Can designers fix America's suburban foreclosure problems?

A new and ambitious exhibition at MoMA taps architects to come up with solutions to America's recent real estate bust. We review the show and ask the curator what trends are emerging from it.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor
A rendering of an abandoned factory in Cicero, Illinous, re-made as a garden, by Studio Gang

NEW YORK -- On a brisk Saturday afternoon in late February, a small, tucked-away gallery on the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art is crowded with visitors and abuzz with animated conversation. Two middle-aged friends share stories of their mortgage woes. A duo of hip 20-something architects proudly show off their firm's work to a group of stylishly dressed peers. And two little girls, about 10 or 11 years old, excitedly look at architectural models and exclaim, "Wow! look at this one! It has pools that look like lakes!" as if looking at Barbie's dream house.

The gallery in which such varied discussions are taking place houses the exhibition "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," which opened on February 15 and is on view through July 30, 2012. It's a museum show as ambitious and idealistic as the concept of the U.S. suburbs must have been in the 1950s. Only it's clear from the information presented in MoMA's display (and in the popular media), that the concept of the prosperity-for-all suburbs might just be fantasy. The reality, in some areas of the nation, is much starker today.

On view in the "Foreclosed" show are videos, architectural models, and photographs of projects created by five teams of designers. Each team tackled one real-life American suburban area, some with very high foreclosure rates, in need of renewal.

The goal was to address what is called The Buell Hypothesis, a research project and an eponymous publication of the Temple Hoyne Buell center for the study of American Architecture at Columbia University. The document, which analyzed 2009 economic data, suggests that investments in local infrastructure can provide multiple, positive solutions to challenges such as high foreclosure rates and impending--or very real--blight. (The full document is available online as a PDF here.)

"These are projects to get the imagination flowing," Barry Bergdoll, MoMA's chief curator of Architecture and Design and co-organizer of the show (with Reinhold Martin, director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia), said in an e-mail interview.

"These are images that allow us to understand what types of places might be possible with reforms of broken banking systems and overly rigid codes of zoning and the like."


To offer context, "Foreclosed" opens effectively with huge, eye-catching graphs and charts painted onto a gallery wall, featuring stats on foreclosure in the United States. The current truth is presented in an in-your-face manner: nationally, 30% of U.S. homeowners are paying 30% of their income on housing. The foreclosure rate is 1.1%, and 3% of homes are overcrowded. But in some suburbs, such as Rialto, California, the statistics paint an uglier picture. There, 48% spend 30% of their income on their homes; the foreclosure rate is an alarming 11.4%, and 14.5% of occupied units are above capacity.

An exhibition view of "Foreclosed" at MoMA

During the summer of 2011, the architecture firms MOS, Studio Gang ArchitectsVisible WeatherWORKac, and Zago Architecture met with with economists, engineers, and other experts, to deploy design as a solution to fix the woes of communities such as Rialto. They eventually came together to discuss their proposals at MoMA PS1, a sister site to MoMA.

The most common design solutions that emerged, as Bergdoll summed up for SmartPlanet, are "intergenerational living; flexible housing that can change with the growth and thinking of households; new ways of owning a dwelling without necessarily owning the land it sits on; walkability; mixed uses; and the relaxing of zoning codes."

MOS, for instance, worked to re-make The Oranges, a trio of villages located in New Jersey, only 20 miles outside of New York. The designers added mixed-use buildings among existing ones in these suburban towns, where it's not uncommon to see unused parking lots with grass growing through cracks and boarded up windows. So MOS's solution was to create pedestrian-friendly areas not too far from the train stations that connect these suburbs to Manhattan.

A current street in the Oranges, New Jersey

The architects also propose connecting the new and old structures--which they want to remake into a mix of residential and commercial spaces-- around basic services, such as shared staircases or plumbing. The new buildings would feature a repeated style. At first, this might seem boring to the eye, but after looking at the models, it's possible to see that the repetitive forms build a nice sense of continuity and familiarity.

