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Rehousing the American Dream at MoMA

By current estimates, close to 11 million American homeowners are in serious distress, owing more on their homes than the homes themselves are worth. Foreclosure rates have been elevated since the financial crisis began in 2008, and the value of the nation’s housing stock is projected to continue to plummet for the foreseeable future. The dismal state of American housing, and of the suburban landscape that’s been Ground Zero for the crisis, is the subject of “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream”, a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art open until July 30th. Under Chief Curator Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s Department of Architecture & Design has brought together the contributions of five collaborative teams, each of which recasts the old-fashioned bedroom community for the 21st century.

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The Nature-City proposal for Keizer, Oregon, by WORKac came complete with witty mock television ads for the new development.

The content of the show tracks closely with a preview presentation held last September at PS1, MoMA’s contemporary annex. The participating teams—headed by architects Jeanne Gang, Michael Bell, Andrew Zago, partners Amale Andraos and Dan Wood (of partnership WORKac), and Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith (MOS Architects)—have taken real tract developments, in locations across the U.S., and turned them into theaters for conceptual intervention. Using models, renderings, and videos, the group leaders and their co-designers demonstrate how creative real estate contracts and innovative architectural solutions could combine to forge a revitalized suburbia, one inoculated against the kind of economic shocks that precipitated the current real estate crunch.

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Orange, NJ is just one of countless communities around the country that have been hit hard during the recession.

“Most architecture shows go out and find something to endorse,” noted Bergdoll, who contrasted that approach to the kind of generative exhibitions, like “Foreclosed”, that have brought new work and new ideas into the Modern in the last several years. The current exhibition belongs to a sequence at the museum (including 2009’s “Rising Currents”, on urban responses to climate change) that shows MoMA taking on topical issues with original work by top-tier designers. Columbia University Associate Professor of Architecture Reinhold Martin, whose research paper, "The Buell Hypothesis," was the prime theoretical germ for the “Foreclosed” proposals, praised the museum’s open, civic-minded curatorship. “MoMA has always had a certain porosity,” he said.

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The proposal from the MOS-led team refigured the unemployment-plagued suburb of Orange New Jersey as a "Walking City," with public pedestrian routes weaving between houses.

Of the proposals on view, perhaps the most appealing is Nature-City, WorkAC’s inventive re-imagining of the modest Portland feeder town of Keizer, Oregon. A surprisingly urban vision for a relatively remote locale, the design boasts a wide variety of housing typologies, all of them arrayed around a municipal complex whose tumulus-like forms suggest a connection to nature fully qualified by the development’s eco-friendly features. As with the Zago group’s plan for Rialto, California, and Gang’s for Cicero, Illinois, Nature-City puts a premium on communal space and services, not only as a means to foster community but as a hedge against the mercenary commercialism that gave us the late housing boom and bust. And to the special credit of Andraos, Wood, and their academic and engineer collaborators, the Keizer scheme avoids the trap (into which Michael Bell’s proposal, Simultenaous City, slips all to easily) of rehearsing the problematic motifs of 20th century social housing, creating instead a novel and lively template for the future of American life. 

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Jeanne Gang and company's The Garden in the Machine (a clever play on the title of Leo Marx's 1964 book) combines new and highly adaptable commercial and residential facilities to revive the immigrant enclave of Cicero, IL.

"Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream" is on view in MoMA's Architecture & Design gallery until July 30th, 2012.

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