Recap | What is Foreclosed?


Currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art is an exhibition entitled Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream that explores “new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis.” Like Rising Currents before it (which proposed environmentally responsive design interventions for New York harbor in light of a climate change reality that portends massive flooding), Foreclosed brings the expertise of a set of talented and interdisciplinary design teams (comprised of architects, urban planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers) to bear on a contemporary crisis:

Responding to The Buell Hypothesis, a research report prepared by the Buell Center at Columbia University, teams — lead by MOS, Visible Weather, Studio Gang, WORKac, and Zago Architecture — focused on a specific location within one of five “megaregions” across the country to come up with inventive solutions for the future of American suburbs. This installation presents the proposals developed during the architects-in-residence program, including a wide array of models, renderings, animations, and analytical materials.

To mark the opening of Foreclosed, Columbia University hosted a day-long forum, “What Is Foreclosed? Housing, Suburbanization, and Crisis,” that expanded the scope of the exhibition by examining some of its underlying conditions. Below, Caitlin Blanchfield recaps the event. For more information on the exhibition, click here; and for a cogent, critical response to the show by Diana Lind, click here.

In a spirited dialogue that took on the American Dream, the words of Socrates, Glaucon, Jay–Z and Clipse filled the rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Library on Saturday, February 18th. The intent of the day of discussion was to consider “What is Foreclosed?” As part of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center and Museum of Modern Art exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, a panel of anthropologists, architects, planners and institution leaders gathered to assess how the American Dream was brought to a breaking point, and considered ways to reshape our collective housing desires.

Departing from the Buell Hypothesis, a screenplay-style dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon that asserts “change the dream and you change the city,” the first panel, “From House to Housing,” began by appraising the 30-year mortgage. Catherine Fennell, an anthropologist from Columbia University, questioned the role of the housing crisis in a greater failure of public housing in a post–Keynesian economy, which has been dominated by New Urbanist-influenced programs like HOPE VI, and in which the absence of appealing public housing has fed suburban sprawl. For Fennell, the key is to find the hinge between the American liberal welfare state and housing. In the U.S., Fennell explained, non-destitute citizens are incorporated into a welfare society by being induced to work, save (well, sort of…) and consume. The 30–year mortgage compels people into particular working, spending and debt-management patterns by offering the opportunity for social mobility that comes with home ownership. The question now facing us is not what replaces the suburb, but rather how do you create new opportunities for wealth transformation.

The differentiation between private and public housing recurred when Pratt Architecture Professor Catherine Ingraham brought the discussion to America’s Jeffersonian beginnings and the malleability of the term “property.” Substituted for happiness in the constitution, “property” has taken on connotations of private enjoyment but also public good. Defensible ownership guarantees individual freedom. Does this individual freedom, sense of comfort, and feeling of “being at home” contribute to shared values and the common good? While the relationship of architecture to private enjoyment — through aesthetic choices, financial value creation, or some combination of the two — is well understood, the relationship of architecture to the public good is more vexing, particularly in the case of architectural typologies not designed for private ownership, such as public housing, or in the shifting definitions of public space, whose contestations and constituencies are ever changing. Perhaps, then, “public architecture” might provide a means to take stock of how people live and to understand who the public is.

MIT professor Ana Miljacki expanded upon this notion by emphasizing that architecture is one of the only arts concerned with both private enjoyment and public good. She argued that by definition the American Dream limits the way architects can conceptualize design, and that the only way to overcome the dream’s limitations is to confront one’s desires and the economic structure within which they evolved. Citing Soviet social housing as an instance of the architect as the public servant, Miljacki advocated for architect as “imagineer,” working with communities to offer models of collective housing by expanding kinship structures, and relaxing the boundaries between people and properties to allow for varying levels of publicness.

The five sites addressed in the proposals at MoMA's Foreclosed. Click <a href="" />here</a> to enter exhibition website.
The five sites addressed in the proposals at MoMA's Foreclosed. Click here to enter exhibition website.

The suburbs arose, in part, because building on the city’s edge was deemed risk-free, cheap and, perhaps, a natural extension of the frontier mentality. But building on the edge, as University of Michigan’s Robert Fishman pointed out during session two, “Suburbs, Cities and Crisis,” is anything but risk-free. Referencing the communities of Cicero, Illinois and Temple Terrace, Florida in the Foreclosed exhibition, Fishman suggested that there is a middle condition between urban center and isolated suburb that can function as a financially stable model, much like the streetcar suburb of the late 19th century. You can change the dream by recovering the possibility of the past, Fishman claimed. In response, one audience member raised the point that it is impossible to ignore the segregation that pre-1950s suburbanization enabled.

Mitch McEwen, Director of Superfront, contended that the dichotomy between the suburb and the city is a counterproductive one. Playing off the narrative format of the Buell Hypothesis, she put Jay–Z in the car with Glaucon and Socrates drive on their way to Athens, Georgia, rapping on the radio about the freedom of the housing project. Playing next however was Nas, condemning the inspiration-squashing anonymity of the projects. McEwen’s point was clear: the suburbs are also ghettos, a model that has already pervades European countries like Paris. To address the alienation and stigmatization of the suburban ghetto requires a management of our perception of home and alteration of our “representations of desire,” to quote poet and philosopher Adrienne Rich.

McEwen’s comments were a continuation of the ideas introduced by anthropologist Setha Low at the discussion’s outset. Home, Low remarked, is a representation of security, safety and comfort. The suburb, in the dreaming eyes of Americans, means the access to education, the community, and the “niceness” that ultimately constitutes social control. The suburb has also, Low argues, popularized an elite aesthetic code and a financialization of everyday life, leading to homes that are fortified and policed.

Damon Rich closed “Suburbs, Cities, and Crisis” with a return to hip-hop lyrics. “I’m the reason that your block is vacant,” he quoted from Clipse, as a testament to the agency of the individual in dictating the urban landscape. Rich, Urban Designer for Newark, New Jersey again drew attention to the blight of the suburb and the conflation between suburb and ghetto, but also reminded the audience (mostly designers, students and academics) that design can be used to obfuscate the real people, places and things to whom, in a more equitable world, architecture might respond. If the general public is not involved in design because the field requires technical expertise, then perhaps the role of experimental and avant-garde practice, and of cultural institutions like MoMA, is to make sense of and communicate architecture’s ability to respond to crisis.

“Change the dream and you change the city.” The maxim at the heart of the Buell Hypothesis and the thesis driving Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream sets up a difficult goal to achieve. Changing the city is hard. It takes vision, power, cooperation, planning and, in most cases, the forces that drive urban change are outside the control of designers or citizens. Changing the dream, however, may be harder still: amending a national subconscious is a grand, maybe hubristic task, with no clear mode of address. Conversations that complement and take inspiration from design strategies offer a potentially productive model for new dreams, and most importantly serve as a reminder that “What is Foreclosed?” is not at its heart a question for architects. It is a question that implicates many disciplines, and many people, most importantly those who answer that question with “my house.” In the face of a housing crisis, however, it would be irresponsible for architects and planners not to be asking this question. The next step, it seems, is to move the conversation outside the design sphere and instead of trying to change the dream, try to understand what American’s dreams really are.

Caitlin Blanchfield is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is a former assistant editor at Urban Omnibus, and has worked with Actar, Architizer, and the Van Alen Institute.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.