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Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream

Museum of Modern Art
New York City
February 15–August 13, 2012

The problem is the architecture. I’ll explain.

In the summer of 2011, MoMA, inspired by the recent housing crisis, invited five interdisciplinary design teams to develop housing proposals for five inner-ring suburbs across the United States. After a series of public workshops and discussions, the five proposals came into the gallery.

Foreclosed is the second in an exhibition series that asks leading architects and related others to invent solutions to pressing contemporary issues. The previous show, Rising Currents, included an air of urgency and fresh thinking as it addressed New York City’s projected sea-level rise. Ignore the architecture, and Foreclosed travels well-trodden ground: Increase density, provide a mix of housing sizes and types, and shrink the distance between work and home. Mixed use, as always, reigns supreme, albeit now with a community composting twist. The designs aim to provide a variety of housing opportunities for Americans at any point along the income/immigrant/household-size ladder. But when has that not been the demand of American housing?

Therein lies the problem. Since cities began to rapidly expand more than a century ago, urban thinkers have proposed transit-oriented, neighborhood-based development as the antidote, packaged in architectural wrapping appropriate to innovative thinking of the time. Obviously, we’re missing something. The strongest piece on this exhibit wall is a deceptively simple ad campaign. The actual buildings of Foreclosed range from whimsical to indecipherable; a few might be at home in Manhattan or downtown Chicago, but none would be adopted by a suburban developer today. While we lament the lack of popular design sophistication, visitors flock to the model with blinking lights and tiny people, and miss the more important underlying ideas. We architects are left talking with ourselves, once again.