COVER STORY

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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In late 2009, Martin compared notes with Barry Bergdoll ’77CC, ’86GSAS, professor of art history and architecture at Columbia, and MoMA’s curator of architecture. Bergdoll was organizing a series of public issues–based shows at the museum, and Martin was developing a research project on housing at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation’s Studio-X New York that yielded a pamphlet called Public Housing: A New Conversation. Together, they conceived and planned Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream. They selected five teams led by architects and including economists, housing activists, public-health experts, and engineers, and furnished them with The Buell Hypothesis. The teams, three of them headed by Columbia architects, read the work, chose suburbs, and, on the basis of their interpretations of the text, designed what the Foreclosed curators cannily call “provocations,” as opposed to “projects.”

“All kinds of housing, including the suburban house, are forms of infrastructure,” says Martin. “They connect with, and are made possible by, the larger systems that are supported by the public sector.”

“When people hear ‘project,’ they think that it’s meant to be built tomorrow,” Martin explains, “and these are not to be built tomorrow. It’s not that they couldn’t be built. It’s not that they’re unrealistic. It’s that they really are interventions in the space of the museum, in the discourse of architecture, and in other areas of the public sphere.”

III. Public Outcry!

The provocations lived up to their name. The show was widely praised in the media for its ambition, vision, and social and environmental engagement, but there has also been some dust raising on the architectural blogs. Dissenters called the proposals out of touch, self-indulgent, elitist, esoteric. Some saw a cabal of ivory-tower types imposing their social-engineering fantasies upon a constituency they don’t know or understand. Others confused a theoretical exercise meant to incite discussion with a shovel-ready project.

Martin has been taking the attacks in stride. “It’s a kind of cliché to describe this whole endeavor as elitist,” he says. “I’m not going to pretend that MoMA and Columbia are not, in effect, elite institutions. But the effort has been to call the elite institution to its responsibilities, both here and at MoMA. I think Columbia has significant responsibilities with respect to the housing crisis. We could do more to support the very idea of public housing, given that our neighbors are in danger of losing their housing through policies that have afflicted housing complexes in other parts of the country, where it’s either demolition or privatization.”

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