really, the kitchen had been ignored by design professionals, not least because it tended to be lower-class women or servants who occupied the kitchen space,” she says…

It was women who led the reform of the kitchen into an efficient space — one to be proud of. Kinchin says, “they were trying to adopt a scientific approach to housework and raise the status of housework.”

This is a reminder that homes and spaces inside and outside are linked to broader ideas about gender, social class, and what is considered the “good life.” Based on images from shows like those on HGTV and looking at real estate ads, the kitchen in today’s home is often the centerpiece with gleaming new appliances, rich cabinets, and plenty of storage space. This is commonly tied to ideas about the kitchen being the center of the home where someone cooks and the family gathers to work or play nearby. (This is somewhat ironic considering how much home cooking is actually done these days compared to eating out or eating prepared food.) Is placing more emphasis on modern kitchens empowering for women or a constant reminder about traditional values that would seek to keep women there?

I wonder if there are homes that feature “men’s kitchens” – though there may be plenty of big homes that have this in an outdoor kitchen/grilling area. This inside space might include a large television, large stove/grill, and comfortable seating.

Quick Review: Georgia Aquarium

While recently in Atlanta, I had a chance to make a brief visit to the Georgia Aquarium. Some quick thoughts:

1. Overall, a beautiful facility. Well-designed with an interesting central space/lobby. Vivid exhibits. The only downside was the large crowds in some of the exhibits.

2. The best part were the large tanks. This aquarium doesn’t have a lot of individual tanks featuring a lot of different species. The emphasis is on large tanks, particularly in the Ocean Voyager exhibit. While this exhibit features some rare animals such as the whale shark (unbelievably large), this has numerous great viewing points plus a tunnel underneath the middle of the tank. The viewing theater space at the end of the exhibit was a location where I could sit for a long time just watching the animals swim by. Here is an image of the whale shark from the viewing theater:

3. There were a number of innovative ways to view the tanks. In addition to the tunnel in the Ocean Voyager exhibit, I walked through a small tunnel with glass ceilings (probably three feet tall) under a river exhibit. The penguin exhibit featured special “bubbles”: people would walk up into the exhibit from below and while surrounded by a plastic bubble perhaps four feet across, see eye-to-eye with the penguins.

4. There is a special shark exhibit that didn’t feature any live sharks but had a lot of information on fossil teeth, different shark species, and interactions with humans. One room featured a frozen giant tuna next to a large shark and talked about how sharks chased tunas in the ocean depths. On one hand, the exhibit said sharks were dangerous creatures (with a particular emphasis on their teeth and jaws). On the other hand, the exhibit kept saying that the media and Hollywood have over-hyped shark attacks.

5. The aquarium seemed pretty kid-friendly, particularly in the Georgia Coast exhibit where patrons could touch a number of animals (I touched a small shark, stingrays, along with a few other small and more fixed creatures) and kids could crawl around in some cool-looking equipment.

6. Like many museums today, it was pricey: around $31 for what I saw (and I didn’t purchase all the add-ons).

Even with the price and the crowds, this was well worth the money. I thought the Shedd Aquarium was a lot of fun – this relatively new aquarium is vastly superior.

Not simply deriding suburban life

An AP story discusses a supposed movement to take the suburbs more seriously and move beyond common negative stereotypes. One scholar accurately notes:

“Change your mind about what the suburbs are,” said Robert Puentes, a suburban scholar at the Brookings Institution. “They’re not just bedroom communities for center-city workers. They’re not just rich enclaves. They’re not all economically stable. They’re not all exclusively white.”

“These are not your father’s suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s.”

Efforts toward this end include a new museum in Johnson County, Kansas and several academic centers.

These stereotypes will take time to overcome. Common stereotypes, dating back to at least the 1950s, include: bland homes and people, desperate housewives, whites only, lifestyles centered all around children, wealthy people only, conservative, low-brow, garish (from strip malls to shopping malls to McMansions).

The story cites two academic centers for suburban studies. For much of the last 100 years, academics have often led the way in deriding suburbia. To fight some of these stereotypes, more academics would need to be able to move beyond knee-jerk reactions and acknowledge suburbia’s complexities.