Foreclosed Homeowners Inspire Museum’s Architects Show

Studio Gang
A proposal for flexible housing to be built on an abandoned industrial site in Cicero, Illinois, by the Chicago architecture firm Studio Gang. It is one of five concepts for five cities envisioned in the exhibition "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photographer: James Ewing/Museum of Modern Art via Bloomberg

Amid a housing market profoundly altered by stagnant incomes, declining wealth and Wall Street folly, the Museum of Modern Art displays a waterfall cascading down an atrium in a high-rise apartment.

It’s a moment of refreshing whimsy from an exhibition that envisions what’s possible when politicians offer only pitiful nostrums.

The MoMA show “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” doesn’t suggest that architecture can float underwater mortgages. Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design, working with MoMA satellite museum P.S. 1, matched five architect teams with hard-hit areas across the country. They envisioned the kinds of communities today’s market could support.

You’ll find the waterfall in towers proposed by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of the New York firm WORKac for the Keizer suburb of Salem, Oregon. They make the storage of water a feature by spilling it from rooftop tanks on its way to faucets. They also designed a park-covered domed structure over a community composting plant.

Yes, it’s partly tongue in cheek, but the clustering of pleasant blocks of townhouses and towers along a grid of streets leaves more space for woods, ponds and fields. They scribe their new streets through the natural landscape to remind you what was saved.

‘Recombinant’ House

Chicago architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects addressed big immigrant families who have cut up stolid brick rowhouses to form crowded apartments in Cicero, Illinois.

She proposed a “recombinant” house that could wrap itself around a big living room shared by the extended family. Or the home could sit atop a startup business.

The real-estate industry doesn’t know how to finance such sensible arrangements, which have a long history. It’s still easier to borrow for a McMansion, even though the U.S. has about five million too many of them, according to Arthur C. Nelson, a housing analyst who directs the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah.

Los Angeles architect Andrew Zago confronted a largely unbuilt subdivision near foreclosure-decimated San Bernardino, California. Desert dust swirls around the 10 percent of planned houses that have been built.

He suggests a land-banking program that would give the community the power to devise a future for itself, rather than waiting years for distant speculators to decide what to do.

Skinny Houses

Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith, two New York City architects with the firm MOS, show skinny houses wriggling down underused streets in Orange, New Jersey.

The pair advocate selling them with “portable” mortgages: attached to the owner rather than to the house. Buyers would gain the wealth-building advantage of owning with the mobility of renting.

Strict credit criteria and 20 percent down payments are turning America into a nation of renters, so Michael Bell of New York’s Visible Weather suggests a tight mix of commercial, government and residential functions on a 225-acre site near Tampa to reduce costs.

A museum isn’t an ideal venue to start a discussion of lending tactics, but architectural form significantly derives from finance, so it is wise to try out new models that could make housing more responsive to what people can spend and the way they live.

Weak Case

Unfortunately the architects in this show only intermittently make a persuasive case for their visions. Bell inventively harnesses Florida’s subtropical climate and lifestyle in his design, “Simultaneous City,” but the models and drawings are about as alluring as a sanatorium.

Zago fell in love with too-clever pixelated imagery as he pursued the valuable idea of rethinking public and private property rights to create more amenities at lower cost.

I did not expect to be disappointed by this show, since it is the third exhibition by Bergdoll that links the talents of architects to a formidable social issue.

Bergdoll laid a solid base of research for successful exhibitions on prefabrication and climate-change effects on New York Bay. This time the teams relied on a philosophical treatise developed by Reinhold Martin at Columbia University’s architecture school called “The Buell Hypothesis.” It claims to use a screenplay form to develop a Socratic dialog that unfolds like a road movie. Block that metaphor.

Bergdoll has defined his curatorship as restoring architecture to its proper place at the center of national concerns. He recognizes that its best practitioners never separate aesthetics from problem solving; they seamlessly interweave both.

I say keep trying.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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