New York, Same Mess

Architectural impotence at MoMA’s latest

The huge expanse of glass that forms the eastern edge of the Johnson Galleries on MoMA’s third floor frames a view that could be the cover of an architecture history textbook. At the corner of 54th Street and Fifth Avenue, the New York University Club sits as a monument to sober Renaissance Revival, its nine-story volume clad in rusticated Milford pink granite, rigidly punctuated by arched windows and finished with a detailed but decidedly sober cornice. Halfway down the block, at 17 West 54th Street, the Rockefeller Apartments sit on land purchased in the 1930s by the family of the same name. The complex was designed in 1935 by Wallace Harrison (of Lincoln Center fame) and André Fouilhoux (who designed Chicago’s Tribune Tower with Hood and Howells) in the International Style, with cylindrical appendages that disturb an otherwise impossibly flat facade. An enfilade of stout residences, all built in the 1890s, squeezes between the apartments and the club, sprinkling the block with a potpourri of even more styles imported from Europe: Italian Renaissance, Beaux-Arts, Georgian Revival. That’s just the foreground. Lift your gaze a bit and find Philip Johnson’s cheeky, chunky AT&T building slotted into the city grid like a sturdy USB stick. Behind that, Rafael Viñoly’s uncomfortably emaciated 432 Park suggests infinity: you can’t see its top or its bottom, just a few hundred feet of its narrow midsection cutting against the sky. Trump Tower’s sawtooth edge looms to the left, almost out of frame, sinister in both form and political implication. There’s more, but that’s enough to capture the image. The density is almost overwhelming, as is the concentration of divergent architectural intent. These are buildings with authors, designed to make a statement through their aesthetics, their size, their place in the skyline. They embody power and project good (“good”) taste. In them we can witness not only architectural history, but the priorities of those with enough money and power to get things built in a context as contentious and competitive as New York City. The block’s late nineteenth-century building stock illustrates the status afforded by architecture at the time: it cost to hire a designer with European training. When the Rockefeller Apartments arrived on the scene a few decades later, they put on display modernism’s high-tech optimism and its wish to, in its standardized simplicity, make buildings endlessly reproducible. Moving ahead in time, the aesthetic theses advanced by the office towers east of Fifth Avenue start to slide into the self-referential. The average person may struggle to find the humor in PJ’s pedimented joke or the elegance in Viñoly’s almost aggressively gridded tower, which still looks better in photos than it does in person.

This vista is the backdrop, both literal and figurative, to MoMA’s latest architecture exhibition, organized by chief curator Martino Stierli and assistant curator Evangelos Kotsioris with Paula Vilaplana de Miguel, a curatorial assistant in the museum’s department of architecture and design. New York, New Publics is the first show in a series titled Architecture Now, which, according to press materials, attempts to “serve as a platform to broadcast new ideas in architecture.” In contrast to the museum’s and MoMA PS1’s long-running, now-defunct Young Architects Program, a yearly competition through which a usually formally innovative pavilion was chosen to be built in the latter institution’s courtyard, this new series “will include intergenerational voices representing the rich variety of contemporary architectural practices, with a focus on championing architecture that articulates innovative responses to the most pressing cultural, environmental, and social challenges of the built environment today.” In other words: less form, more function. New York, New Publics comprises twelve projects, from subway art to waterfront landscape, each accompanied by an original video made on the occasion of the exhibition by Brooklyn filmmaker Hudson Lines and explicated by a wall text that defines the pieces more by what they are not than by what they are: “In contrast to the violent and disruptive nature of large-scale infrastructure and urban renewal initiatives of the past century—which frequently prioritized cars and resulted in the displacement of low-income groups, particularly communities of color—recent design strategies present subtler, restorative interventions.” (This language bears a striking resemblance to the text that accompanied MoMA’s 2010–2011 show Small Scale, Big Change, which claimed to promote architects “not interested in grand manifestos or utopian theories.”) While subtlety might at first seem like an obvious antidote to all those years of abuses of power, embodied by prisonlike housing blocks and highways that ripped through neighborhoods, upon further examination, such lightness of hand raises some questions. If these interventions are indeed so subtle, can they actually solve problems of urban and public magnitude? The challenges they purport to resolve (“the most pressing cultural, environmental, and social” ones of our moment) are huge. Don’t they need equally huge solutions? Perhaps the first sentence of the show’s introductory text gives the curatorial position away: “In a city where many aspects of our social lives are shaped by real estate interests and economic forces, architecture can nevertheless play a vital role in fostering collective participation and a sense of belonging.” That sneaky nevertheless positions architecture as the underdog, the try-hard, unexpected hero that will attempt to suture a surgical wound with a Band-Aid.

