Foreclosed: The Role of the Team in the Design Process

The Museum of Modern Art and The Buell Center invited a series of team participants and observers who attended workshops for MoMA’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, which opens in February, to reflect on the project. Here are thoughts from the Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory (UEDLAB) and its director, Alexander Felson, a member of Andrew Zago’s team.

Reconceiving exurbia: Poorly sited dense housing developments are re-envisioned as frameworks where active and adaptive ecological strategies can be integrated into the construction and lot divisions through “misregistration” to promote ecosystem restoration, wildlife management, and waster reuse. Diagram courtesy of Alexander Felson and Jacob Dugopolski.

Creative design and interdisciplinary exchange were two ingredients MoMA sought to foster in the Foreclosed project. Under MoMA’s guidelines, the teams leaped into uncharted territory, investigating new economic models for restructuring suburban land allocation and radical ecological means for management and adaptation. Respecting the location of foreclosures largely on the outskirts of urban areas, the task was to work through design interventions and enhancements, rethinking human-nature relationships given the suburban adjacency to the hinterlands. Team concepts grew organically through discussions, site visits, and research—culminating in a reconfiguration concept coined “misregisration.” This was intended to tweak the suburban model to restructure relationships and take advantage of potential overlaps and adjacencies within the suburb and its surroundings for social, ecological, and economic gains. For example, rather than thinking of each component of the suburb—lawn, driveway, house, and infrastructure—separately, we sought overlaps and slippages that produced multifunctional landscapes and enhanced value.

Exurbia feedback loops: Making connections between agents to promote new models of exurbia with increased ecosystem functions, labor demands and adaptability. Diagram courtesy of Alexander Felson and Jacob Dugopolski.

Pleistocene rewilding: Establishing an exurban rewilding experiment to assess the impact of reintroducing large vertebrates to enhance the structure, resilience, and diversity of ecosystems. Based on proposals from the Rewilding Institute (http://rewilding.org/rewildit/). Diagram courtesy of Alexander Felson and Jacob Dugopolski. (Click to view full size.)

These early stage discussions were highly collaborative and generative of new concepts. As the ecologist and landscape architect on the team (and as a joint professor in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Architecture at Yale), I was seeking ways of bridging ecological knowledge with suburban design, shifting the paradigm of these exurban sites from one that disregards the surrounding environment to one that takes advantage of the adjacent conditions and the process of suburbanization. This includes the material flows, construction activities, and potential for human management of ecosystems over time. It is inevitable that we will continue to develop and build houses. Can we develop new practices that improve the social, economic, and ecological function of these communities? For example, federal funding could be combined with private development practices to create a new suburban model based around the fostering of ecosystem benefits rather than disregarding these values and reacting to consequences. As human activity continues to degrade biological systems, sites involving human agency, such as suburbs and infrastructure, could be coordinated to balance development with site-specific active and adaptable ecological manipulations and long-term management practices.


Following these goals, we propose to use suburbia along the exurban fringe as a site for testing re-wilding, a concept being discussed as part of continental ecology. The concept builds on the knowledge that large predators are often instrumental in maintaining the structure, resilience, and diversity of ecosystems through initiating “top-down” ecological (trophic) interactions. In turn, they require resources, including nesting and foraging areas and water sources along with large cores of protected landscape and connectivity to insure long-term viability. This re-wilding would be achieved by employing the zoological park as a suburban amenity. In a collaborative endeavor between the developer and federal government, the government would finance habitat links to the suburb, and in return the development would incorporate knuckles with intensified habitat zones and productive ecosystems, providing jobs, public amenities, and regional habitat resources.

Housing taxonomy: Combining building, landscape and technology to promote zoo-like interfaces and artificial attractors Diagram courtesy of Alexander Felson and Jacob Dugopolski. (Click to view full size.)

We propose developing a main wildlife corridor to the National Forest and integrating this re-wilding experimental area adjacent to Glen Helen/Sycamore Flat. For the Rialto site we are proposing a reconsideration of the edges and core of the community through new connections and artificially constructed resources, including (1) developing a main wildlife corridor connecting the Wash to the National Forest along the traditional suburban artery drive; (2) building an on-site gray-water collection and treatment system that would discharge based on an adaptable constructed habitat tributary into the Lytle Creek Wash with enhanced nesting and foraging zones; (3) adopting land between the development and the upland National Forest to serve as an experimental re-wilding area adjacent to Glen Helen/Sycamore Flat, where large carnivores could be introduced and assessed for survival and reproduction through enhanced ecosystems and engaged management; and (4) restoration ecology of endangered habitats by the Lytle Creek Wash.

Choreographed habitats: Four strategies responding to exurbia context. Diagram courtesy of Zago team, Alexander Felson, and Jacob Dugopolski.

