Cesar Bejar TO's Campanario installation was the 2018 winner of the competition to design the pavilion for the courtyard of the Eco Museum in Mexico City.

This is how I imagine the jury deliberations for the 2019 edition of the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program (YAP) to have gone. Glenn Lowry, the slick-back-haired ingenue who has been director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art for almost as long as any of us have been alive, and who has just signed up for another leadership tour of duty at the Modernist Mothership, says: “OK, guys [although there was one woman there (Yolande Daniels, of Studio SUMO)], enough already with these spectacular ideas and schemes that disappoint when we construct them as party spaces in PS1’s courtyard. Enough of all this technology, that’s so last decade. We need something that will make people feel at home.” “I agree,” says Martino Stierli, the Philip Johnson chief curator of the Architecture and Design department. “We must honor craft, boxes, grids, heaviness, Swiss stuff maybe; you know, everything we were founded to be against.” “But, as our own work has shown, you can combine those and … ” Daniels tries to interject before Lowry’s glare cuts her off.

So this year, we have wound up with five teams that are heavy on craft and light on ambition, at least in terms of scale or innovative form. What the members of the quintet are all good at—and several of them are very good at, indeed—is the alchemy of the everyday, the magic of the simple object, touch-inviting forms and materials, and the beauty of the urban oasis. Whoever wins will, I predict, provide a serene and peaceful respite from the transformation of PS1’s Queens neighborhood from a multiethnic collection of homes, car repair shops, and diners into a developer-driven Millennial playground. They will also provide a break from the relentless drive for innovation, newness, and—dare I say it—Modernism that has propelled MoMA’s program for emerging practitioners thus far.

The five finalists all present a multicultural view that reaches far beyond the United States. Two of them, in fact, are based in Mexico (Pedro & Juana and TO); another is a collaboration between a Romanian architect (Oana Stanescu) living in New York and a Japanese textile designer and artist (Akane Moriyama) living in Stockholm; and one (Low Design Office) has its largest commissions in Africa. Only a single finalist, Matter Design, seems to fit the standard model of the previous YAP winners: Its director, Brandon Clifford, is a white male who teaches at MIT, with degrees from Princeton and Georgia Tech, and won such career-marking awards as the Rome Prize.

Guadalupe River House by Low Design Office. Photograph by Casey Dunn. Low Design Office's Guadalupe River House, outside of San Antonio, Texas.
AMP Spacecraft ZKM demount in Agbogbloshie by Low Design Office with Panurban. Photograph by LOWDO. Low Design Office's Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform in Africa.

I have to admit that I have not seen any of the firms’ work in person, but from what I can glean, it all looks rather promising. Low Design Office is the most traditionally accomplished of the contenders. Based in Austin, Texas, and led by two designers (Ryan Bollom, AIA, and DK Osseo-Asare) who met at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the firm has produced a few houses that look to continue vernacular traditions while experimenting with a collage of different materials. Osseo-Asare has also started the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform in Africa, and the firm is working on new cities in both Nigeria and Ghana.

Rafael Gamo TO's tent pavilion for Mexico City's Zocalo square.
Cesar Bejar TO's 2018 Campanario installation in Mexico City.

The only other firm to have done more less-traditional commissions is TO (Carlos Facio and Jose G. Amozurrutia), which has produced simple houses and pavilion structures using such materials as concrete block and stucco. The designers also seem interested in manipulating the vernacular of Mexico City, where they both studied at the main national university, the UNAM. But what intrigues me more is their concentration on gardens and temporary installations, especially the rust-colored tents they erected for a special event on their hometown’s main square, the Zocalo.

Photography: Carl Bower Mecky Reuss and Ana Paula Ruiz Galindo at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Pedro & Juana (Ana Paula Ruiz Galindo and Mecky Reuss) have concentrated almost purely on the type of installations and pavilions that peek my interest the most in TO's portfolio. Trained at SCI-Arc, the duo worked for Los Angeles–based artist Jorge Pardo, who has for several decades extended his practice into architecture and installations. Pedro & Juana has created installations at the Chicago Architecture Biennial and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, in which hanging lamps and upside-down umbrellas seem to be the main theme.

Courtesy Matter Design Matter Design's McKnelly Megalith in Cambridge, Mass.
Courtesy Matter Design Matter Design's Cyclopean Cannibalism (with Quarra Stone).
Courtesy Matter Design Matter Design's Microtherme for the BSA Space in Boston.

Matter Design’s Clifford—working with partners Johanna Lobdell and Wes McGee—claims he is interested in achieving architectural aims through “spectacle and mysticism,” though I am not quite sure where to find that in the work. What I do see is an array of experiments in form and texture, ranging from computer-printed bullhorns to shelves with drooping bottoms and free-form vases. Clifford claims an interest in “Cyclopean Cannibalism” and has produced experiments using large-scale rock walls as inspiration. The work does have the quality of evoking natural forms, especially in the grotto-like spaces of the competition entries for projects such as the Guggenheim Helsinki.

Family designed a 50-foot volcano stage set for Kanye West’s 2013–14 Yeezus tour.
Virgil Abloh Oana Stanescu designed sets for Kanye West's Yeezus tour.
Plus Pool’s two successful crowd­funding efforts have pushed the idea toward fruition, allowing Family and collaborator PlayLab to build prototypes and develop its filtration systems.
Courtesy Family The +Pool for the East River in New York City.

Finally, Stanescu made a name for herself as one of the instigators of +Pool, a cross-shaped pool the firm Family proposed as a floating pleasure sign for the waters around Manhattan. She has also worked on set designs like those for Kanye West’s Yeezus tour. Now on her own, she has teamed up with Moriyama, who specializes in draping gauzy fabric in space, transforming them not only through their often-translucent qualities, but also with iridescent hues and large-scale prints. You can see how the jury might have liked the potential of the combination of a big statement and sensual accoutrements they might offer.

I have no idea what the odds are for any of the teams, especially since, during the next round, they have to submit concrete proposals. What I do know is that they all seem capable of making beautiful designs that put MoMA, a cultural thought-leader if ever there was one, firmly in the camp of alchemy, vernacular transformation, and chillin’ and making it real—and far away from the utopian dreams and technology-driven experimentation that would seem to be its core competence.

Note: This story has been revised from its original version to correct the spelling of Yolande Daniels' name. We regret the error.