Dreaming American

In Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, architects were asked to rethink the American suburbs in light of the foreclosure crisis.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2012
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“Thoughts on a Walking City,” The Oranges, New Jersey / Photographs by Levi Stolove

Columbia’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture and the Museum of Modern Art asked five architect-led teams of urban thinkers to reimagine the suburbs in light of the foreclosure crisis. The result, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, currently on exhibit at MoMA, has inspired new discussion and new thought — and created a few subdivisions.

I. The Buell Hypothesis

On February 18, 2009, the day after President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, two of history’s most stimulating conversationalists got stuck in traffic on I-95 South. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, and his pupil Glaucon, son of Ariston, were headed to Athens, Georgia, for a symposium on housing and the American suburbs. The men took note of their surroundings along the highway — the grassy berms, shopping malls, and housing developments riddled by foreclosures — and broke into a dialogue on the assumptions that underlie the American Dream.

So begins The Buell Hypothesis, a four-hundred-page book produced by Columbia’s Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. “The suburb is organized around an ethos that construes homeownership, or at least the feeling of being at home, as something essential or fundamental,” says Socrates, scrutinizing the roots of happiness as he used to at Polemarchus’s house. “However, the financial crisis has made clear that the houses in and through which Americans dream their dreams are not owned by them but rather by banks, whose octopus-like networks make a mockery of national borders, never mind national ‘dreams.’” The American Dream “is a fiction, but a real one,” Socrates says, a kind of movie, profitable and risky, “requiring tax incentives and other types of government support to prop it up and to keep it running in theaters nationwide.”

Change the dream and you change the city: this is the central premise of The Buell Hypothesis, which is written in the form of a screenplay as an alternative to the old metaphorical script that equates homeownership with happiness and full civic participation. Supplemented by a montage of newspaper clippings, photographs, and other documents, The Buell Hypothesis examines the housing crisis through playful Socratic argument and tells the story of public housing in America from the Great Depression to the Great Recession — how failed housing projects were demolished or privatized, their bleak examples (most notably, the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis) held up to discredit the very idea of public housing.

To challenge that narrative, the Buell authors — Buell Center director Reinhold Martin, Anna Kenoff ’07GSAPP, and Leah Meisterlin ’09GSAPP — identified eight distinct suburbs marked by high foreclosure rates, potential access to high-speed rail, and large tracts of public land, to present test cases for reinvention at a time when stimulus funds had begun flowing to infrastructure projects.

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