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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“Simultaneous City,” Temple Terrace, Florida / Photograph by Levi StoloveSocrates, in the passenger seat, argues that the boundaries between suburb and city, private and public, are blurrier than we might think, and that the suburbs, with their cul-de-sacs and idyllic street names and promises of escape, belong to “the same world systems that have produced megacities with vast urban slums.” The house, Socrates points out, while imagined as one’s freestanding castle, is a profoundly public object — surrounded by public land, served by public roads and schools, subsidized through tax deductions — and is the site, whether at the kitchen table or at the home computer, of the most public act of all: the exchange of ideas.

“So those who believe that the only options available to us must originate within the marketplace are mistaken,” Socrates says. “Publicly supported universities, public schools, even the interstate highway system, all hint at other options. But these options will only become viable if values other than financial profit become common sense, and that can only happen in and through a reclaimed public sphere.”

Where are you going, Socrates? And don’t say Athens.

II. Public Dreams, Private Needs

“In the end, Socrates asks, what if there were public housing in the suburbs in response to the foreclosure crisis?” says Reinhold Martin, an associate professor of architecture at Columbia, in his office on the third floor of Buell Hall. “And that is left as an open-ended question rather than a direct proposal.”

The Buell Hypothesis grew out of discussions on public housing that the center had begun generating in the fog of the subprime mortgage implosion of 2008. The hypothesis was fourfold: that globalization affects the inside as well as the outside of a house; that the suburb is a kind of city; that all houses are a type of public housing; and that you change the city by changing the cultural narratives behind the single-family house.

“The house is a sacred term in American public discourse,” says Martin. “But a house could just be a house, like a car, or a chair, or a computer. It doesn’t necessarily bring with it — nor should it, I think — transcendent social meaning. A house isn’t sacred: it’s just one among many artifacts with which we live. You could say that we have attempted to gently secularize the idea of the house.

“The ownership-based housing model has consequences in architecture. You could ask, what is the type of architecture that corresponds with this political economy — more or less the suburban house. Or you could go the other way and look at a house or any work of architecture and ask, what kind of a world does this building belong in? What does it imagine?

“That was partly our point in insisting that all kinds of housing, including the suburban house, are forms of infrastructure: they connect with, and are made possible by, the larger systems that are supported by the public sector. The myth of individual determination and freedom is precisely that: a myth.”

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