BMW Guggenheim Lab to tackle global urban issues via design and public discussions

From August 3 to October 11, the first incarnation of the movable BMW Guggenheim Lab is open to the public in New York. With the help of architects, scientists, activists, and designers, the Lab's organizers hope to encourage everyday citizens to identify ways to improve city life around the globe.

At the intersection of Houston Street and Second Avenue in downtown Manhattan, the next structure to bear the "Guggenheim" name debuts on August 3. Unlike the spiraling New York landmark designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on upper Fifth Avenue, or the shimmery, voluptuous building designed by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, Spain, this new Guggenheim isn't an art museum, but a temporary "lab" where the public will discuss city life and its challenges. And it bears another famous brand name as well, that of BMW.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab, a much-anticipated collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the German automaker known for its history of inventive design, will be open through October 16. Its distinctive architectural feature is what appears to be a floating rectangle made of carbon fiber that hovers above an open-air meeting and performance space. The Japanese firm Atelier Bow-Wow, led by architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, designed it to be easily taken down and transported to other parts of the globe. Appropriately, Atelier Bow-Wow is known for its "Micro Public Space" projects, in which the designers create short-term environments in galleries and other venues meant to serve as microcosms of urban centers where people gather and interact.

At the BMW Guggenheim Lab, that's exactly what's scheduled to take place: free public workshops, performances, brainstorming sessions, and other events centered around the theme of "confronting comfort" within a metropolitan landscape.

But the BMW Guggenheim Lab isn’t only about cool, temporary architecture and how it fits into the fabric of New York's bustling East Village neighborhood. This is just the first incarnation of the Lab over a six-year period; the structure will travel to eight other cities around the globe in that time frame. The organizers of the project, Maria Nicanor, assistant curator of architecture at the Guggenheim, and David van der Leer, assistant curator of architecture and urban studies, also at the Guggenheim, invited a wide range of thinkers – who are also proven doers – to help lead an ongoing public discussion on how to address the challenges of urban living.

"The goal is to create awareness about how we live in cities today and how we can improve the way that we live in cities tomorrow," wrote curator Nicanor in an e-mail message. "How we want to achieve this is by bringing a multi-disciplinary team of thinkers together. [By doing so,] we can get different voices and perspectives into what cities are and should be, and also about our theme, 'Confronting Comfort.'"

The BMW Guggenheim Lab Team for the New York run of the project is a surprising and refreshing roster of names from the worlds of science and and environmental activism, and not only design. It includes Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery, who focuses on the concept of happiness in his books and articles; Nigerian microbiologist Olatunbosun Obayomi, known for his inventions in the area of converting organic waste into fuel; New York-based activist Omar Freilla, founder of Green Worker Cooperatives, which supports eco-friendly small businesses in the South Bronx; and Dutch architecture firm ZUS [Zones Urbaines Sensibles], founded by Elma van Boxel and Kristian Korema.

After New York, the Lab will travel to Berlin and then to Mumbai. This will make up the first cycle of the project, and after it is completed, the Guggenheim Museum in New York will host an exhibition showcasing the ideas and images that result. There will be two more cycles, each with their own themes.

What will the the public, the Guggenheim, and BMW learn from what promises to be an intriguing adventure in curating and international urban design? Even if the lessons are open-ended, the BMW Guggenheim Lab is likely to be a worthwhile architectural, marketing, and social experiment, one that will no doubt spark ongoing public debates and discussions both inside and outside the movable building itself.

"Cities are much more than just their architecture, as we all know," stated Nicanor in an e-mail. "They are about the people that inhabit them and only by bringing everyone into the conversation can we achieve more innovative and meaningful answers to the urban challenges of the future."

Photo: courtesy Atelier Bow-Wow

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