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 ( 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.