PRINT November 2011


“Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream”

Zago Architecture, A Big Plan for Rialto, California: Property with Properties, 2011.

TWO INTERRELATED CLAIMS provide the premise for “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” a recent workshop and forthcoming exhibition organized by the Department of Architecture and Design of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The first is that the foundation of the American dream, particularly as it has evolved over the past century, is ownership of a single-family suburban house; the second is that America’s current foreclosure crisis should force a wholesale rethinking of this dream. Barry Bergdoll (the museum’s chief curator of architecture and design) and Reinhold Martin (of Columbia University), who organized the project together, argue that the recent pandemic of foreclosures has provoked a loss of confidence not only in the value of mortgages but in the architectural, social, and economic systems that encouraged the home loan to become the primary investment of millions of American families in the first place. The foreclosure crisis, in other words, has finally accomplished what even the most vehement attacks from architects and urban planners (not to mention a succession of artists, novelists, and filmmakers) could never do: It has shaken America’s faith in the desirability—and viability—of suburban living. And architects must be poised to take full advantage of this opportunity.

To that end, Bergdoll and Martin modeled the first phase of the project after a studio workshop, inviting five teams to develop proposals for “a rethinking of housing and related infrastructures” in one of five suburban locations. The teams developed their plans this past summer, and the final proposals will be exhibited at MoMA from February to July of next year.

Because the goal of the exhibition is not to critique but to fundamentally reimagine suburbia, its stakes for architecture are doubly high. First, in seeking to address the underlying social and economic systems behind suburbia, the show tests architecture’s capabilities and boundaries as a discipline, along with its continuing relevance as a guiding voice in the development of America’s spatial and social geography. Simultaneously, because any treatment of suburbia has to address the problem of housing, the show must confront the house itself: that remarkable reminder of architecture’s ability to put something as ineffable as the American dream into specific material terms. So the show will also test architecture’s capacity to symbolize, the ways in which it structures and embodies meaning. This same symbolic dimension was likewise an acute concern for a generation of architects and artists who looked to suburbia at a different moment, when America’s relationship to its suburbs was still in the honeymoon period of the postwar boom, and the MoMA project must be considered in light of their efforts.

Taken together, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s “Learning from Levittown” studio at Yale in 1970 and their 1976 exhibition “Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City” at the Smithsonian Institution were probably the last reconsiderations of suburbia by architects to match the ambition of the MoMA show. Venturi and Scott Brown advocated a Pop-influenced, overtly symbolic architecture inspired by the American vernacular, and in suburban houses—sporting an eclectic array of symbolic trappings from columns and porticoes to gables, pediments, and colonial shutters—they found a treasure trove of architectural signs and symbols. Their enthusiastic reading of suburbia was immortalized in the “Signs of Life” installations. Enormous speech bubbles were attached to wall-size photographs of suburban houses, explicitly articulating their symbolic references: suburban sprawl as the ultimate architecture parlante.

But in retrospect, Venturi and Scott Brown’s characterization of suburban sprawl as “the current vernacular of the United States,” or the “people’s architecture as the people want it,” was naive. (Both descriptions are from the revised 1977 edition of their classic book Learning from Las Vegas, which included their work on Levittown.) Suburban architecture was a travesty of the American vernacular, driven not by local tradition or individual expression but by the house’s new status as a mass-produced consumer product. The artist Dan Graham had already made this point in 1966, with his legendary Homes for America, a spread for Arts Magazine, in which he pointed out that beneath their symbolic appliqués, suburban homes exhibited the same monotonous repetition as any other artifact of industrialized capitalism. He was particularly critical of the California Method, the mass-production technique pioneered in Southern California during the postwar housing boom that allowed developers to fabricate an unprecedented number of housing units at low costs and high speeds, alienating both architect and owner from their traditional relationship to the house. Graham had shown that Venturi and Scott Brown’s architectural “language” was really only the crude and one-dimensional jargon of commercial advertising or commodity fetishism—and was symptomatic of structural shifts in the economics of American housing construction.

Although the housing-speculation boom of the past decade has rendered Graham’s critique as relevant as ever, the images of crumbling foreclosed homes now proliferating in the news media are more likely to bring to mind the works of Gordon Matta-Clark. And despite the fact that interpretations of Matta-Clark’s work have tended more toward the sculptural and kinesthetic than the semiotic, his building cuts can be understood in the context of a similar interest in the commercialized symbolism of the suburban house. “Architecture is a big business,” he told an interviewer in Arts Magazine in May 1976, going on to criticize an “industry that profligates suburban . . . boxes as a context for insuring a passive, isolated consumer.”

It is no coincidence that Matta-Clark’s most famous work is Splitting, from 1974, a clean vertical cut through the middle of a suburban New Jersey home. The collision between his cutting techniques and the iconic form of the house is particularly arresting. And though his cuts were volumetric processes, he often described them as operations on a surface or facade, sometimes in explicitly linguistic terms. Realizing his ultimate goal of transforming the space of a building, he told the same interviewer, first necessitated “a recognition of the building’s total (semiotic) system.” After this recognition, “physically penetrating the surface seemed the next logical step.”

