Dreaming of Home

It didn’t take the mortgage meltdown to make clear that residential patterns affect individual, societal and environmental health. And the crash only made the ruinous implications of conventional sprawl development harder to ignore. Now an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art asks how architecture and planning might ameliorate those consequences, proposing alternate ideals of home and imagining buildings and places to express them.

“Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” (through July 30, 2012) presents conjectural designs for five representative but quite different suburban places where defaults have been especially numerous. There are no mile-high farming machines or magically floating street grids among these concepts. They are serious proposals with recognizable components—more and less radical, but readily buildable. If, that is, there might be a mass market for them.

The proposition made to the five design teams was this: The culture of the single-family house with lawn and driveway propels development forms that are demonstrably insupportable. What alternate visions of home and community can yield placemaking that is beneficial? What might that housing and those neighborhoods look like? What financial and property arrangements would they depend on?

This challenge is cultural as much as it is architectural or economic. Thus the proposals must be judged by how profoundly they address and encourage a modification—even an upending—of the so-called American dream. Actually, instead of “Rehousing the American Dream” a more accurate subtitle would have been “Redreaming the American Home.” To want to live in such reimagined communities, people would have to disabuse themselves of commonly held archetypes of house and neighborhood, deeply ingrained feelings about privacy and ownership, unquestioned measures of success and even selfhood. This would amount to a massive societal shift in expectations and values. But big changes in cultural norms do occur when people feel threatened. Vast numbers of us have eschewed tobacco, for example, and sprawl is arguably even more dangerous. So what the hell? Let’s dream.

What follows are thumbnail descriptions of the projects. (The museum’s online presentation includes a good portion of the material on display.)

Rendering of Visible Weather’s “Simultaneous City” project for Temple Terrace, Florida. Image courtesy Michael Bell, Eunjeong Seong: Visible Weather.

“Simultaneous City” would create a 225-acre town center for Temple Terrace, a Tampa suburb whose ‘center’ now amounts to commercial strips that have excessive setbacks, vast parking lots and otherwise underutilized land. A complex of connected buildings linked by walkways, courtyards and a plaza would integrate and stack uses: a city hall, incubator office spaces, a health facility, everyday retail. Several types of housing—rented, owned and supportive—would be accommodated in somewhat unusual structures, like two-story courtyard houses connected by open-air corridors built atop several office levels.

Absence of a center is a typical condition in suburban places, and there have already been so many proposals and attempts to establish density and downtown functionality on similar commercial-strip sites that the general approach seems hardly radical. “We see the project as a bridge to another space. We don’t want to create a utopia,” but “to show what was possible,” a team leader says in a video. The architecture is fresh, including significant gestures of passive response to the subtropical climate. It’s hardly off-putting, or at the level of the individual unit, profoundly different from the more familiar townhouse and garden-apartment typologies nearby. To the growing extent that people are willing to choose multi-family living contexts, it’s easy to imagine these being desirable.

Rendering of WORKac’s “Nature-City” for Keizer, Oregon. Image courtesy WORKac.

That’s not so sure with a scheme for a mostly undeveloped site of exactly the same size on the edge of Keizer, a suburb of Portland, Oregon. “Nature-City” could accommodate all of the town’s expected population growth of 13,000 people over the next two decades. Multiple building types would be clustered into pier-like extensions of the adjacent street grid. These would protrude into the site and in many places be elevated above it, leaving more than half the area as a restored nature preserve. The sense of porousness and continuous nature is palpable both in the plan view and in the concepts for the buildings: rows of party-wall houses bridging wetlands, “cavern” buildings allowing for wildlife corridors, a blossom-shaped building enclosing ponds for water treatment, and everywhere the designing of spaces for food production.

This is an ambitious effort to address resource and environmental issues. “The housing types offer vital services to the community as a whole, such as the production of renewable energy and the natural processing of waste and other by-products,” the team writes. But these biomorphic, eco-mechanical structures are more than a little unusual. Are there buyers for residential units in a dome-shaped building called “Compost Hill,” designed to trap methane from the landfill over which it sits? Today Portland, tomorrow the world? Maybe.

Architectural model for Zago Architecture’s “Property with Properties” project for Rialto, California. Photograph courtesy of James Ewing. © 2011 James Ewing.

“Property with Properties” is a proposal for the completion of a subdivision in Rialto, near San Bernardino, California, which failed with only 10 per cent of its conventional single-family houses out of the ground. This idea would overlay the site with additional density and introduce multi-family housing typologies by “misregistration,” blurring property and setback lines and narrowing streets. This would allow more area for building, and for seasonal river and wildlife pathways. Also proposed is an offbeat architectural style: buildings with colorful, patterned surfaces and irregular geometries that suggest jigsaw-puzzle pieces or dancers doing a rumba.

