Pretty Little Pictures

Even when MoMA is tackling real issues, its obsession with image manages to obscure some of its most important content.

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
Through August 13
The Museum of Modern Art

New York City

When I walked into the press opening of Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream at MoMA, an endless panel discussion was underway, and all I could do was tiptoe from model to model—from Studio Gang Architects’ charming Kenner Building Set take on Cicero, Illinois, to Andrew Zago’s new strategy for Rialto, California, which is represented by a batch of oddly shaped, multicolored boxes that don’t appear to say anything specific about housing. I spent time pondering Nature- City, the Keizer, Oregon, project designed by a team led by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of Work AC. Its biomorphic form reminded me of Arcosanti, the Paolo Soleri “city” that has been rising in the desert north of Phoenix for decades, and its concept evoked the long-postponed eco-city of Dongtan, China, near Shanghai. Then I shrugged and walked away. A play on that old line from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown came to mind: “Forget it, Jake. It’s MoMA.”

In recent years, I’ve had a recurrent problem with MoMA—specifically, with the architecture and design department. The visionary projects that are given priority by the curators are rarely as exciting as what’s going on in the real world. Whether it’s the student-designed prototypes at the recent Paola Antonelli–curated extravaganza Talk to Me, or the one-off houses that were presented as icons of mass-production at Home Delivery (the show that served as Barry Bergdoll’s 2008 debut as MoMA’s Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design), I find that the museum’s need to display unique and unattainable aesthetic objects often gets in the way of showing the best designs.

That said, I thought Bergdoll was on to something in 2010 with Rising Currents, a speculative exhibition about how New York City’s waterfront neighborhoods might be transformed to cope with rising sea levels. He calls this kind of exhibition, in which the curator assembles teams but has no idea what the final product will actually look like, “the extreme-sports variant of curatorship…a bungee dive.” So I was sorry that Foreclosed (co-curated by Reinhold Martin), an exhibition that charged five architect-led multidisciplinary teams with the task of rethinking the suburbs in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, struck me as yet another poster child for The MoMA Problem.

On a second visit, I was relieved to notice evidence of a persistent engagement with reality, which is remarkable for MoMA. There was, in each display, a small video screen showing scenes—very dreary, very believable—of the five towns in question. However, each of those screens is paired with one immediately beneath it, which was showing footage of impromptu studio talks given by the architects. Michael Meredith, for instance, was explaining the Pez-shaped buildings that MOS has crammed into the streets of the Oranges, in New Jersey: “This informality of the repetition of this module allows for these gaps of public space….” These jargon-filled videos had the unintended effect of making the architects seem even more divorced from reality than they are. It’s what happens when you pair architect-speak with, say, scenes of boarded-up houses. The juxta-position is, I guess, an argument in favor of MoMA’s customary shunning of the real.

As I was standing in the gallery, I noticed about a half dozen well-dressed men favoring pin-striped suits who looked conspicuously out of place. I had a hunch that they’d emerged, seeking inspiration, from a city hall in the greater metropolitan area, but when I introduced myself to one of them, he told me they were in finance and were taking a break from a meeting they were attending nearby. I chatted for a bit with this financier, an affable, 30-ish fellow, and asked him how the exhibition’s proposals corresponded to his view of reality.

We were standing in front of Simultaneous City, a mixed-use complex for a 225-acre site in Temple Terrace, Florida, near Tampa. It was designed by a team that was headed by the architects Michael Bell and Eunjeong Seong of Visible Weather, and which included the housing specialist Rosanne Haggarty (whose fixes for homelessness won her a MacArthur) and climate engineers Matthias Schuler and Erik Olsen of Transsolar. The complex, a glassy multilevel structure, proposed layering housing on top of government offices, a business incubator, and retail outlets. Aesthetically, it was not particularly different from the cluster of affordable glass apartments that Bell, a Columbia professor, once proposed for the Rockaways in Queens, New York, or the glass house that he’d designed for a low-income neighborhood in Houston, Texas—a standout in MoMA’s 1999 exhibition The Un-Private House. The truly radical part of the proposal was less visible.

My new friend in pinstripes pointed to wall text, which read “the public/private partnership is replaced by a real estate investment trust (REIT): publicly owned local land remains a public asset, and the income derived from development is shared with citizens.” He was genuinely enthused to see the term “REIT” on a wall at MoMA. Later, Bell explained to me that the REIT idea was a way of restructuring Temple Terrace’s existing approach to private/public partnerships, in which the city is buying land and simply handing it over to private developers. The team, advised by real estate attorney Jesse Keenan, thought the city and its residents could buy property and profit by leasing it out for development. Bell says that he was looking for ways to link a “contemporary economic vehicle” to “affordability.”

I mentioned to the financial guy that the MOS team had proposed filling the streets of the Oranges with tightly configured three-story buildings, while advocating “a system of portable mortgages, where ownership is not tied to a particular space.” In other words, when people moved, they would be able to use an existing mortgage to pay for their new home. The young financier then called over one of his buddies, a mortgage specialist, who told me that the scheme would never work, simply because banks make money every time they process and issue a new mortgage.

As I made my way through the gallery, I noticed that both Jeanne Gang’s project for Cicero and, in part, Andrew Zago’s for Rialto called for decoupling home ownership from ownership of the underlying land, which would, theoretically, cut home prices and create a new class of public property. This was the exhibition at its most provocative, addressing the forces that have most powerfully shaped suburbs and smaller cities: public policy, government regulations, zoning, the rules governing mortgages, the way roads and utilities are paid for. At its best, Foreclosed was not an architecture show at all. It was a mini-seminar on public policy—and an assault on conventional notions of private property.

Bell told me what his team was thinking: “One basic understanding of REITs that I often heard people criticize is that they’re essentially hedging instruments.” So the upswing in home prices in one part of the world might be played off a drop in value elsewhere. “Instead of real estate being held as a local asset, it gets bundled up as a global asset.”

In essence, Bell is saying that REITs, normally, do to the business of real estate what the process of “securitizing” did to mortgages: they transform tangible properties into financial abstractions, and put the fate of local developments into anonymous, global hands. “We looked for a way in which you could use a vehicle that is still relatively new, but use it in an inverted way, so that it becomes a local instrument. The wealth is distributed to shareholders, who are basically the residents of the city.”

Or as the financier put it, “It’s like a commune, except that no one is standing around playing hacky sack.” Maybe he meant Frisbee, but no matter. It’s interesting that it took an expert in finance to see the genuinely visionary idea that’s buried deep in this exhibition. I don’t think the models that fill most of the gallery have the power to upend convention—at this point, it would take a pretty outrageous architectural idea to shake up a MoMA visitor. However, given the paranoid tenor of our time, in which the president is routinely accused of being a socialist for bailing out Chrysler, and Tea Party types commonly regard efforts to reduce sprawl as a United Nations–driven attack on our freedoms, a museum show proposing the collective ownership of front lawns is wonderfully and unexpectedly subversive.

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