New York

“Room in the City”

City Gallery

This exhibition featured architectural models and drawings by five architects and four teams of architects who had been selected to renovate individual apartments in a tenement building on New York’s Mott Street. The nine living units ranged in size from 250 to 450 square feet, and the suggested construction budget for each unit was $15,000 (although that figure was not strictly adhered to). Fortunately, the premises of the project made this something other than an exercise in small-scale real-estate development. While the individuals and small groups worked autonomously, they had opportunities during the development of their designs to meet and discuss the various attitudes brought to bear on both stated and desired objectives. The context itself set a rich, critical atmosphere. Mott Street represents, in microcosm, the variegated cultural flux that is responsible for the city’s vitality and contemporaneity, which is now threatened by the homogeneous characteristics of a new, affluent work force. “Room in the City” attempted to address this and other barometers of cultural change, as well as the potential for architecture to be critical rather than just accommodating.

The most provocative projects investigated the single room within dense, invasive urban circumstances, generating a dialogue between the intimate, private living space and the public aspects of urban life. The room was not generally seen as a haven or an idyllic counterpoint to the metropolis but as another articulation of the raw, robust conditions of the 20th-century city.

Donna V. Robertson presented one of the most challenging interpretations of a room in the city in this particular age of information and representation. She created a chamber with two ventricles: One side provided space for sleeping, bathing, and eating, while the other side was a center for observation containing five video monitors, a VCR, videotapes, a mirror, and a single chair. The videos created an unpredictable succession of images taken from within the room and from the city outside. The two dissimilar spaces were divided by a diagonal wall that extended beyond the exterior face of the building to support a large satellite disc. The project challenges the conventions of domesticity based on bourgeois values and at the same time rehabilitates a more historical notion of home in a metropolis, such as the Roman concept of domus, which embraced both public and private, pragmatic and sensual activities. Robertson poses the most original and timely questions about the relationship of modernity and urban living, and about public life in an age of insularity abetted by vast telecommunications systems.

Mary Catherine Pepchinski presented a more personal, subdued proposal, inspired by transient life-styles and the kinds of marginal buildings in which she has lived, in neighborhoods of old lofts, abandoned storefronts, and factories. In an eloquent and simple meditation on the power of objects in diverse living spaces, she proposed a table as a proscenium for the enactment of daily rituals and activities, framed by the window view of the city beyond. Pepchinski’s modest proposal made it clear that she questions the role of the designer, favoring critical analysis over aggressive intervention.

This exhibition gave 13 young architects an opportunity to address specific issues and to look toward the future. The level of invention was variable, and the panorama of ideas was polychromatic and optimistic. The exhibition is represented by a small catalogue with an essay by Susana Tone framing the intentions of the exhibition. Torre organized this important forum, and Mark Robbins, who was also one of the exhibitors, served as curator.

Patricia C. Phillips