Introducing Uneven Growth: Systematic Intervention through Exhibition

VW dome in the MoMA PS1 courtyard

VW dome in the MoMA PS1 courtyard

New York has hosted its fair share of “city” programs within the past few weeks, including TEDCity 2.0, the Creative Time Summit, The Atlantic’s CityLab: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges, the Municipal Art Society Summit for New York City, and the current exhibit at the Guggenheim on the BMW Lab, Participatory City. In critical mass and apparent urgency, ideas on social justice and equity are continuously unfolding through inspiring micro urban stories and calls to agents across disciplines to work together and ensure that cities foster secure inhabitation now and in the future.

The trend continues with MoMA’s launch of Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, a year-long project that will culminate in an exhibition in November 2014. Six international teams of architects and urban designers will develop toolkits of urban strategies to disrupt assumed polarities between formal/informal and top-down/bottom-up development in some of today’s fastest growing cities. Through research and interventions, participants will test emergent forms of “tactical urbanism” against ensuing issues of social and physical disparity including public space, housing, mobility, spatial justice, and shifting environmental conditions in a particular city. Over 14 months of analysis, the teams will periodically come together in comparative and collaborative workshops and then present their findings and proposals in an exhibition in MoMA’s Architecture and Design galleries. The planned exhibition is the third in the Issues in Contemporary Architecture series, following the precedents of Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront and Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, and aims to expand the conversation globally.


Curator Pedro Gadanho introduces Uneven Growth

Curator Pedro Gadanho introduces Uneven Growth

Last Saturday in the courtyard of MoMA PS1, in a mobile geodesic dome that first appeared as a community space in the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy, each of the six teams presented their past approaches to design and impressions from their first encounter with the cities they will continue to study and engage with, followed by responses and feedback from leading critics, practitioners, scholars, and public advocates. The day’s presentations touched on current urban dynamics and future outlooks for the six global metropolises that serve as case studies and testing grounds for the ideas of each team: New York (Situ Studio and Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra)); Rio de Janeiro (RUA Arquitetos and MAS Urban Design, ETH); Mumbai (URBZ and Pop Lab, MIT); Lagos (NLÉ Architects and Inteligencias Colectivas); Hong Kong (MAP Office and Network Architecture Lab, Columbia University); and Istanbul (Superpool and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée).

The project asks architects to tackle global issues using the city as laboratory, to address both specific and generic needs. Network Architecture Lab’s Kazys Varnelis posed several important questions as part of the first presentation of the day on Hong Kong, including: What do we mean by uneven growth? When (and how) can we engage with it? What is architecture’s role in a world with uneven growth? How do we understand urbanism as nature, as agent, as a networked reality? Varnelis’s questions should not be taken rhetorically if Uneven Growth is to do any more than simply “explore” how architects can contribute to the larger question of urban divisions. As respondent Kathy Oh questioned, can we use the architect’s tools and expertise to anticipate future urban conditions and consider design as preventative care for extreme population growth, poverty, and climate change? This call weighs heavily on the one-year anniversary of Sandy, a time when, as Lagos-based NLÉ observed, water-bound New Yorkers with limited supplies and electricity experienced a taste of life in a developing region. The firm built a floating school for the historic water community of Makoko as a new form of infrastructure and living and, on Saturday, showed a series of maps of Lagos and the city’s infamous congestion, and proposed circulation solutions, reframing the water as an asset.

Varnelis made the provocative point that perhaps uneven growth is not always a bad thing. Long Island’s low-lying areas, which suffered dramatic flooding and damage during Sandy, demonstrate this point. Strategic rebuilding may leave Long Island “uneven” overall, but only in response to land that is appropriate to build sustainably upon — a predicament familiar from rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.


Brad Samuels of Situ Studio and Miguel Robles-Durán of CohStra

Brad Samuels of Situ Studio and Miguel Robles-Durán of CohStra

Representing New York, Situ Studio, whose practice seeks to erase distinctions between design, fabrication and research through an experimental workflow (and where, in the spirit of full disclosure, I formerly worked), is paired with the Rotterdam-based non-profit Cohabitation Strategies. Recognizing the great responsibility to present the very city in which the exhibit will be held, the New York team plans to examine everyday life at a micro-level, design new urban economic processes to address informal housing and use MoMA as a political platform to investigate and expose deep urban issues such as the affordability crisis, homelessness and rezoning. Situ Studio and CohStra are setting out to reimagine property as community-controlled through a site investigation and documentation process analogous to Jacob Riis’s seminal How the Other Half Lives.

