Not Even Cities

John Haber
in New York City

Uneven Growth and Global Cities

Foreclosed and the American Dream

As the Museum of Modern Art turns its gaze on expanding megacities, New York's infrastructure is expanding seventy miles north of the city.

A shaft thirty-five feet in diameter is taking shape, as an alternative to an aging, leaky segment of the Delaware Aqueduct. Before it is done, in as much as a decade, workers will have descended nine hundred feet below the soil—the height of a midtown skyscraper. And who is to say whether this, and not the skyline of office towers and luxury condos, is the real New York? Studio Gang Architects's Garden in the Machine (Museum of Modern Art, 2012)"Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities" looks to more sweeping dreams and more modest solutions, for New York and the world. The results are painfully uneven.

Daily joggers around the Central Park reservoir have barely a hint of the three watersheds serving thirsty New Yorkers. Yet even workers tunneling through earth and shale know only a part of the story—the story of the world's water and the future of its cities. Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, is awash in water, covering nearly a third of its area. The city is unable to manage that resource anywhere near adequately, though, along with its growing energy and transportation needs. Now MoMA offers hope for New York, Lagos, and four other global urban centers. It ends up asking for too much idealism while doing too little to address their needs.

Can one extend the urban vision to suburban America as well? "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream" two years earlier was not looking for new architecture to house an older ideal. Like "Uneven," it describes the present as a failure. Both shows are out to change thinking, the kind that brought the tangle of postwar suburban sprawl and the doomed housing bubble. Yet MoMA sees the bursting of that bubble and, with it, the American dream for so many as an opportunity: "change the dream and you change the city."

DIY cities

"Uneven Growth" boasts of its ambition in the face of the hard facts. Six teams have been studying six cities for fourteen months. The show itself is only the third in a series on urban futures, including "Foreclosed." And its choices range beyond Europe and America, the rising BRIC economies, and third-world poverty to include Lagos and Istanbul along with New York, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Rio—every one of them populous and growing. While money is power, big time, their percentage rate of economic growth is, not unreasonably, greater the smaller their economy. The entrance wall states the statistics, and each city then gets a relatively modest wall in the architecture wing, plus a great deal of sanctimony.

As for the hard facts, take New York alone. More than a fifth lives in poverty, including one in four children, in a city of nearly four hundred thousand millionaires. Only one in six fits the stereotype of the nuclear family. Returning to Lagos, its twenty million inhabitants have reliable access to energy just three hours a day. Maybe expanding megacities sound like the flip side of suburban sprawl, but this is not a sitcom world of TV rooms and front lawns. So why are things so cheerful?

The show about rehousing the American dream already asked to change the dream, and the new show just cannot stop dreaming. Its six displays hold little beyond futuristic sketches and smiling elders. The wall leading to them is a sprightly collage, with children in a playground as "Unstoppable!" And once the solutions start coming, the problems vanish before one's eyes. The curator, Pedro Gadanho, hopes to "advance public discussion" this way, "even if offering only acupunctural outlooks." Can a global future turn on the placebo affect?

This truly is tactical urbanism, long on tricks and short on strategies. For Hong Kong, an archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands, the team proposes six more, including "The Island of the Self" and "The Island of Possible Escape." For Istanbul, it promises to combat a handful of "friendly common spaces," such as a "social garden." For Rio, it relies on a catalog of Varanda Products (after the Brazilian for porch or balcony), with the slogan Good for You / Good for the City. As for Lagos, it places its hope on all those waterways, imagined as sites for sunbathing, sunlit strolls, and boating. How ordinary people acquired the leisure time goes unanswered and their energy needs, beyond a mention of biomass and solar panels, neglected.

MoMA clearly intends tactics as a turning away from Modernism's more oppressive master plans, like tall towers for Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier. Indeed, it has little to say about architecture at all, beyond a suggestion of modular housing or 3D printing. It is more concerned with raising spirits and changing minds. It has something in common with Naomi Klein's provocative approach to global warming as a refutation of capitalism, by which she means not the regulated economy of every state from America to China, but consumerism. "Uneven Growth" shares her neoliberal enemies, but it relishes a growing middle class and consumer culture, as a natural way out of the polarization of East and West or of wealth and slums. It relies on Istanbul's online and Mumbai's underground economies, on the way to "user-generated cities."