Similarly, Visible Weather, which worked to re-make Temple Terrace, Florida, near Tampa, calls for adding three types of buildings in the suburb. The idea is to mix offices, stores, and government in the same area, similar to MOS's suggestion for the Oranges, all connected by walking paths, to keep the area lively. The buildings do look repetitive--like MOS's--but the architects re-contextualize this look as "a continuous landscape." There is an almost campus -like feel to their re-design of this suburb, which calls for open common areas and plazas.


Studio Gang--the architectural office of MacArthur genius Jeanne Gang--tackles Cicero, Illinois, with probably one of the most original ideas in the show. Home to many immigrants who share houses with multiple family members, Cicero has all the signs of a post-industrial area, such as railroad tracks overgrown with weeds. Studio Gang designed a new concept for home sales: what the firm calls the modular "Recombinant House." This concept allows people to buy (and sell) units they need in a home when they need them, such as extra rooms when babies are born. Public spaces are included for recreation.

As with the other projects on view, office spaces are mixed in to encourage start-ups and small businesses to flourish. Studio Gang's proposal is also based around the idea of the limited equity cooperative (LEC) model of ownership, which means there are shared amenities and land, but people own their own portion of the homes. They also involve the idea to grow the community upward, in "vertical neighborhoods" -- which seems like a fancy euphemism for apartment buildings. And they have included environmental designs such as adding gardens in foreclosed factory sites.

Also interested in encouraging a more natural atmosphere in its design solution for struggling suburbs, WORKac created "Nature City," which is exactly as its sounds, for Keizer, Oregon. Oregon law requires the state's cities to have an Urban Growth Boundary, which protects forests and farmland and other outdoor spaces. WORKac's design shifts the existing proportion of built environment and natural environment in Keizer, re-making it so it is five-times more dense than current suburban blocks, but increases the amount of public space threefold.

A model for Nature City in Keizer City, Oregon, by WORKac

The architects suggest new town houses and courtyards, all designed to help harvest renewable energy and manage waste in more natural ways than currently in use. There's an entire Compost Hill that also offers pretty terraced housing.  Taxation will fund it, developers will create it. Indeed, their physical model is beautiful. Children were oohing and aahing over the not-so-appealingly-named Compost Hill model at MoMA. The design includes tunnels intended for local wildlife (which include foxes and porcupines) to pass through the community, and a rooftop pool. And again, the designers propose a mix of live-work spaces.

Zago Architecture's "Property with Properties" design for Rialto also echoes the other designers' strategies. In this suburb, construction has slowed since financial crisis of 2008, resulting in sad, unfinished subdivisions that look like ruins. The architects' concept was to blur boundaries and lose the traditional neatness of a suburban grid and increase density. Similar to Nature City, wildlife is encouraged to enter.


Clearly, from the proposals on view in "Foreclosed," patterns and trends are emerging in terms of possible design solutions to suburban woes. And architects might be the appropriate group to suggest radical new ideas for non-urban communities, given their industry's creative freedom and their practical awareness of zoning, engineering, and other issues. But with design-thinking often hyped as a trendy innovation buzzword in the business press, is there a risk that the exhibition might be seen as somewhat slick and gimmicky by politicians and suburban dwellers themselves?

"I do have to say I see design as more frequently marginalized than overhyped," Bergdoll said. "But I do think the whole process of the 'Foreclosed' public workshops [at MoMA PS1 last year] points to ways in which design decision-making can mesh with the opening up of public discussions and responses to real demographics rather than idealized aspirational marketplaces."

Some architecture critics have complained that the solutions on view in "Foreclosed" are too urban, as Justin Davidson argued in his review of the exhibition in New York magazine. True, they are all designed by firms based in cities that all are striving to turn towns into mini-metropolises. However, such a goal might make sense in the 21st century. The suburbs are dying; cities are thriving. Numerous statistics show that today, most people around the world live in cities. The fresh, urban-inspired models proposed in "Foreclosed" might just be the most timely and relevant blueprints for designers and communities committed to reviving the suburbs.

Images, from top: Photo of architectural model for Studio Gang Architects' The Garden in the Machine project for Cicero, Illinois, © 2011 James Ewing; installation view at MoMA, Photo © Jason Mandella; street view of residences in Orange, New Jersey, photograph courtesy of MOS Architects; photo of Nature City model by WORKac, © 2011 James Ewing

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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