Representatives from the MAS Urban Design program at ETH in Zurich presented their urbanization strategies for Rio’s slums from “the point of view of the slums” in a city where the informal real estate economy is growing at the same rate as the formal and with architecture developed without the involvement of architects and urban planners. They will work with Rio de Janeiro-based RUA Arquitetos to develop design guidelines and “downgrade” architecture to the level of sufficiency to accommodate and sustain the growing lower middle class.

URBZ is paired with Pop Lab, a new initiative out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to support the user-generated city and the right to occupy in Mumbai. URBZ partners shared photographs of areas in their home city to demonstrate existing tensions, in terms of both physical form and sense of identity, between high-rise luxury developments and slums. In destabilizing existing systems of policy, technology, and self-identification, the team aims to reconcile the role of the architect and local processes.

Lagos will be researched by the aforementioned NLÉ with Madrid-based Inteligencias Colectivas/ Zoohaus, an online platform that aims to show how things are made so as to empower the next maker in another context through prototyping and workshops. Hong Kong-based MAP Office will work with Columbia University’s Network Architecture Lab in New York to engage questions of citizenship, immigration, and privacy in a global city with a dense, diverse population and distinct territories of land and buildings. Superpool presented its work in the context of the recent political upheavals in Istanbul over public space. With Paris-based Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, the team looks to the Paris suburbs as a precedent for Istanbul, developing concepts of “interstitial resistance networks” and civic activity as bottom-up network determinants.

Curator Pedro Gadanho invited several guests to respond and bring the presentations into a larger discussion and consideration of methodology. Neil Brenner, a professor of urban theory at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and keynote speaker at the Creative Time Summit the day prior, drew on his scholarship of Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City as a fundamental framework for the questions that Uneven Growth begins to unpack. Right to the City offers two useful lessons, he says: first, to create democratic access to existing urban resources and second, more radically, to create the power to produce the urban. Brenner advocated for new categories and cartographies in response to the urban realities in each of these cities, especially urbanism from below.


Respondents Diana Balmori and Neil Brenner

Invited respondents included Diana Balmori and Neil Brenner

As suggested by critic Mimi Zeiger, the particularities of the local should provide heterogeneous interventions over the next year; we should not be seeking “even” outcomes from Uneven Growth. With an expanded understanding of the architectural site — not only the parcel, but the “community, region, curb, system, game, interior, bed, network, protocol, or pedagogy” — outcomes should reflect the plurality of the tools at hand and allow for new sites of engagement.

Damon Rich, founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) and the Chief Urban Designer for the City of Newark, wrapped up the three-hour workshop with an incredibly inspiring, shall we say, performance that questioned the agents, the subjects, and the dichotomy of oppression and liberation. Peppered with references ranging from Dante Alighieri to Marvin Gaye, Rich’s eloquent analysis of the initiative turned the project on its head. His potent words revealed the danger of neglecting citizens already taking charge of their own territory, not just in clever, visible interventions but also through social contracts. He reminded everyone in the room, particularly the architects gearing up for this ambitious project, to ask themselves to whom their design responds and charged them to reimagine reimagination.

While the constellation of recent programs in New York may represent a greater interest in the conversation of the role of a citizen in a city, we are still grappling with conceptualizing how architects can address urban divisions through social justice rather than flimsy do-gooderism, and the day’s presentations were left productively vague. The MoMA project asks if, in fact, the institution can be a platform to provoke reflection. Can we truly disengage the urban agenda from the private sector and place it in the hands of the public when a cultural institution serves as the foundation? We are left in hopeful anticipation that there remains potential for the beginnings of change by way of educational intervention through exhibition.

In November 2014, MoMA will open the Uneven Growth exhibition as a media platform to reach various constituents including citizens, celebrities, and politicians. Workshops will be open to the public throughout the development of the project, the next being held in Shenzhen in December.

Mariel Villeré is a designer, researcher and writer who recently returned to Brooklyn after spending two years in Somerville, MA earning a Masters of Architecture Studies in History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture & Art at MIT.