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Enough with the feel-good architecture
It’s time to get real about the complexities and compromises inherent to city building.
For years, New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) leaders have looked upon the parking lots and courtyards of the city’s tower-in-the-green style public housing complexes and seen salvation. If NYCHA could somehow capture the immense value of the empty space on its properties in neighborhoods like Chelsea and the Lower East Side, then, just maybe, the agency could begin to make significant progress on an estimated $78 billion in deferred maintenance.
But in 21st century urban America, salvation usually means making a deal with the devil. With a federal government disinterested in housing, the money to fix NYCHA is likely going to come from private sector developers who are eager to build up the green spaces between the towers, or redevelop these aging complexes from the ground up. These are not usually popular ideas: Public housing residents and the political leaders who represent them are, understandably, wary of anything that even resembles the privatization of public housing or urban renewal 2.0. So NYCHA sits on its hands while sitting on its gold mine, and conditions for public housing residents continue to deteriorate.
Viewers of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Architecture Now: New York, New Publics, will learn the hopeful part of this story, but not the intractable part. The exhibit, on view through July 29, presents an appealing NYCHA redevelopment scheme in East Williamsburg as a no-brainer solution, without any discussion of why similar proposals have come to naught. Another project on display offers an equally cheery treatment of an ill-fated coastal sea level rise adaptation project. Most of the exhibit avoids the difficult issues that have the greatest impact on the lives of New Yorkers.
One museum exhibit can only do so much, and there are plenty of redeeming qualities to New York, New Publics. But the exhibit is emblematic of a purity politics of the built environment that is increasingly rippling out from the academy into urban policy, and influencing what kind of cities are possible.
The exhibit’s selective, feel-good framing is, ironically, a product of a pervasive climate of cynicism. When architecture critics, cultural tastemakers, and populist politicians consistently describe urban development as a tragic process carried out by rapacious developers or over-zealous central planners, there remains little space for uplifting stories of contemporary city building.
To tell a feel-good story within this framework, urban development projects must be edited and curated to cleanse them of these associations. Favored projects must somehow appear to transcend capitalism, NIMBYism, an anti-urban federal government, and the compromises inherent in the transformation of the built environment. Because this is impossible—except in the case of marginal beautification projects—the public is left with false expectations about how cities get built, making the hard stuff even harder to pull off.
In the first line of explanatory wall text, New York, New Publics is framed as a rebuke of the “real estate interests and economic forces” that shape city life. This framing works for some of the more modest projects on display. Made With Love, Olalekan Jeyifous’s lovely glass panels at the 8th Avenue elevated subway station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, celebrate the neighborhood’s diversity with bold, colorful images that fuse street food and architecture. Testbeds, by New Affiliates and Samuel Stewart-Halevy repurposes life-sized interior design mockups for public use in neighborhood parks.
Because they’re cheap and small scale, these and other projects on display need not concern themselves with “real estate and economics.” But for the two large-scale urban development projects featured—the kind that impact the material conditions of city dwellers—there’s no standing outside of these existential forces.
A proposal for renovating the Cooper Park Houses NYCHA complex by Peterson Rich Office is the only project on display dealing explicitly with housing. It’s attractive and elegant, expanding upon the existing structures with mass timber additions that would add more housing, upgrade mechanical systems, and reinvigorate the surrounding streets. But with no mention of the project’s cost, or how it might contribute positively to NYCHA’s finances, the museum exhibition glosses over the project’s long odds of becoming reality.
The exhibit overlooks previous redevelopment efforts at the East Williamsburg public housing complex in the recent past, or the excruciating tradeoffs these kinds of projects inevitably entail. For example, A 2017 plan to build a large number of affordable homes on a parking lot at the complex didn’t generate enough revenue for NYCHA, political leaders said, while a subsequent revenue-generating plan didn’t include enough affordable housing, according to residents. Neither went forward. (NYCHA’s first mixed-income redevelopment appears to be progressing, with much controversy, at Fulton Houses in Chelsea.)
New York City also faces incredibly difficult decisions about how to protect itself from rising seas and floodwaters—an issue recently dramatized by a viral New York Times opinion piece showing ugly seawalls along some of the most scenic parts of the waterfront. But the coastal projects highlighted in New York, New Publics don’t illuminate thorny questions, like which areas deserve to be protected, and which must be forced to retreat, or which neighborhoods will get expensive, park-like flood protection and which will get blank, concrete seawalls.
One waterfront project on display, the park at Hunter’s Point South in Queens, designed by a consortium led by SWA and opened in 2018, is a breathtaking public space with innovative resiliency features. It may not remain so for long, however. The park is one of the areas slated to be bisected by 12-foot to 20-foot flood barriers under the Army Corps of Engineers $52 billion coastal plan. That plan was released in September, likely too late to incorporate it into the exhibition. But the exhibit missed another key context point. The 5,000-unit public–private development of Hunters Point South, hailed in the exhibition’s wall text as “the largest affordable housing project in New York since the 1970s,” was criticized by local activists for delivering deed-restricted affordable housing that was still too expensive for the average Queens family. It’s a familiar conundrum for city planners in a resource-constrained environment: build more affordable units for middle-class residents, or fewer units with deeper subsidies for low-income residents.
As a museum exhibition, New York, New Publics has limited opportunities to inject nuance, though a couple of additional lines of wall text could have gone a long way here. But the exhibit’s selective interpretation of the built environment is hardly an anomaly. Usually, the bias travels in the negative direction.
Urban and architecture criticism is “blowing the last bridges between design and anything smacking of ‘solutionism,’” writes Ian Volner in a 2021 review of the book Icebergs, Zombies and the Ultra-Thin by Matthew Soules. There’s no problem-solving, only problems. Empty luxury towers, parametric Persian Gulf vanities and other “bizarre excrescences of the free market” gobble up all of the critical oxygen, Volner writes. The modest, compromised half measures—the green roofs and tiny homes, in Volner’s formulation—that move us incrementally toward a more sustainable and more just city are too often seen as unworthy of consideration.
MoMA has an opportunity to look more closely at the muddled mechanics of building better cities as it continues its Architecture Now series. Next on the calendar, in September, is an exhibit on the connection between architecture and the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s and ’70s—fertile ground for exploring unintended consequences and incremental progress.
City-building is, by its very nature, a grand Faustian bargain, according to urbanist philosopher Marshall Berman; a painful, thrilling cycle of tearing down and building up. “It might be more fruitful if, instead of demanding whether modernity can still produce masterpieces and revolutions, we were to ask whether it can generate sources and spaces of meaning, of freedom, dignity, beauty, joy, solidarity,” he wrote in a 1984 article in New Left Review. “Then we would have to confront the messy actuality in which modern men and women and children live.”
This article originally appeared in Fast Company. It is republished here with permission.