Questioning the value of an outsider’s perspective in MoMA’s “Foreclosed”

MoMA’s exhibit Foreclosed certainly seems to be provoking a lot of strong reactions (see Brian’s previous commentary here).  Diana Lind, editor in chief of Next American City, questions both the motives and the practicality underlying MoMA’s re-imagining of the American suburbs:

Foreclosed seethes with disdain for the suburbs, and the lack of an empathetic understanding of how the suburbs function and are changing, ultimately makes the exhibit look less visionary than ignorant. As an urban dweller who is deeply frustrated by the social, economic and environmental consequences of sprawl and car-centered communities, I too want to see clever ways of retrofitting these parts of the country. But saying that, I wish the exhibit had improved upon the suburbs rather than suggest transforming them beyond recognition.

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). To Bergdoll, the last great American architect to live and work in the burbs was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was based in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park at the turn of the 20th century. This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them. [emphasis added]

For all their problems, suburbs clearly “work” on some levels.  (If they didn’t, suburbs would hold little attraction for to the millions happily residing in them.)  Lind’s specific examples of cultural clueless-ness on the part of the MoMA-commissioned architects are well worth pondering.  She suggests that failing to consider what aspects of suburbs work (and how) results the same sort of ham-fisted, bureaucratic approach that destroyed thriving urban neighborhoods in the mid-twentieth century:

[MoMA’s] radical visions that are so insensitive to the suburbs remind me of the Modernist public housing projects that were once foisted on inner cities. Created by well-intentioned but essentially ignorant architects and planners, those buildings made sense in theory but not in practice. They didn’t respond to the rhythms and needs of the people who would be housed there, because the architects didn’t really respect or understand the lives of poor people. MoMA should have found some architects who could love and live in the suburbs, showing us the way to make the most of suburban housing instead of wishing it didn’t exist.