Atlantic Cities

The American Dream, Revised

The American Dream, Revised
MoMA

Saving the suburbs might mean starting essentially from scratch.

A new exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art, "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," presents five architectural solutions to renew a depleted American suburbia. At its heart, the show is not just about architecture and design, but about blurring the traditional lines that separate public space from private space, owning from sharing, residential structures from business structures, and suburbs from cities.

“Change the dream,” reads a sign at the entrance of the show, “and you change the city.”

“Foreclosed” is the result of a months-long process in which teams made up of architects, designers, community activists, economists and others looked at creating innovative solutions to development in five disparate suburbs around the country. The sites have in common “a significant rate of foreclosure, and a considerable amount of publicly held land available for development.”

The teams came up with solutions that are depicted in renderings, models and videos, some of which reflect a somewhat fantastic aesthetic. WorkAC’s “Nature City” in Keizer, Oregon, outside of Portland (above), encompasses a "ziggurat-like" complex atop an energy plant that would use methane gas from compost to generate electricity. Visible Weather’s design for a new downtown in Temple Terrace, Florida (near Tampa), is pictured in gleaming white, devoid of humans or vegetation, although there are some bicycles here and there.

But the sometimes grandiose architectural conceits are in the end less interesting than the economic ideas on display. It’s not just the McMansion and the white picket fence that are deconstructed here; the very ideal of single-family home ownership comes under scrutiny as well. After all, the foreclosure crisis sprang from financial mechanisms as much as from the built environment.

"Foreclosed" aspires to start a discussion about "how to change not only the physical architecture, but the financial architecture of how things get built," said Barry Bergdoll, the museum’s chief curator of design, at a press preview.

So a concept for Cicero, Illinois, an old Chicago suburb with a large Latino community that saw more than 2,000 foreclosures in 2009 alone, rethinks not just the traditional bungalow-style home, but also the way people’s dwellings are financed and owned.

A team led by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang looked at the needs and financial capabilities of Cicero, and also the existing abandoned infrastructure in the form of old industrial buildings. Video interviews with residents who have lived through foreclosures and are stymied by the community’s structural constraints – both physical and economic – make clear the human cost of Cicero’s decline.

Gang’s group proposes a vision in which physical space and types of ownership are far more flexible:

The team set out to create new housing types that are generally prohibited under the existing zoning codes. The proposal introduces a new kind of “Recombinant House,” enabling flexibility for multi-generational families. This type of housing would be affordable, allowing people to buy housing units that suit the needs of families as they change. Under this new model of ownership, residents would own their individual spaces, but the land and shared amenities would be owned by a private trust—decoupling the previous notion that ownership is a home and the land beneath it.


Here’s what Gang wrote about her work in Cicero in a New York Times op-ed

The town’s rules are typical of most suburbs, including the segregation of residential, commercial and industrial facilities; prohibitions on expanding and reusing buildings for new homes and businesses; and tight restrictions on mixed-use properties. Cicero’s code also defines "family" in a way that excludes the large, multigenerational groupings now common across the country. 

This has been an issue for urban planners for years, but many of the proposed alternatives to suburban zoning merely swap one restrictive code for another. Only by loosening zoning to allow new combinations of home and work will we be able to bring innovative design to bear on the single-family house.

The elimination of restrictive zoning in the Cicero proposal is emblematic of the way the various teams in “Foreclosed” challenge the physical and bureaucratic barriers that have defined American suburbia for generations. All five teams push for a vibrant mix of residential and business development. All challenge the idea that “suburbs” and “cities” are fundamentally different creatures. All advocate for variability in types and terms of ownership, with rental always an option, and shared spaces for work and play readily available.

The designs on display at MoMA will never be built in the real world. They are, however, a meaningful addition to a conversation we’ve waited too long to have about the way we will live and work in this country for the next hundred years, and the next American dream.

All images courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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