Foreclosed: Reverse Engineering

MoMA and The Buell Center invited a series of team participants and observers who attended workshops for The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, which opens in February, to reflect on the project. Here are thoughts from Jesse Keenan, a member of Michael Bell and Eunjeong Seong’s team.

Fog settles in on the Elbe in Dessau, Germany, November 2011. Photograph courtesy of Jesse M. Keenan

Implicit in the notion of reverse engineering is that the subsequent iteration of the target construct is superior to its predecessor. The method utilized over the course of the development of Visible Weather’s contribution to the Foreclosed exhibition was oriented in the application of multidisciplinary techniques within a consolidated process that balanced notions of generation and analytics in its outcome. Grounded in the integration of the design, financial, and regulatory disciplines, the method provided a mechanism for testing and analyzing design interventions. The utility was not only that any given massing and program could be tested for its financial and regulatory feasibility, but that optimal combinations of variables could be developed to keep the vision of the designer within the bounds of reality and subject to its highest utility. In this regard, the rhetoric of sustainability could be applied to a much broader notion of the built environment, one which was inclusive of financial and environmental values.

An empty suburbia in Dessau, Germany, November 2011. Photograph courtesy of Jesse M. Keenan


Intuitively, a designer may find this method abject to the emotional and psychological complexities of object creation as a matter of art. Contrary to the division of art and science, it should be noted that this applied grounded-theory method does not, in and of itself, create discrete knowledge and, as such, is as much of an art as it is perceptively a science. There is a strong metaphor of how parametricisim applies in this context: music.

As an art, music is grounded by the mathematics and physics of pitch, harmony, and various paradigms of music theory. Music as a general practice has, through the ages been more or less a beaux-arts method of precise replication, where innovation comes from those who break the rules. In this sense, reverse engineering, as applied herein, simply adds another series of rules to the process of architectural design alongside the existing rules of physics and the hard sciences.

The outcome is reciprocal to researchers who have long sought to apply design thinking to business and social problems. The most prescient historical example being the evolving modernism of the Bauhaus, which attempted to draw similar connections between economy and design. This line of thought was made famous by the likes of Otto Neurath—the one economist to participate in design at the Bauhaus—and the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle of the 1920s–1930s. This historical precedent also highlights the traps of technocracy and the ideological limitations inherent in engineering anything which is subject to a social dynamic. While the underlying philosophy is largely intact, the techniques have since benefited from the advancements of both theory and computational science.

Architecture of the U.S. real estate industry. The Bauhaus Academy, XII Kolleg: After Levittown. Diagram courtesy of Jesse M. Keenan and Nicholas Chelko. (Click to view full size.)


The mechanics of this contemporary method fall within four steps. First, a model is developed that translates use and geometry into an operational array of programs which can measure the fiscal impact as it relates to infrastructure and other negative externalities of development. In this sense, the research seeks to find the “true” cost of development, which is implicit in the notion of sustainability. Second, the outputs are run through a separate model for financial sensitivity analysis from the perspective of owner, operator, and the developer. A third model codes qualitative variables attributed to the geometry and use rules found in building and land-use codes, as well as design regulations. As a final step, inputs can be loaded into either the first or second part, which generates geometry for lawful and financially optimal massing on the back end. At this stage, design research is often subject to the bias of utilizing this method as a means of rational form creation. It is at this juncture that it becomes very difficult to maintain control over rationalist and artistic tendencies when they are symbiotically connected in real time. Like musicians, designers will tell you that there becomes a point in time when the internalization of rules is so profound that there is no longer the necessity of a conscious connection between the creative act and the bounding limitations of the rules. That is to say, you simply stop thinking and you just create. Despite the comprehensiveness of the method, this moment of improvisation is still theoretically regarded as a platonically divine act for which there is still inefficient computational capacity in the modern world.


Jesse M. Keenan, JD, LLM, is the Research Director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and is the Managing Editor of This essay was written while in residence at The Bauhaus Academy in Dessau, Germany. The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of the author’s affiliated institutions and firms.