From glass-and-steel, virginal white planes, and open expanses, to corrugated sheets, plastic umbrellas, converted containers, and living spaces shoehorned into attics and backyards: How far modern architecture has come. And how far its temple, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), has traveled. The institution that gave us the (in)famous International Style exhibition in 1932 has now wrapped up its triad of save-the-world-with-architecture exhibitions with Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities (through May 10), a compendium of approaches and images as international as MoMA’s first architecture exhibition.
There certainly is a new doctrine to be proclaimed: Architecture and urbanism are not about form and style, they are about what designers can do to make our world better. It would seem like a complete reversal for a museum whose very building and admission pricing represent elitism, although we should remember that MoMA has always seen itself as supporting social causes, from housing the Guernica for four decades to hosting exhibitions such as Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 Architecture without Architects.
For an exhibition that focuses on some of our world’s most severe problems, Uneven Growth is oddly optimistic and even exuberant. As its Curator, Pedro Gadanho, says in the introduction to the show’s catalog, “…each collaborator was asked to turn the potential for catastrophe on its head and explore how the state of urban emergency suggested here is to fuel new modes of design creativity.” The exhibition, in other words, wants to make the case that we can do something about the physical aspects of social injustice, income disparity, and environmental degradation. By focusing on how and where people live, work, and play, diving into the problems, collaborating with those living in those difficult urban conditions, and using their knowledge of how they can build, architects can make very real improvements in people’s lives.
That the use of such tactics—which combine the deep resources of knowledge and skills proper to architecture with an ad hoc, collaborative, small scale, and even playful way of working—can make a difference is by now evident. Recent examples include cities like Caracas,Venezuela, with its tramways devised by Urban-Think Tank; Medellin, Colombia, with its many small-scale improvements in living conditions and connectivity; and the neighborhood of Dharavi in Mumbai, where architects have helped devise alternatives to “slum clearing.” [Full disclosure: I am collaborating with Urban-Think Tank on the 2015 Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, and an writing a book on its work.]
This exhibition, however, does not survey (except in a few images in the catalog) such tactics. Instead, Gadanho and his team commissioned six teams of architects to look at different cities and propose tactics there. The result is half a dozen proposals that range from the fantastical to the eminently practical.
The most utopian ideas come from the team headed by MAP Office about Hong Kong. They imagine new islands joining the thousands of rocks dotting the ocean around the former British colony. Some would be for pleasure (“The Island of the Self”), while others would reuse trash (“The Island of Surplus”) or provide housing for immigrants. The drawings are exquisite, the feasibility perhaps beside the point; the projects provide alternate visions for what the Pearl River could become.
Almost as seductive is NLÉ’s vision of Lagos as a true water-borne city, turning towards its swampy nature to develop floating villages connected by boats and powered by renewal resources. The flavorful drawings and dense maps convince you that all this might be possible.
Less seductive—and perhaps less convincing—is the notion advanced by Superpool and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée that neighbors might band together to share Istanbul’s space, resources, and information to create more tightly-knit and efficient communities that would stand against the massive towers developers are building as ramparts for the newly rich. How this coalescence might actually come about is not quite clear to me.
The URBZ team at least shows a proof of concept: an infill house they constructed in Mumbai as a “growing house” akin to Alejandro Aravena’s grid structures in Chile. They then speculate how this basic shell and lattice, whose construction they document in a short movie, could extend over the neighborhood of Govandi.
The final two teams, RUA Arquitetos in Rio de Janeiro and SITU Studio in New York, go even more fine-grained. SITU examined where space is left over, or where there is potential for reuse and differentiation, in New York, so that Gotham may no longer be just for the rich who can afford to live there. Their strategies are inventive, although, as in the Istanbul project, they assume a whole host of political, legal, and social changes that do not seem likely to occur.
RUA keeps things more playful and practical, proposing a neo-IKEA of affordable tools and furniture, Varanda Products, that will let local inhabitants make better and more collective use of the spaces in the city’s many favelas.
“The future no longer being ‘what it used to be’,” Gadanho concludes his essay, “the proposals in this catalogue and exhibition do at least offer partial glimpses of a desirable alternative universe: an urban prospect in which architects, artists, and other urban practitioners again meld social ethics into their much-needed aesthetic endeavors.”
Perhaps. With a whiff of utopian thinking and the verve of good architectural renderings, the best of these proposals do make us think that we can design a better future. As the long history of MoMA’s exhibitions show, however, it is just as possible that the work shown here will be the inspiration not for specific action on the ground, but for stylistic speculation. Will tactical urbanism turn into a tool the rich and their architects use to make their lives more flavorful and cool, more loft living and urban grunge, and less like their parent’s mock-classical McMansions? Will the Temple of Modernism co-opt the revolution? Or will this exhibition unlock visibility and funding for these projects, while inspiring young designers to change the world? Perhaps both are OK: as long as architects can help rebuild the world in a better way, who cares if the rich steal their style?
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.