The severe effects of the current economic crisis on suburbs across America make it more urgent than ever to rethink the designs of our suburban landscapes. Disconnected single-family homes requiring private automobile transport seem to form a less and less viable pattern of settlement.
Early next year, MoMA’s Foreclosed exhibition will take on major issues in suburbia that have been under-examined for decades—themes that were explored through two other notable exhibits at The Museum of Modern Art in the past: 1973’s Another Chance for Housing: Low-Rise Alternatives presented a housing prototype designed to combine the best aspects of suburban and urban living, while the 1944 traveling exhibition Look at Your Neighborhood advocated for public spaces within suburbia.
MoMA has historically used its position of influence to call attention to issues in suburbia and housing. Collaborating with government agencies, as well as with architects, the Museum has framed arguments on new ways of living. In this tradition, Foreclosed, which is co-organized by MoMA and Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, will present five architectural teams’ re-imaginings of the American suburb.
1973: Another Chance for Housing: Low-Rise Alternatives
Many of the Foreclosed teams’ designs increase the density of their suburban sites, arguing for greater environmental sustainability and more social interaction than typical suburban developments allow. Though current economic, social, and ecological concerns have made these issues more urgent, MoMA was looking at dense housing for suburbs 38 years ago.
The 1973 show Another Chance for Housing proposed a low-rise, high-density housing prototype that would be viable for both urban- and suburban-scale sites. The design gave each unit direct access to outdoor space as well as individual entry, with semi-public spaces formed by narrow internal streets and stoops. Marcus Garvey Village in Brownsville, Brooklyn, became a built application of the type.
Another Chance for Housing came out of a unique collaboration with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, a nonprofit, semi-independent think tank headed by Peter Eisenman; and the New York State Urban Development Corporation, a short-lived but prolific public housing authority led by Edward Logue. The show presented the low-rise, high-density model as a logical progression in the trajectory of public and suburban housing of the 19th and 20th centuries, offering suggestions for architecture, urban design, and national policy.
Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The New York Times, “The exhibition marks the return of the museum to an activist position in the promotion of what it believes to be the best in design—a leadership role that it carried in objects and furnishings for many years, and is now applying to the much more complex built environment.” Now, following a four-decade pause in shows addressing the large-scale issues of suburbia, MoMA’s Foreclosed promotes public debate on these pressing concerns.
1944: Look at Your Neighborhood
Foreclosed asks its design teams to consider what is “‘public’ about today’s cities and suburbs.” The question recalls the central theme of MoMA’s very first exhibit on community planning and suburbia, 1944’s Look at Your Neighborhood. Less about design and more a call to civic action, the bare-bones show declared, “Your neighborhood needs you . . . Organize a neighborhood planning council.”
MoMA produced the exhibition in collaboration with the New York City nonprofit United Neighborhood Houses, the New York State Housing Board, and the New York City Department of City Planning, advancing the housing groups’ agendas. Look at Your Neighborhood traveled the country for five years to more than 100 local venues. As suburbs popped up across the United States in a postwar boom, small venues like the local library of Bangor, Maine, and the Firemen’s Insurance Company of Newark each rented the show for three weeks.
Through simple terms and images, Look at Your Neighborhood presented public spaces that people should demand for their communities, from “safe streets” to a “public park and playground” to “a teen-age building.” Though simplistic from today’s point of view, the show advocated for an attention to the public realm that would be lost in subsequent suburban development. Foreclosed puts MoMA back in a position to offer design ideas for these public concerns.
Karen Kubey is a Brooklyn-based writer and researcher on architecture and housing. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a Bachelor of arts in architecture and received a Master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. These posts draw on research for “Exhibiting Urbanism: MoMA as Advocate for Ideals in Housing and City Planning,” co-authored by Priscilla Fraser for a spring 2009 seminar on the history of MoMA’s architectural exhibitions and installations.