In the past, an effort to address serious quality-of-life issues would have been put forward by the city itself. Can that push be privatized? The guggenheim curators (including David van der Leer, shown here) think so.

In the past, an effort to address serious quality-of-life issues would have been put forward by the city itself. Can that push be privatized? The guggenheim curators (including David van der Leer, shown here) think so.

Credit: Ian Allen

Last december, 31-year-old David van der Leer asked his employers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for a title bump. His request (which was granted) required only reprinting assistant curator of architecture and design on his business card—and replacing “design” with “urban studies.” And yet it suggests that van der Leer is further evidence of a shift that takes architectural curation from museum walls onto city streets, from observation to experience, and from lessons learned to learning lessons.

The first show that van der Leer co-curated after joining the Guggenheim in 2008 was “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward” (May 2009). With more than 200 archival drawings, models, and animations, the exhibition drew unprecedented crowds, but van der Leer nevertheless remains circumspect. “The Wright show was the most popular show in the museum’s history and all of that, which is great,” he says. “But if there’s so much potential to do architecture shows, then we want to do something different.”

“Different” might be the word for the BMW Guggenheim Lab—an exhibition, if that’s the word for it, that signals a new direction in museum practice that privileges active experience over passive contemplation. Co-curated with assistant curator of architecture Maria Nicanor, the BMW Guggenheim Lab is an urban-planning laboratory that will travel to nine cities over the next six years. Every two years, a new mobile structure will be built for this Lab. At each stop, it seeks to provoke a broad segment of the local public into registering their opinion on intractable city issues.

In the past, an effort to address serious quality-of-life issues would have been put forward by the city itself. Can that push be privatized? The Guggenheim curators think so. “We need to address real-life issues from cultural institutions the same way we address art, design, and other creative representations,” Nicanor says. “Topics like the economic crisis, sociopolitical and environmental issues, are matters that we should be addressing through our architecture and urban programs.”

Van der Leer is no Young Turk; his ideas are sanctioned by a progressive modern art museum housed in a progressive modern building that features a steeply graded ramp, walls as curved as fuselage, galleries that seem almost an afterthought, and a vast void at its core. The other void in the museum—which, like its architectural counterpart, could be called either an impoverishment or wealth—is the absence of any permanent architecture or design collection of its own. These unconventional characteristics have often generated unconventional programming, and van der Leer is one indicator that the Guggenheim still remains in the vanguard: He is importing an experience-driven approach to retail into the cultural realm, plucking the museum entirely out of the museum building and inserting it wholesale into the city, shifting the museum-going experience from one of foot-swelling, eye-glazing passivity to direct, vociferous, keyboard-pounding participation.

Van der Leer grew up in the bedroom suburb of Zwijndrecht—population roughly 45,000—20 minutes outside Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Leaving voids still palpable today, the city’s center was razed during World War II. In the hands of the Dutch, however, who have always turned to design to keep their country from being consumed by the sea, this devastation turned van der Leer’s childhood epicenter into a laboratory of explicitly experimental architecture. Van der Leer discovered his interest in spaces early on. “I don’t think my parents could keep count of how many times I managed to rearrange my bedroom,” he says. “And one of the reasons I danced as a kid was because I was interested in the many spatial configurations possible in a small studio.”

His early influences include the 1922 Justus van Effen complex by architect Michiel Brinkman and the 1988 book America by Jean Baudrillard. But with little interest in math and physics, van der Leer decided not to study architecture; instead, he focused on its history, sociology, and management. “I began to read more and more about cities,” he says. “It was shocking to see how little direction there was and how often data and photos were abused in publications and exhibitions to give us a feeling that we had it all under control, that we understood it all. But we did not and do not really understand cities, and I think there is a huge and important task at hand.”

Van der Leer got his start building books with Rotterdam’s 010 Publishers, and he kept his nose in them, too, filling his free hours with a 3D design course four nights a week, an urban-planning course in Amsterdam, and then with classes at Erasmus University Rotterdam for his master’s in urban and architectural theory. On graduating, he joined Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where he enjoyed the constant “flirtation with sociology.” In 2006, van der Leer moved to New York to assemble exhibitions and publications such as House: Black Swan Theory and Urbanisms: Working With Doubt, both for Steven Holl. Coming from the well-ordered Netherlands to New York opened van der Leer’s eyes to the possibility inherent in a certain measure of chaos. “The combination of that design sense and the potential of the informal,” he says, “is very important in many of my projects.”

Joining the small Guggenheim staff in 2008, van der Leer worked on the Wright exhibition and then “Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim” (February–April 2010), a show of interventions in the museum’s vast atrium. “Stillspotting NYC,” a project launched by van der Leer in June, is a two-year, multidisciplinary series that radiates from that void out into New York City: Every few months, artists, architects, and composers identify, create, or transform site-specific “stillspots,” exploring how urbanites can make peace in the city that never sleeps. The first debuted in Brooklyn, where visitors to Pedro Reyes’s “Sanatorium” were “diagnosed” and assigned individual “therapies.” This month, the second will pair auditory experiences composed by Arvo Pärt with Lower Manhattan spaces chosen by architecture firm Snøhetta.

“David’s preoccupation is with urbanism as a whole, and with the belief that microissues can be discussed from a larger perspective,” says Rizzoli’s Dung Ngo, senior editor of the company’s architecture and design division, who met van der Leer in 2006 while editing Holl’s monograph Architecture Spoken. “He is less interested in object design; our consumer-fetishistic culture doesn’t interest him so much, but he is able to infuse policy wonkmanship with the poetry of everyday.”

In August, the BMW Guggenheim Lab took wing in a temporary building on Manhattan’s East Village by Japanese architects Atelier Bow-Wow. Nicanor and van der Leer conceived the Lab’s structure, commissioned its architecture, and will oversee programming. Eschewing data, maps, and photography, the curators seek urban analysis from city dwellers themselves. “The project is unusual because it requires active participation,” Nicanor says. “It is not your traditional architecture exhibition, and the conversations we are having are not taking place inside our museum on Fifth Avenue.”

Van der Leer has been delighted to find that these conversations aren’t generated by objects alone (as was the case with Wright). Rather, the stories come from people with diverse disciplines and walks of life. And so it is not before but after the show opens that ideas begin to take shape—when the visitors start talking. “How can we get a conversation going between people from four to 94 years old and from different social backgrounds? Cities are hugely important. More and more of us live in them on a day-to-day basis,” van der Leer says. “But how often do we really think about them?”