This position is most readily visible in the show’s smallest projects. Olalekan Jeyifous’s Made with Love, a public art installation commissioned by the MTA for the open-air, elevated subway station at Eighth Avenue and 62nd Street in Sunset Park, reads like an ad for urban identity, projecting the Brooklyn neighborhood back to itself in images that erase the incoherence inherent to the very elements it depicts. Its twenty-eight laminated glass panels feature vaguely surreal—the exhibition’s wall text describes them as “abstract,” but they are certainly not that—mash-ups of food and architectural elements commonly found in this part of town: a paletero cart made out of brick buildings, a bowl of soup that acts as the circle of a roundabout, a subway car rendered as a sub sandwich. It’s a somewhat elegant visual gag, but I am not sure which of Sunset Park’s “most pressing” issues it addresses. In the middle of the same room, Agency—Agency and Chris Woebken Studio’s prototypes for converting fire hydrants into water fountains redress a problem that has been solved generation after generation, scalding summer after scalding summer, by New Yorkers of all ages who learn from each other how to open hydrants in order to cool off. (Moreover, the “problem” could be further “solved” by simply installing more public water fountains.) These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but they’re driven by the kind of fanciful thinking that wouldn’t be out of place in a senior thesis show and thus reveal naivete on the part of the curators or the designers or, more likely and more damningly, both.

While subtlety might at first seem like an obvious antidote to all those years of abuses of power, embodied by prisonlike housing blocks and highways that ripped through neighborhoods, upon further examination, such lightness of hand raises the question: if these interventions are indeed so subtle, can they actually solve problems of urban and public magnitude?

Across the way—the show is designed, according to the wall text, “as a non-prescriptive sequence of alternating urban scenes that visitors are encouraged to freely wander”—show-goers can look through iPads at augmented reality scenes that insert figures like abolitionist David Ruggles and the Young Lords onto platforms in the gallery. The piece, made by interactive design organization Kinfolk, culminates in a proposal to virtually replace the monument to Christopher Columbus at his eponymous Manhattan circle with one to Toussaint Louverture. This feels depressingly like a reification and tacit acceptance of the current state of sociopolitical affairs in which there is no consensus about who mattered in history and why—or, really, what even happened—and everyone is simply welcome to believe whatever they want. Picking up your phone or tablet to see the history you want to see, the history that more closely resembles your lived experience and that of your ancestors but which has been denied to you by those in power is no doubt a mind-changing act. But it is an individual one and, as such, cannot result in the systemic change that Architecture Now claims to be after. Perhaps pieces in New York, New Publics, with its reduced focus on “architecture [that] can serve as a public amenity,” are not meant to tackle those bigger issues, which leaves me wondering why they belong in this series at all.

The long and short of the matter is that we cannot use technology to get around the racism that the state constantly perpetuates. A fleeting fantasy of the Columbus statue being replaced by one of Louverture is not nearly as good as the real thing happening. I would rather, in its place, see not an architectural proposal but an organizing plan to fell the statue of the colonizer, melt it down, and use the hot metallic goo to make a statue of the Haitian general, accompanied by a treatise on why we should revere the man who helped transform a slave rebellion into a movement for mass liberation as opposed to the one who enslaved a bunch of people and killed others, both via purposeful violence and accidental spreading of disease.

