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BMW Guggenheim Lab

New York City
August 3–October 16, 2011

It’s a great goal: to promote thoughtful discussion among designers, thinkers, and “regular” people about the future of the city. In our post–Jane Jacobs era, it’s also a popular goal, and one of the most vexing. Too few get it right. The BMW Guggenheim Lab is no exception.

For three months this fall, the BMW Guggenheim Lab has transformed a vacant lot on New York’s Lower East Side into “part urban think tank, part community center and public gathering space.” The Lab travels next to Berlin, followed by a stint in Mumbai. The New York Guggenheim will exhibit the results and then the two-year cycle will be repeated twice more, in six other cities.

The layout is more theater set than exhibition—which is both its promise and its challenge, as success depends on the activity of the moment. The Lab will host more than 100 events: discussions; speakers; movies; workshops; and classes on yoga, meditation, even bike repair. I visited on an August Sunday with family members. A few fellow yuppies milled around, and a highly scripted game, Urbanology, took place at one end. As my 13-year-old niece observed, “The website makes it look interesting, but there’s just not much here.”

What was it all about? For the uninitiated, it was hard to tell. Despite the sophistication of the sponsors (and the structure), there was a surprising lack of interactivity. Both low-tech (Post-it notes, chalkboard) and high-tech (iPad stations, QR codes) information-sharing devices were missing—unless you want to go home and join the website’s comment threads.

Meanwhile, the park across the street was packed with people representing a vast array of ages and languages at play. The question remained unanswered: How do you involve them in a discussion about the design of the city?