Think New York had better decide soon which offers the greater threat or the more promising solution—neighborhood preservation or high-rises? Think that it needs to find the balance of public and private growth to enable affordable housing? "Uneven Growth" asks instead for a transfer of ownership of existing spaces to the community, to promote DIY and incremental growth. It pays little attention to architecture because it trusts in the politics of architecture, even when the policies at stake are passive and small. Why can we not just get along? Maybe because, in the real world, the stakes are way too large.

The suburb as city

In "Foreclosed," notice something right away. In a show about five suburbs and intercity corridors spread across the country, MoMA's Barry Bergdoll and Reinhold Martin of Columbia University's Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture start with "the city." As they put it in another opening claim, "a suburb is actually a kind of city," and they are determined to make that claim come true. Each of the five contributors tries to bring nature to the metropolis and urban density to its suburbs. And suburbia has moved in just that direction. In fact, revulsion against it thrust the American dream further into an arid exurbia and a foreclosure crisis, too.

Notice something else, too. Cities always embody dreams, but neither the dream nor the city did all the driving. They have a way of growing organically, just as, to the post office, the borough of Queens is still a bunch of villages like Long Island City. Yet they also take shape from projects as utopian as Central Park, the Manhattan grid, and the boulevards of Paris—and, conversely, change almost always runs into private interests and legal limits. The five plans promise to start by studying a community's regulations, even as each plan is blisteringly top-down. The plans have much in common with any number of modernist utopias and dystopias as well, from the Bauhaus to science fiction to Robert Adams walking the suburbs by night.

"Foreclosed" way recalls past attempts at urban planning, their nobility and mistakes intact. Naturally New Jersey ends up the most suburban and the most dystopian. For Thoughts on a Walking City, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of the firm MOS propose to replace a city's most precious resource, its streets, to enable low-rise horizontal density. The buildings fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, to create three "transit villages" near rail stations. They echo the existing transformation of Iselin into Metro Park, and signage like "VERY HAPPY DAYCARE INC" is more chilling still. For Florida's Simultaneous City, Michael Bell and Eunjeong Seong of Visible Weather ask to replace city hall with a complex closer to glass prefabs—and I can hear Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds singing in 1963 about "little boxes."

Those teams learn too much from suburbia in order to urbanize it. Others learn too much from the city to promote the long vistas of suburbia. For Property with Properties in Southern California, Andrew Zago of Zago Architecture preserve the concept of a subdivision while breaking up its "serial repetition." They make roads more circuitous, shift vegetation from lawns to interior gardens, and tilt the walls of brightly colored four- and five-story units, to relax the boundaries between yours and mine. For Oregon's Nature City, Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WORKac suggest an eco-friendly update of the housing project, with towers and ziggurats built over composting—all surrounded by empty space and ponds of recycled water. Think of a suburb designed by Robert Moses.

For Garden in the Machine in Cicero, outside Chicago, Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects inverts what Leo Marx in 1964 called "the machine in the garden." In practice, though, her dreams look the furthest back of all. In place of brick bungalows with private owners, she imagines the entirety as a co-op, with shares to represent bedrooms, kitchens, and lawns. Residents would jointly own the land and other amenities, like an abandoned factory framing a forest, and they could trade shares—perhaps keeping separate bedrooms while sharing kitchens. Think of college dorms or immigrant ghettos. For the twelve-story buildings cantilevered over shopping, think all the way back to the gallerias of nineteenth-century Europe.

As so often, the oldest dreams hold ouut the greatest charm and the darkest memories. "Foreclosed" tries to rehouse the American dream by evoking pasts from which Americans have fled. It also misrepresents the economy, which has left many without housing at all. One video shows a Hispanic family moving into a Mac-mansion, only to wonder whatever to do with all that space. (Should they add a bodega?) What the show does best is to shift the focus of creative architecture from islands of privilege to communities and mass transit, so that a changing city can change the dream.

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"Uneven Growth" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through May 10, 2015, "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream" through July 30, 2012.


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