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MoMA Exhibit Proposes Big-City Solutions for Vulnerable Suburban Landscapes

Redemption for the suburbs looks a lot like the city

By Nalina Moses

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, the new exhibit curated by the Department of Architecture and Design at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), sets out to prove that suburban architecture isn't an oxymoron. Last spring, the museum paired five acclaimed architecture firms with five American suburbs where foreclosure is devastating the cultural and physical landscape, and asked for their solutions. The teams unveiled drawings, models, and renderings for their designs at the museum in February, and they will be on view through August 13.

One thing the exhibit proves conclusively is that good suburban architecture is hard to do. City buildings often have a rich surrounding architectural fabric that provides an enlivening and forgiving context. Because buildings in rural environments are not beholden to larger context, they have an almost unchecked formal freedom. Suburban buildings, however, have the unique dual responsibility to both shape a vibrant environment and to hold their own as singular structures.

Does a design exhibit ominously called Foreclosed have a fighting chance to shape a new, hopeful vision for the American suburb, traditionally a no man’s land for architecture? All five of these accomplished schemes have been imagined by architects based in large cities who offer formal solutions to the suburban housing crisis, rather than aspirational ones devised by suburban residents themselves. Obviously, many Americans value the light, space, quiet, and autonomy that suburban living affords, but this lifestyle calculus is slowly changing as prospective homebuyers realize that energy and fuel will only become scarcer and more expensive as traditional suburb-to-city commutes become longer and more perilous.

The exhibits on display at the MoMA suggest how suburbs can come to terms with the changing economy and remain sustainable and viable living situations. “Sustainable” is a key word here in the most basic and fundamental sense, and it’s not really referring to solar panels and well-insulated windows. These interventions alter development patterns, funding structure, and conceptions of public and private space to ensure that satellite communities can survive rising energy prices, demographic biases against suburban lifestyles, and greater concern for carbon emissions. The question is, once these changes are wrought, do these places still function as suburbs?

Engaging the single-family house

Three of the schemes in Foreclosed propose building new streets to activate suburban social and economic life. The New York City office MOS, led by Hilary Sample, AIA, and Michael Meredith, AIA, studied Orange, N.J. Their scheme, “Thoughts on a Walking City,” creates a “transit city” within a neighborhood already well served by public transportation by filling its vehicular streets with a jagged continuous ribbon of three-story townhouses.The New York City office of Visible Weather, led by Michael Bell and Eunjeong Seong, developed “Simultaneous City” for Temple Terrace, Fla. The design builds new, densely packed streets one story above the town's fading commercial strip. New York City firm WORKac, led by Dan Wood, AIA, and Amale Andraos, devised “Nature-City” for Keizer, Ore. Their plan preserves undeveloped land around the town by extending existing streets with densely constructed “urban piers” along one edge.

The two other teams approach the problem at different scales. Chicago firm Studio Gang Architects, led by Jeanne Gang, FAIA, studied the architecture of the typical apartment building. Their scheme, “The Garden in the Machine,” in Cicero, Ill., reclaims a large abandoned steel frame warehouse as a cooperative apartment building, and reinvigorates the post industrial site with lush gardens. Cooperative owners can purchase individual rooms according to their needs and desires, so that they're not limited to conventional one-, two- or three-bedroom layouts. The Los Angeles firm Zago Architecture, led by Andrew Zago, examined the structure of the suburban subdivision, specifically a Rialto, Calif., partially built enclave of McMansions. Their scheme “Property with Properties” accepts the basic planning of the community and reimagines conventional suburban landscaping strategies and building types. In lots conceived for stately single-family houses, the scheme constructs multiple houses and row houses, and ties individual properties together with new pathways and plantings.

Each of the five projects on display confounds common assumptions about what a suburb looks like and what it's like to live in one. Many designs set out to provide integrated live/work spaces, active pedestrian life, increased architectural variety, greater social integration, and generous green spaces. Yet none offer an architectural vision that feels truly suburban. Instead, most projects propose dense, urban schemes.

