There’s no foreclosure crisis in Manhattan. Or, for that matter, in the vibrant hearts of Chicago, San Francisco, or Portland, Ore. But head outward from these cities, into the suburban and exurban tracts in which America grew up, and the economic devastation stretches out for mile upon desolate mile of strip malls and abandoned developments. The housing boom that ended in 2006 saw home prices rise, making the economics of home building much more attractive. The arbitrage was easy, and developers across the country bought into it: buy up cheap suburban and exurban land, build as many huge houses on that land as possible, as quickly as possible, and then sell them at enormous prices to buyers with property-bubble fever. Never mind whether those buyers could actually afford that much house: so long as a bank would lend them the money, profit was assured. And of course the banks would lend anybody money, since they in turn could bundle and sell off their mortgages in the capital markets. But then the capital markets stopped buying (and offering) mortgages, leaving banks with huge amounts of bad debt and home builders with millions of unsold homes.
The message of “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is that it didn’t need to be this way—and that economic crises can have architectural solutions. But from the start, MoMA pulls its punches: Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design for MoMA and the show’s curator, concedes in his catalog introduction that “architects, urban and landscape designers, and infrastructure engineers can do little directly about the problem of foreclosed mortgages and households ‘under water’ (that being a crisis of the financial architecture of America).”
The disclaimer seeks to excuse the flights of fancy that permeate the show’s prescriptions (more on that in a moment). But one driving idea of the show holds firm, Bergdoll’s binder notwithstanding: Suburbs are generally an architect-free zone. Insofar as such creatures are spied at all, they’re employed to rubber-stamp a builder’s plans. Beyond that, they’re not wanted. Suburbanites are conservative, wherever they might lie on the political spectrum: There’s a good reason why builders have kept on churning out houses which have remained essentially the same for decades, even as they have grown steadily in size.
If the housing crisis taught us anything, it’s that we can’t go on like this anymore. Today, the average American family spends 52 cents of every earned dollar on housing and transportation, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That’s a fixable problem, and for “Foreclosed,” five different groups came up with conceptual plans for five different suburbs around the country—all of which attempt to create something more sustainable going forward. Of course, for an idea to be sustainable, it also has to be realistic. Much of the MoMA show fails that criterion miserably. Orange, N.J., is not going to build long strings of apartments in the middle of its streets, as suggested by MOS Architects’ Michael Meredith, AIA, and Hilary Sample, AIA. Neither is Keizer, Ore., going to bite on huge towers of three-story homes teetering atop each other—complete with indoor waterfalls—as put forward by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, AIA, of Work AC. And are those elephants that Andrew Zago dropped in the backyards of Rialto, Calif.? Yes, they really are.
So there’s an unapologetic strain of art and whimsy here, which makes it difficult to judge the more practical notions—especially as regards the proposed new financial architecture of these suburbs. The Rialto plan, for instance, from Zago Architecture, proposes that in 2009, rather than selling off foreclosed houses one by one, banks would first write down the value of the property they own, and then “engage in a seller-financed transfer of assets to the non-profit Community Development Corporation.” In English, this means asking the banks that are taking a huge bath on the project to also make a huge bet that an ambitious suburban nonprofit megaproject would fare much better.
In Cicero, Ill., Studio Gang Architects has come up with another ain’t-gonna-happen proposal: houses would be broken up into their constituent parts—bedrooms, kitchens, lawns—which then would be mixed and matched in any number of possible permutations, with some elements owned by individuals and others being communal. “The house is affordable because people can buy only what they need at the time they need it, and then can add or subtract spaces as families grow, shrink, or otherwise change,” goes the explanation. Prices would be fixed by a private trust, which would be the only buyer and seller of property; owners, in any case, would never own the land their units were built on. How would the whole development get financed in the first place? That’s far from clear.
Even the most thought-out of the projects, from a financial perspective—Visible Weather’s proposal for Temple Terrace, Fla.—assumes that the municipality (which is far from healthy, financially) will be able to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to build a huge, 225-acre development that includes everything from shops and homes and churches to a brand-new City Hall.
The basic idea is stirring: “Temple Terrace’s residents could spend 30 percent of the $700 million they collectively earn annually and remain within HUD housing-cost guidelines,” write Visible Weather’s Michael Bell and Eunjeong Seong, “but the disaggregated way in which housing monies are spent means that they are spent on a very low-level commodity.”
But there’s the rub: If you try to get 10,000 people to live together in a single development, you’re cutting against the very impulses that drive people out of the city and into the suburbs in the first place.
There’s something almost colonialist about this exhibition: Witness five architectural practices hailing from New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago parachute into relatively poor suburbs, spend very little time actually talking to the people who live there, and pitch projects that only a city-dweller could love, and that only a socialist state could finance. “City-building does not necessarily have to take the path laid out by the markets,” writes co-curator Reinhold Martin, who set the terms of the teams’ engagement with The Buell Hypothesis—an eclectic text (it is in part a screenplay) that quite explicitly proposes “unapologetically public housing models on government land.”
There’s lots of talk, here, of “the predatory character of most development” and the like, even as many of the projects propose an ownership system very similar to the venerable New York City co-op. But despite this prejudice against development, the proposals in the show are basically mini-cities, to be developed as single projects at vast expense. There’s precious little scope for organic growth in this exhibit: Instead, all residents have to fit into a preconceived plan where the costs are front-loaded and where financing seems to magically appear whenever the municipality wants it. Meanwhile, the existing residents of the suburbs in question, the ones still underwater on their American Dream houses, are barely considered in these plans. The MOS Architects plan for the Orangians in New Jersey for instance, eliminates the very streets along which existing residents drive to and from their homes every day. Any honest attempt to fix the suburbs has to start with facing up to why so many Americans live in the suburbs in the first place, and who those Americans are. Suburban families are bigger than urban families; they like their space; and they like living in places where they’re a good distance from their neighbors and a long way indeed from people of other social classes.
All of the projects in this exhibition, in one way or another, pile Americans on top of each other; squeeze them into homes that are much smaller than those currently found in the suburbs; and extol the wonders of urban mixed-use developments that feature the broadest possible range of owners, renters, and even businesses. They basically comprise a simple message to suburbanites: We city-dwellers are better at living than you are, and if you want to improve your lifestyle, you’re going to have to become much more like us.
It’s a message that doesn’t really solve the problems of suburbia so much as simply eradicate them by decree. Studio Gang’s proposal gleefully attacks Cicero’s suburban zoning code, deleting most of it with neat red lines and replacing it with the language of “density,” “diversity,” and “a variety of living types.” Congratulations on reinventing the city. Now, what are we going to do about the suburbs?