Foreclosed: Rebuilding the American Dream

EXHIBITION REVIEW

“FORECLOSED: REBUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM” (MoMa)

 

In the beginning of February I had a chance to visit the Museum of Modern Art to see the small but very interesting and ambitious exhibition: “Foreclosed: Rebuilding the American Dream.” The main concern of the exposition was modern American suburbs foreclosure crisis, and how they can be redesigned to be saved from being an overpopulated space for growing poverty and crime.   

The typical image of an American suburb, as we can see in movies and TV, is nothing else but boring, monochrome, seething world with cheap fast-food restaurants, old gas stations, and a mix of problems, such as poverty, drugs, and racial squabbles.

However, the original idea of designing neighborhoods was to escape all of these city life hardships and to live in a quiet, green and neat place with a family.  Suburbs have long been the sites of a key component of American dream – personal ownership of a single-family home, an investment that once guaranteed stability and legacy for next generations.

In general, what we typically call a suburb is actually a type of city, with attributes that we normally associate with urban life. Along with demographic and economic diversity, these include contestation over basic values and overlapping spheres of interest and activity among the inhabitants, both inside and outside individual houses.

Yet, fewer and fewer Americans have or want the lives that suburbs were designed for.  Partially, it is because of the increasing ownership payment.  The first exhibition stands, as you enter the hall, displays an interesting statistics about the growing rate of foreclosure:

USA 2009

Population            Foreclosure rate         Single-family detached houses

301,461,533          1.1%                             62%

Every year the foreclosure rate is increasing and homeowners are paying more and more on housing (30% of income – in 2009, 38% – in 2011).

The curators of the exhibition – Barry Bergdoll and Reinhold Martin – believe that architects and landscape designers can help by rethinking the entire idea of what a suburb is, for whom it is built, and how it operates.

For several  months, five creative groups of architects, engineers, landscape designers and economists had studies troubled suburban sites to develop a whole new concept of how best to fix them with less economical outlay.

This exhibition proposed five architectural projects for five suburbs around the US, through which they have created an opportunity for radically rethinking the building blocks of the US fast-growing urban fringe and developing a new national conversation on issues of housing, transportation and public space.

Some ideas might seem quite odd for some people, but, in general, they all have practical sense and innovatory view on the problem I stated above.

For example, Jeane Gang and her teammates proposed dismantling the shattered factory into a “Recombinant House” in her project “The Garden in the machine” for the suburb of Cicero, Illinois. They offered a new housing type that allows for the mixing of families, generations, and spaces for living and working in ways generally not sanctioned by current zoning laws. By the reemploying elements of the abandoned factory, notably it steel trusses, the architects achieve flexibility, introducing open spaces and gardens on multiple levels. Homes, work spaces, and public amenities coexist with variety of green spaces, which align with the rail lines to form wildlife corridors. This team also solved the problem of spending lots of money on housing. They offer the limited equity cooperative (LEC) model of home ownership. It decouples the ownership of homes form that of the land beneath them; residents own their spaces, and thus have an incentive to care for them, but the land and shared amenities are jointly owned by all, in a private trust.

 

Amale Andraos and Dan Wood from WORKac company offered very green-concerned  “Nature-City” project for Keizer, Oregon.  Their model is quite controversial, but has a right to exist, nevertheless. The main theme of their project site is “living close to nature.” Their proposal, Nature-City,  reinvents 1899 British concept of Town-Country, a classic feature of the Garden City that combines the conveniences of urban life with the  health benefits and access to agriculture of country living. Nature-City integrates density, diversity, a mixture of uses, and a variety of housing types ranging in affordability, and incorporates ecological infrastructure, sky gardens, urban farms, and public open spaces.

The types of housing for the project include party-wall town houses, various multi-unit forms: from towers with hanging gardens and interior waterfalls to courtyard homes. Through their specific shapes, the housing types offer vital services to the community as a whole, such as the production of the renewable energy and the natural processing of waste.

Another project “Simultaneous City” by Michael Bell and Eunjeong Seong is very efficient space- and climate-wise. The project was created for Temple Terrace suburb in Florida. In their proposal, public/private partnership is replaced by a real estate investment (REIT): publicly owned local land remains a public asset, and the income derived from development is shared with citizens. Central to the project is a mixed-use development, integrating a new city hall, municipally owned “incubator” offices for business start-ups, and three different types of housing. Structural and environmental design  are fused to combine access to outdoor space, privacy, and expansive spaces – valued aspect of suburban living – in new, more energy-efficient ways. Architectural solutions are specifically adapted for Florida’s climate. The upper level of the main structure hosts a network of courtyard houses, each entered by way of a garden from an open-air series of corridors and public plazas.

Each house is divided into vertical zones; general living spaces are designed to harvest to dehumidifying prevailing winds, whole bedrooms are situated a half-level down, shielded from heat.  The entire complex is linked by a series of interwoven walking path. Parallel the existing geographic infrastructure of Temple Terrace while proposing a new layer of financial, structural, and environmental engineering, Simultaneous City offers an efficient new magnet community on 225 acres, with benefits for the larger 4,500-city.

Architecture projects are a highly effective medium through which to contemplate possible futures for cities. There are many ways to imagine housing different than it is now – from the way it is financed to how it is designed to how it is combined with or separated from other spaces in which other activities occur. These possibilities all imply systemic change at urban, regional, national, or international levels.  Changing the cultural narratives behind the private house leads to changing the house itself, which inevitably changes the city (and the suburbs).

“Foreclosed” does a fine job of analyzing these changes and of offering tentative, sometimes a bit provocative solutions. Nevertheless, the good point is that experts start noticing this growing problem of suburbs. With more architects and designers all over the world get involve the more efficient ways to help the suburban life crisis appear.

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