an atomized, desegregated, poorly engineered commodity

MOMA has a new show called Foreclosed which is four architects who tackle the problem of that great disaster environment the American suburb.   This show is so much better than MOMA’s lame 2008 Housing for New Orleans show in which a half dozen architects proposed designer suburban homes for the newly dried out city in the gulf – baptism by hubris:  ‘you still have to drive to get your milk, but at least you live in a hip little house,’ that show seemed to be saying.

Foreclosed on the other hand, suggests that the base ideas that made the suburb were wrong and makes some very viable proposals for reversing course at the scene of the crime – the suburbs themselves; one each outside New York, Chicago, Tampa and San Francisco.  No mention – yet – that it may be time to resist all urges to fix what is broken and to concentrate our energies in the cities where they stand some chance of accruing.

Four American architects confronting face on the debacle of the suburb is a rare thing – we’ve seen lots addressing, but few confronting.  Perhaps this show establishes a watershed moment in which more and more begin to speak out.  Is it good news for architects everywhere, who may now speak openly about urban ideas and planning and government involvement in development etc?  They now have at least some precedent to defend against recrimination.  The sphere of the built environment has become as politicized as the many other hot button issues of our time – health, education etc, but it rarely gets air time, in great part because of fear of recrimination.

The following excerpt from the Foreclosed videos on the MOMA website is from the presentation by Michael Bell of Visible Weather.   He challenges some of our most basic and entrenched beliefs about the built environment, most significantly that the free market has not served us properly in how it has built our housing and developed our neighborhoods.  He’s right, look around: the free market has built crap for over half a century, and we still unquestioningly stand by it.  He says the American house is a lousy commodity, that we need to use channels that work to improve it including the involvement of government.

Here is Michael Bell’s comment:

We are arguing that Temple Terrace as a model, should not only acquire the land but they should keep the land.  Rather than handing the land back over to a private developer in the name of the free market, that there could be a way that the government could actually do redevelopment.  What we argued is that the city should get much more control; the people should get a much richer complex project, and that in fact if you do it right it might be possible to do it better than the free market.  The suburbs could be far more constructed with far more intelligence than it does.  We need housing with a much higher level of sophistication in its systems.  The same kind of sophistication that you would seek in your phone, in your computer, in your anti lock brakes on your car.  Housing doesn’t have that.  A Honda might cost $15k but it has about $2bn worth of research in it.  An apple iphone might cost $500 but it probably has $700m worth of research in it.  The American single family house probably has about $5,000 worth of research in it.  There is no research in the American single family house.  It’s an atomized, desegregated, poorly engineered commodity.

[…]  The private market’s proclivities do not include research, they don’t include a depth of social analysis, they don’t include the depth of curiosity to do things different.  They are securing and amortizing risk.  They don’t want to design something that might not work financially.  The city could take on more risk and it could control the risk, and it effectively could diminish the risk, and could achieve far greater consequences than is going to happen with the market.

Michael Bell, Visible Weather, MOMA/foreclosed


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