The color might be welcome in that near-desert landscape, and the close, origami-like unfolding spaces between the buildings do seem fun, but the weird interiors that would result from these shapes? Maybe not so much. The bigger question about this proposal is whether it fundamentally challenges the suburban model and mindset. A shuttle bus to a transit stop is envisioned, and some commercial space is incorporated, but this would remain an island-like, cul-de-sac subdivision, still quite car dependent—and with an internal street plan even more circuitous than the original. There are hundreds or thousands of similarly moribund subdivision projects around the country, called “PVC farms” for the stubs of conduit sticking out of their unsalable house lots. A better strategy might be to let them stay dead, or take them back to a greenfield state.

Of the five in the exhibition, only these three projects are set in post-war suburban locations. And none of them takes on what may be the most tragic and intractable effect the foreclosure mess has had on the built environment: monocultural single-family neighborhoods left pockmarked with deteriorating and abandoned properties. (This condition must have existed in these communities. At a time when the national foreclosure rate was 1.1%, the rate in Rialto was 11.4% and in Temple Terrace 7.4%. In Keizer it was only 2.5%, though.) Repairing such places is the hardest challenge. They lack viable transit. They typically lack a mix of uses and income brackets, while having populations who were expecting, if not explicitly promised, these things. Maybe for designers these places are the least appealing because they are not blank slates. They’re not even as blank as the asphalt parking lots of a stagnating commercial strip.

The other two projects are in towns that are nominally suburban. But these are inner-ring suburbs, old enough to have been built with regular street grids, multi-family and small-lot single-family housing, retail and industrial presence, and rail transit. It was to escape from or leap over precisely these places that the suburban dream held promise; their populations are now working class and poor.

Rendering of Studio Gang Architects’ “The Garden in the Machine” project for Cicero, Illinois. Image courtesy Studio Gang Architects.

“The Garden in the Machine” focuses on a defunct factory site in Cicero, just outside Chicago. Cicero is a first stop for Latino immigrants. They surely arrive with an American dream, though it might be focused more immediately on finding reliable work and stable housing than on acquiring McMansions and jumbo mortgages. They also bring with them a more communal cultural grounding. In response, the housing typology proposed is the most unconventional in the exhibition. The team used the metaphor of a Rubik’s Cube for its modular system in which kitchens, living rooms and workspaces can be shared, and bedrooms plugged in or out as family groupings and needs change. The plan incorporates spaces for gardens, events, a market and food court and defines a “cottage industry alley” on the lane behind an adjacent block of bungalows to encourage the garage-workshop enterprises already naturally arising there. This project is deftly tailored to the existing population of Cicero. But it would demand the most in adjusted expectations of home from more mainstream American householders.

Rendering of MOS’s “Thoughts on a Walking City” project for Orange, New Jersey. Image courtesy MOS.

Equally exciting and out-of-the-box is a project for Orange, New Jersey, called “Thoughts on a Walking City.” It would maximize the value of existing infrastructure and concentrate population by filling the streets with continuous, chain-like four-story buildings. They would have ground-floor retail, apartments above, and public areas on their roofs. The new spatial and visual relationships are intriguing to imagine: the blocks of existing one- to three-story buildings enclosed by the slightly higher new structures; the intimate, irregularly-shaped walkways and public spaces left over when the streets no longer exist. “We may have to rethink the size of fire trucks,” a team leader allows in a video, “and you might need a cart to bring home groceries.” He references Venice as an exemplary carless city.

Of the five projects, this is the most intriguing from the point of view of urbanism and urban aesthetics. It touches that nerve that resonates with close-built, alley-filled antique towns—the ones we love to travel to visit—with their informal, quirky spaces and their variety. It is perhaps the most valuable proposal because it could accommodate a lot of population growth in a place that already has urban infrastructure. It is also the most radical, imposing a pedestrian realm of enclosure and limited vista.

Surprisingly, the unsatisfactory aspect of the exhibition is its vagueness about the economic arrangements that would supposedly underpin these projects. The proposal for Orange, for example, would have “portable mortgages” and a “micro-governmental cooperative structure,” and the Cicero one would have a “limited-equity cooperative” model, whatever those things are. Others mention a public-private partnership or a real-estate investment trust—both more familiar terms—but what makes them right for these situations? We don’t really go to an art museum expecting a lesson in the economics of property development, but a related infographic for each proposal could have told enough. There’s a good reason to want to grasp the economics; we need alternatives to sprawl that can really work. The challenge is that it’s not just about design.

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