I fear, though, that the curators and the contributors they have selected would find that method for changing society too close to those of, say, Robert Moses, never mind the aims for which it would be deployed. New York, New Publics seems set on making architecture itself pay for the sins of those who have used it to detrimental ends, relegating it to the realm of the surface gesture, the unnecessary “hack,” the welcome but small improvement. Proposals for added-on balconies and open-air rooftops for NYCHA’s Cooper Park Houses in Brooklyn by Peterson Rich Office admirably work with what the city’s got but seem woefully anemic when one considers the extent to which public housing could be improved and expanded. Models and drawings of a proposed intervention by duo Only If for Bed-Stuy’s Kosciuszko Pool (a retractable canopy; new landscaping, lighting, and water features; an aquatic center on a vacant lot) were so subtly rendered that they made me doubt I was looking at the right thing.

Architecture cannot be made from the bottom up, so if it’s to benefit those at the bottom, they will need to be the ones at the top, making things happen.

Exceptions to these light touches exert their impact through their programming, not their architecture, and, crucially, are not public at all: a metal foundry turned into a theater by CO Adaptive (it could be argued that its use of timber and adaptive nature qualify as “novel,” but I’d be hard-pressed to buy that argument in 2023), an arts center in Williamsburg designed by SO-IL (the wall text claims that the center “contributes to the local community,” but it is entirely unclear how). Two actually public projects, Freshkills Park by James Corner Field Operations and Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park by Weiss/Manfredi, are more landscape than architecture, which is not a knock on their individual merits, but it’s not quite clear how they conform to the show’s premise or even how they relate to other works in it. This incongruence reveals the flimsiness of the exhibition’s conceit, the lack of belief on the part of the curators in their own proclamations about architecture’s power, and the failure of contemporary architecture practices to live up to any societally beneficial aims, however humble. To change the world, to really do it, an architect would need a client with power on their side. Someone like Philip Lehman, commissioner of one of those European-imported buildings on West 54th Street (#7, to be precise) and father of Robert Lehman, of investment banking and catastrophic bankruptcy fame. Someone like Harry Macklowe, the developer of 432 Park, who, along with many others like him, is raking it in hand over fist while actively contributing to the continued commodification of housing that has rent-burdened nearly half of all New Yorkers. That is change, too, though of course it’s for the worse, an evermore ratcheted-up version of our grim status quo. An architect would need someone with as much power as Lehman or Macklowe or, sorry to say, Trump in his heyday, but who would wield it in the other direction. Architecture cannot be made from the bottom up, so if it’s to benefit those at the bottom, they will need to be the ones at the top, making things happen. Unfortunately, this seems to exceed the imagination of both the show’s participants and its curators, who take for granted that power will always be held by people who only want it for themselves and their handful of friends, that it will always be wielded in racist and corrupt ways, and that therefore architecture will always also be all of those things. That is, unless it is marginal or “subtle” or, as in New Affiliates and Samuel Stewart-Halevy’s proposal to reuse full-scale architectural mockups for the benefit of community gardens, an act of charity.

After wandering the gallery, we are left back where we started, staring out the window at all that history, all that architecture, all that embodied money and power casting themselves through the glass at a collection of twelve proofs of architectural impotence. When someone looks at them in twenty, fifty, one hundred years, the way I looked out the gallery window, what will they have become? By then the novelty of augmented reality will have been rendered obsolete, either because we will have found that it rots our brains and outlawed it or because we will all be living in it, each of us walking around in our own private reality. What about the tacked-on balconies? If they ever get built, will they stand the same test of time? What about the canopy over Kosciuszko Pool? What will these projects reveal about what we used architecture to do, to project, to signify? I’m afraid they’ll evince that we were happy to use architecture to reinforce our sense of powerlessness in the face of huge injustice, that we were happy to be complicit in the hollowing-out of the civic realm, that the best we could do was hold up the status quo with the language of gentleness. I can most easily imagine the mockups in community gardens, piled up with bird shit and rotting leaves, overturned and disassembled, ravaged by weather, the embodiment of the attitude of those currently in power toward everyone else: give them refuse and let them fend for themselves.

Marianela D’Aprile is on a self-imposed hating hiatus after writing this piece.