In doing so, Matta-Clark could not escape from a Venturian architectural symbolism as his ultimate frame of reference. His use of abandoned buildings is often taken to mean that Matta-Clark desired a wholesale annihilation of architecture, but discussing Splitting in a 1974 interview in Avalanche, he admitted: “Actually, I’m very glad that this building was less disintegrated than the ones I’ve dealt with before . . . that I wasn’t competing with erosion or prior collapse.” He thus tacitly acknowledged that his intervention read best in contrast to the house’s instantly recognizable windows and doors; its power was not so much as a cut per se but as a hole that was not a conventional architectural sign for opening or entry.

Foreclosed property, Las Vegas, 2010. Photo: Tei Carpenter.

Today, the state of foreclosed and abandoned houses presents a more profound undermining of the suburban home’s symbolic status. Consider the increasingly common trend known as stripping. Former owners or other enterprising individuals break into foreclosed homes and systematically strip them of everything valuable. Appliances are torn out, hardware unscrewed, light fixtures ripped from the ceilings, and walls and floors shredded to enable removal of expensive copper wiring and plumbing. Stripping does not so much attack architecture as totally devalue and reclassify it. To see a house as only so much copper or as a list of hardware and appliances is to deny its status as a highly ordered symbolic system and even as a discrete architectural object. The house becomes a formless pile of junk, and architecture’s normal systems of value and meaning fracture and collapse. In this way, foreclosure has not only severed the link between the house and the American dream but interrupted the ability of the house to symbolize at all.

This is the brave new world that MoMA’s teams find themselves working in. One response, advocated by the exhibition’s curators, is simply to remove architecture from the realm of the object (and hence the sign), bypassing questions of symbolism by restructuring architecture’s meaning through operations on under­lying cultural and economic factors. Bergdoll and Martin describe their directive to the teams as “not to redesign the house, but to redesign the dream.”

All five teams have responded to this directive to some degree by proposing social and infrastructural systems that attempt, on a large scale, to align with the new cultural desires and economic realities of American suburban living. Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WORK Architecture Company, working on Salem-Keizer, Oregon, propose a contemporary update on the notion of a garden city, addressing a range of ecological issues. Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith of MOS, analyzing the Oranges, New Jersey, explore the potential of suburban streets to offer a new kind of civic space in a less car-dependent future. Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang, focusing on Cicero, Illinois, seeks a new flexibility in housing that will accommodate the rapidly shifting immigrant populations in the suburbs outside Chicago. Andrew Zago of Zago Architecture, studying Rialto, California, subverts the strict hierarchies of property boundaries that have traditionally structured suburban space. And Michael Bell of Visible Weather, examining Temple Terrace, Florida, considers the relationship between relatively homogenous Florida suburbs and the more diverse and less prosperous neighboring urban communities.

This breadth of thinking can empower architecture. Although led by architects, all five teams are interdisciplinary, notably adding economists and lawyers to the now-standard trio of architect, landscape architect, and ecologist. The resulting collaborations have the weight of real social models rather than mere thought experiments, and they suggest that architectural thinking, with its spatial and analytic emphasis, has much to offer the disciplines that have traditionally shaped our economic and social policy.

But to argue, as Bergdoll does, that above all else “architecture is a way of thinking” is to forget that architects must still make objects, and that architects of suburbia must still provide homes. The teams seem more cognizant of this obligation than the curators do, and among the proposals, Zago’s stands out. In a fitting move for his Rialto site, Zago has attempted to reinvent the California Method, replacing traditional stud construction with a system of prefabricated panels, which offer more flexibility at a lower cost but are equally easy to assemble. His system would enable the replacement of the traditional wood-frame house with a wide range of new building types.

At the same time, his proposal exhibits a lingering taste for socially oriented formal metaphors, shared by the other teams (Gang explicitly speaks of her struggle to find “the right metaphors” for her project), as if they are unconsciously trying to fill a void left by foreclosure’s erasure of Venturi’s sign-based symbolism. Using a technique he calls misregistration, Zago creates renderings in which the normally rigid coincidence of material, spatial, and social suburban boundaries is disrupted; the grass of a yard continues into the street, or the asphalt of the street continues up a wall. But formal flexibility does not necessarily translate into social mobility. In a way, Zago’s misregistration is closer to something we might expect from an artist, a pointed and formally imaginative critical commentary in the spirit of Matta-Clark. On the other hand, to reinvent, rather than critique, as he seeks to do with the California Method, seems to be a uniquely architectural capability. Matta-Clark once referred to Splitting as a “theatrical gesture.” Theatricality has its place, but today we need more from our architects.

Julian Rose is a critic and designer based in New Haven.