Three of the schemes, the ones that build new city-like streets, have a strong utopian bent that counters typical suburban sprawl with imposing, large-scale structures. The white towers and strip buildings of “Nature-City” incorporate green courtyards and gardens, yet purposefully shape a fabric that's five times denser than the town's existing one. The gleaming, rationally composed streets of “Simultaneous City” seem to hover imposingly over the town's existing thoroughfares. The townhouse “ribbons” that fill the streets in “Thoughts on a Walking City” block passage and views, giving the entire neighborhood a dark, crowded aspect.

The large scale of these projects, their abstract white renderings, and even their titles suggest that the best way to support ailing suburbs is to transform them into cities. Is there a way to develop suburbs as suburbs, a way to build less densely but also responsibly?

The white elephant looming in the museum is the single-family house, a form that persists powerfully in American life as both an architectural and domestic icon. Even some units inside the high-rise towers of “Nature-City” have A-shaped ceilings, so that residents can feel like they're inside a traditional wood-framed attic space.

Only “Property with Properties” engages the single-family house directly. The design shakes up the existing suburban subdivision by slicing through lots with new pathways and gardens, gently deforming the volumes of conventional housing types, and introducing duplexes and row houses on some lots. (One rendering for the scheme even shows an elephant wandering dreamily through a backyard.) Yet “Property with Properties” is, at heart, not so different from a typical suburban community, with standalone houses strung along curving roads. A scheme that owes a great deal of its appeal to its familiarity, it's the show's guilty pleasure.

Suburb, heal thyself

The Foreclosed project brief was an open-ended, interdisciplinary one that required designers to research the financial, legal, and environmental work needed to implement their plans. So right from the outset, the five design teams worked in close collaboration with economists, engineers, ecologists, lawyers, and artists. Several schemes reach beyond architecture and advocate less restrictive models of property ownership. “The Garden in the Machine” proposes a limited equity cooperative that separates ownership of housing units from ownership of the land it occupies, and “Thoughts on a Walking City” proposes “portable mortgages” that owners can transfer from one property to another.

While rewriting zoning laws and mortgage requirements falls outside the architect's traditional role, these extra-architectural ideas bring a fresh sense of reality to the designs. The need for designers to work hand-in-hand with financial experts and developers to effect deep change to suburbs—or anywhere else—might be the most important takeaway from the show.

Although it's not part of Foreclosed, near the gallery entrance at the MoMA there's a two-screen video installation by Teddy Cruz, called “Non-Stop Sprawl: McMansion Retrofitted Project,” that suggests other directions for suburbs. On one screen, the resident of a subdivision in San Diego, where Cruz practices, stands in front of a large house and describes how he would like to change it, listing the rooms he'd like to remodel, the features he'd like to add, and the ways he'd use the spaces inside. The subjects speak revealingly about their families, their work, their ambitions, and how they'd like to live. On the other screen, an animated 3D model of the house illustrates the changes that person is describing in real time. It's a simple, powerful proposition. Despite the suburbs’ reputation as architectural backwaters, meaningful design interventions for them can be self-directed.


Rendering of MOS’s “Thoughts on a Walking City” project in Orange, N.J. Image courtesy MOS.

Rendering of Visible Weather’s “Simultaneous City” project for Temple Terrace, Fla. Image courtesy of Michael Bell, Eunjeong Seong: Visible Weather.

Architectural model for WORKac’s “Nature-City” project for Keizer, Ore. Photograph courtesy of James Ewing. © 2011 James Ewing.

Rendering of Studio Gang Architects’ “The Garden in the Machine” project for Cicero, Ill. Image courtesy Studio Gang Architects.

Still from “View of Life in the New Development,” an animation produced as part of Zago Architecture’s “Property with Properties” project. Image courtesy Zago Architecture.


Recent Related:

MoMA Shines a Spotlight on Architecture of Social Ambition and Outreach


Visit the AIA Communities by Design website.

Visit MoMA’s Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream website.


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