The Brooklynization of our culture is creeping closer to architecture. Having conquered music to the point where more of what I listen to was made in that borough, set sartorial standards by mixing the Victorian with the Woodstockian, and changed food by marrying the unlikely with the implausible into the (sometimes) delicious, this movement is now creeping into design and planning—though not yet, as far as I know, building.
What I mean by Brooklynization might better be identified as a mix of influences from both Queens and Brooklyn, but it is already such an ungainly word so one calling out one borough will have to do. By my definition, what we're witnessing is a mixing pot of multicultural pop—not highbrow—elements that do not so much blend together as they layer, trip over each other, and turn into complex agglomerations. It has roots that stretch back as far as the hippie movement and its global aesthetic; there are neo-'60s overtones in this version of the look, sound, and taste. More recent antecedents would be David Byrne’s and Paul Simon’s use of African and South American popular music or the work of somebody like the painter Kehinde Wiley. If I had to point to one “maker” (the preferred name in this scene for a non-business-oriented creative), I would suggest the band Vampire Weekend. In food, it would be Momofuku and its founder, David Chang, even though the restaurant is located across the East River in Manhattan.
The Brooklyn aesthetic emphasizes the appropriation of technology along with a return of a Luddite temperament (going as far as eating a paleo diet that aims to take us back to the Stone Age); delight in the availability of materials, foods, and sounds from around the world while decrying globalization; and is an engine for gentrification while rejoicing in industrial and run-down neighborhoods. It is, in other words, the perfect way of representing a world in which we can all be makers but are slaves to technology, are global citizens but yearn for the local, and have found that moral missions are much less convincing than a fluid sense of right and wrong.
Manhattan is also celebrating the movement’s design reach in the Museum of Arts and Design’s first NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial. It is an exhibit that defies good taste and sense from the way in which it is curated—or rather, non-curated—as a pile of stuff crammed into the museum’s modest-sized galleries, to the riot of materials, forms, and colors that assault you when you step off the elevator. A temple of good taste in the heart of the canyons of capitalism has been taken over by an unruly mob of makers and their stuff.
The largest piece in the biennial is Rafael de Cárdenas’s Architecture at Large, a room lined with terrariums filled with artificial plants, including monstera deliciosa. He claims it evokes “early 1990s club culture” but is also “transcendental,” according to the gallery's guide. It appears to be fake lush to me: the evocation of nature through technology in a manner that emphasizes both as out of human control. The wallpaper hung on the adjacent wall brings that point home. Designed by Flavor Paper and Dan Funderburgh, it is called Vigilant Floral, and mixes a take on traditional floral motifs with images of security cameras. Together they seem like a perfect visual summation of Brooklynization in all its lushness, nostalgia, and matter-of-fact use of technology. The rest of the show, unfortunately, falls pretty flat.
Manhattan is certainly not safe from the influence of its outer boroughs. Now that Brooklyn native Bill de Blasio has taken over City Hall and installed the former director of the Queens Museum Tom Finkelpearl as the new director of cultural affairs, we might see Brooklynization spread further. The most logical next step would be for New York to get involved with tactical urbanism, though I am not sure de Blasio’s chair of his planning commission, Carl Weisbrod, is up to that. So far, there is little evidence for a new approach: from the compromise over the Domino Sugar site and the new buildings replacing 5Pointz, the former haven of graffiti artists whose look is so much a part of Brooklynization, to the decision to fill Gracie Mansion with West Elm furniture (the company is based in Brooklyn, though owned by California's Williams-Sonoma). So far, Manhattan might and money are beating Brooklyn in making where it counts. Will clean, logical capitalism win out over messy, tactical making? Stay tuned.
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.