“Scalable Solutions for NYCHA”, from MoMA’s “Architecture Now” show.
Public architecture is one of those subjects, like seismology or virology, that most people would prefer to leave to the pros until they get into their sights. Then, a city agency launches a plan to convert a newsstand into an e-bike hub, enlarge a boathouse, renovate a library, remove a few parking spaces, erect or dismantle a statue or build new apartments for the homeless. Suddenly everyone is an expert. Passions rise over the technical details and opinions intertwine around the construction budgets: 126 million dollars for This? To manage this emotionally charged terrain, the Adams administration took advice from civic groups and appointed a public domain czarYa-Ting Liu, whose first task will be to round up restaurateurs, their customers, residents, city council members, his boss and a bunch of opportunists rats in a consensus on the future of outdoor dining.
Living in New York means learning to negotiate with strangers over inches of shared space. The piece of subway platform in front of an open door. The bumpy red square of the sidewalk where the sidewalk dips to meet the crosswalk. A park bench. An elevator. An armrest. Townspeople constantly meet in each of these mini-DMZs, and despite our reputation for being messy, we almost always run such encounters peacefully and without conscious thought. Scarcity breeds cooperation. This is why people react so strongly to any change in public space: it threatens to upset a precarious balance. That’s why we react to every public design proposal by positing group psychology theories, predicting strangers’ behaviors as if they were fruit flies in a wind tunnel: It will confuse people, make them move faster or slower or more erratically.
Today, MoMA has entered this conjuncture of design and civic politics with a loosely titled and loosely grouped exhibit, “Architecture Now: New York, New Publics.” The show scans a dozen projects – tiny and vast, concrete and pious – under the rubric of “public amenities,” to distinguish them from the trophies of capitalism. Sure, a billion-dollar skyscraper can also foster “collective participation and a sense of belonging,” but conservatives Martino Stierli and Evangelos Kotsioris have more self-consciously virtuous goals in mind. And so we see the Fresh Kills landfill being turned into a nature preserve over the past 30 years by James Corner Field Operations, a fire hydrant with a custom spout courtesy of Agency-Agency and Chris Woebken Studio, a suite of metro- Sunset Park station murals by Olalekan Jeyifous and various other urban interventions. All are meant to make the city less intimidating.
It’s fun to imagine museum staff sifting through the thousands of mundane and fanciful projects that have swirled around New York in recent years (anyone for a COVID memorial in Central Park? How about one death 32ft ear swabs for 5G cellular service?) and rejecting virtually all of them. No restaurant hangars, no barriers or bollards, walkways, libraries, airports, tunnels, museums, fire stations, transfer stations, subway stations or train stations – almost none of the the city’s essential gears failed. The works that have done so are mostly by emerging architects who merge aesthetics and social virtue. Sure, the kids could learn about renewable energy in a basic cinder block shed at Jones Beach, but doing so in a long solar panel and solar panel lab designed by ARCHITECTS is much cooler. SO-IL’s Amant Arts Center in East Williamsburg may only affect a handful of lives at a time, but look at that masonry!
In some installations, the MoMA thumbs its nose at physical facts. Faced with New York’s reluctance to tear down statues of the past, the Kinfolk Foundation has developed an app to virtually insert 3D monuments into parks and plazas. Lift a tablet loaded with the Kinfolk app and a colossal figure of Haitian revolutionary General Toussaint L’Ouverture replaces the Columbus Circle column topped with his objectionable Italian navigator. I like the idea of superimposing design proposals on the existing city using technological sleight of hand, as if New York were just a static backdrop to be animated at will. A virtual reality walking tour, crossing Walt Whitman in a Broadway omnibus or stroll on the lawns of the BQEgreat.
Kinfolk’s visual reimagining of the Columbus Circle monument.
Even more whimsical, the show includes Peterson Rich Office’s “Scalable Solutions for NYCHA,” an eminently logical but deeply unrealistic set of adjustments to public housing as it currently exists. Architects understandably treat NYCHA issues as architectural challenges, and Peterson Rich volunteered to improve residents’ lives by gluing a set of hardwood balconies to the buildings’ brick facades, adding a few low wings and by redeveloping open spaces. . But MoMA’s caveat: If you endorse a narrowly architectural solution for low-income housing, you’re also putting the architects in a position to bear the blame if it fails, because Minoru Yamasaki did it for the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe. Stierli’s curatorial team is surely well aware that outside the confines of a museum, the obstacles to creating safe, stable and decent social housing have little to do with design and everything to do with money, manpower and political will. Before you start hanging balconies, fix the boilers.
The most complex of the completed projects is Weiss Manfredi Park at Hunters Point South, a landmark episode in the decades-long endeavor to reclaim the post-industrial waterfront. It’s a beautiful design, which would have stayed on a sketchbook if not for an unlikely string of policies and circumstances: the Bloomberg-era effort to lure the Olympics to New York, which led to the rezoning of Long Island City and settlement there. a massive affordable housing campaign; Hurricane Sandy, which reinforced the wisdom of surrounding the city with soothing wetlands; THE deceptive logic of ferry transit; and the city’s pivotal decision to pay for the park rather than forcing developers to build it bit by bit. That data shaped the design and gave the park its meaning, so it’s a shame that MoMA erased all that history and tenacity, all the ways a noble concept could have been undone and, miraculously, didn’t. summer. Here, the result looks like a simple formal study.
Weiss Manfredi’s plan for Hunters Point South.
Photo: Michael Moran
I understand the urge to keep things simple and attractive, to exhibit a collection of thoughtful and seemingly flawless projects, making viewers think, Yes good idea. A canopy over the Kosciuszko Pool in Bed-Stuy? Sure why not. Life-size architectural models set up as permanent pavilions in community gardens? Bring them. A foundry recycled into a theater incubator in Gowanus? Of course! And it is true that each of these projects, with modest or generational ambitions, contributes to the idiosyncratic richness of New York. Ironically, however, these promoters of social betterment appear in a vacuum of social context. Who wants them, who hates them and why, who pays for them and when, who can be persuaded to support them and who uses them as intended – these thorny questions are at the heart of public architecture and distinguish a deeply elegant project from a it’s just pretty. Imagine you are an activist who has spent years seeking funding and votes to fix a neglected playground. You looked around the gallery, inhaling the air of good humor and whispering in disbelief, “They have no idea.”
“Architecture Now: New York, New Publics” is at the Museum of Modern Art until July 29.