While the initial concepts were rich, the translation of these concepts into viable formal proposals fell short. In the design process, the architect is the principal actor in the processing of concepts into the form and aesthetic of a proposal. The impact of the concepts will therefore depend largely on the extent to which the architect determines their conformity with the overall design concept. Collaboration in this context occurs merely on the periphery of the design process and is thus constrained. At the outset of the process, the architect embraced the proposed ecological design strategies. However, in the course of the translation of these strategies into a design aesthetic, a sustained process for facilitating input from the ecologist was never fully developed or attempted, with mixed results in the extent to which the architect was able to effectively capture the ecological concepts. Consequently, while the final proposal of misregistration provides a compelling aesthetic, its actual ecological functionality remains open to question.



Thank you for critiquing the collaboration process. As President of the Board of Directors for The Wildlands Network, we applaud your efforts in attempting to include ‘rewilding’ into this concept. And while it is encouraging that the design team included an ecologist, it is most unfortunate that the execution did not respect your input. We see this time and again, where some sort of abstract design aesthetic is forced onto the landscape, marginalizing or worse yet, ignoring the basic tenants of ecology, and then championed in the name of ‘sustainability’. Once again, it goes to show that many architects (and landscape architects) talk a good talk about ecological issues but rarely understand the science and almost certainly don’t know how to fully integrate sound ecological principles into their work. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The animal diagram has the horse incorrectly labeled as a tapir (in the Linnean taxonomy).

Following up on KB’s Dec. 15 comment and the article:
Ecological principles may not be mutually exclusive with human habitat, but that is not the key issue.
The most sustainable approach is to make the human built environment as dense, livable and compact, while leaving the hinterland and wilderness as intact as possible – not the agonizing compromise of low density settlements on the periphery of cities. This suburbanized nature, even with rewilding, is neither feasible or sustainable for the 7 B people on the planet – or any number close to that.

Let’s build good, tight cities and leave as much untouched habitat as possible for other plant and animal species. Introducing green design into the urban environment is fine, but not the crux of the ecological benefits of urbanism.

I sense the MOMA exhibit missed the point to a large extent.

First, I really appreciate the commentary from both KB (12/15) and DK (03/07) regarding the rewilding concepts in relation to suburbanization. I would like to respond first to DK’s point of building dense and compact cities and leaving the “hinterland and wilderness as intact as possible” is the ideal and I certainly do not disagree with this position. That said this is not what is taking place on the ground. Urbanization is continuing to spread into the hinterlands here in the US, in China, India, and Brazil and around the globe. The proposal here is to consider the potential for these exurban developments to adopt an ecological mandate.
The focus on the MOMA exhibit and analysis is also very specific and thus the proposal needs to be seen in its context. We were specifically tasked with looking at foreclosure housing projects and how as designers and scientists we might bring federal funding to address some of the issues faced. Thus the site was selected for us, and due to its proximity to the San Bernardino National Forest and the ecologically intact conditions of the surrounding context including the Lytle Creek Wash, we saw the notion of creating a neighborhood focused in part on ecological management as an opportunity for collaboration between developers, the federal government and future homeowners.
A third factor to consider is climate change and global warming. The earth is changing in part through large-scale anthropogenic causes. These are creating pressures and constraints on the hinterland ecosystems and organisms. Already, there are discussions of how to foster species migration as their ranges shift north. This is an area that scientists are keenly interested in the role they might play. Consider the species introductions, assisted migrations and other efforts scientists are already participating with the goal of enhancing ecosystems. In other words, just leaving the hinterlands out there “undisturbed” by the built environment does not mean they remain undisturbed, and to maintain ecosystems and organisms human interventions will likely be an important component. Consider John Foley’s diagram of the changing landscape conditions – where is the “hinterlands” in his diagram?
Finally, Rewilding (and this goes back to KB’s comments) is a radical proposal and one that is debated amongst ecologist. Much of the issue arises from the concern over human – wildlife conflict that would likely ensue if we were to reintroduce large carnivores etc. to the US. At the same time, most ecologists would agree that top down predation would benefit ecosystem health and lead to greater diversity of species. Thus the issue is one of public acceptance. As a result, getting this concept out there through a variety of venues (given that Rewilding is in the “marketing” stage) should mostly benefit the cause. It is a much more radical concept than simply allowing people to manage biological systems at the urban fringe and is intended to create debate and discussion.
The MoMA exhibit is pervaded by architectural discourse of the suburb and could use this layer of integration of knowledge into new suburban forms. The architect and their modes of working and analysis were prioritized and sites open to large development were sites for new visions. Still, the rewilding concept is part of the exhibit, which means that tens of thousands of museumgoers visiting the exhibit will have the opportunity to reflect on what role people can play in managing ecosystems in their neighborhoods, and on the potential value of rewilding as a concept to consider for promoting ecosystem function.

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