The Art of Advocacy: The Museum as Design Laboratory

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, installation view of the exhibition, July 20 through October 20, 2008. [Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art]

Since 2007, when I ventured out of the academy to take the reins of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, we have traversed an unexpected set of economic, social and environmental challenges in which the centrality of the design professions has become manifestly clear, even as larger forces — in which designers are too often complicit — act to marginalize the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, design and the fine arts. Having worked side-by-side with diverse professionals, I am more than ever convinced that a cooperative, multidisciplinary approach is fundamental to the future vitality of the field — and essential if designers are to contribute to solving the enormous problems of our day. At MoMA we have been trying to discover meaningful positions and prospects even as practitioners have been jolted into discussion of just where the moral compass should be set.

The horizon of socioeconomic expectations — the matrix in which decisions were made and values assessed — of the early years of the new millennium seems distant today; new uncertainties prevail in the second decade of this now not-so-new century. What seemed a few years ago to be the emerging paradigms — the rapid maturation of digital fabrication, an explosion of new materials, a widespread acceptance of the priority of sustainability, a slowly reawakening ethos of social responsibility — are being submitted to intensive questioning from perspectives that are gaining daily in urgency.

The End of the Starchitect

In 2007, the overlapping worlds of architecture and design, much like the worlds of politics and finance and thus of building and spatial development more generally, were very much persuaded that the old laws of cycles and periods had definitively yielded to new models of uninterrupted growth and limitless possibilities — and perhaps even the transcendence of the cyclical and sometimes violent swings of economic growth and building demand. That mood now seems hard to recapture. The neologism “starchitect” has lost much of its luster; indeed, it seems increasingly clear that the term did little service even to the handful of design talents whose works were thus lauded according to some superficial criteria of relevance largely to affluent citizens of the G20 countries. In any case, it is no longer a viable role model for future designers, given that the subprime mortgage crisis and economic crash have been accompanied by an equally impressive crash of new commissions for expensive private houses and showy museum additions, the building types that sustained the starchitect portfolio.

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, installation view of the exhibition, July 20 through October 20, 2008. [Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art]

And more: a few short years ago, it seemed that the reduction of the range of tasks for architecture was in direct relationship to the small percentage of the profession who could hope to excel within the frameworks of early 21st-century media culture. Of course there were other outlets, and some of the most innovative design work even entered in a rarified way into public discourse through limited-edition objects, on sale in the overheated art market as some designers focused on gallery sales — one thinks of product designer Marc Newson or, in architecture, Zaha Hadid. Research seemed limited to the academy, ensuring that the traditional rift between the university and the profession would widen further. But this too is not a sustainable model for the interface between design and the world, if it ever was.

I am not among those who believe that we are currently experiencing a temporary downturn; nor that we need simply to wait it out. I am no economist, political scientist or financial analyst. But it is now abundantly clear — to any who follow the information revealed by each new excavation of our assumptions brought on by the global financial crisis — that there were ample signs that the old euphoria was untethered to reality long before the band ceased to play, that many of the causes are structural rather than ephemeral. We are living through a paradigm shift as fundamental as that launched in the early 1980s, when the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions in the English-speaking world set in motion the dual doctrines of the unregulated market and the winnowing of government’s role in large-scale planning for the public good (even as the public sector has continued to grow); and with the accelerated march of globalization that followed the thawing of the Cold War, these privatizing doctrines have become international. What is certain is that we need to be thinking of new ways of intervening in the world rather than waiting for things to return to a “normalcy” that has receded into history — and this is nowhere truer than in architecture and design.

Top and bottom: Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, installation views of the exhibition, March 24 through October 11, 2010. [Photos courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art] 

Innovation and Collaboration

Educational institutions are particularly well placed to accelerating these new forms of intervention — not only to seeing where the opportunities lie but also to encouraging their development in the demanding but very needy environment that exists today for designers. The current generation of teachers who are exploring diverse new structures for the delivery of design in the digital age, and the increasing focus on strengthening interdisciplinary connections between landscape and architecture, between regional planning and economic analysis, between design and the current demographic crisis — these trends make universities the most interesting laboratories of design potential in the world. If one thing is clear, it is that the various professions taught in design schools will prosper, and develop the transformative power that is their potential, only when practiced in ongoing dialogue and collaboration, in intensive feedback with one another.

This increasingly collaborative role parallels the challenges I have posed for myself, and it is one that I have tried to facilitate in my own redefinition of curatorial practice. I was hired to guide the architecture and design program of a museum still in the process of one of the great expansions of the last generation, with ambitious plans for a second expansion in less than a decade. A year later, after the crash of 2008, I found myself negotiating, along with my museum colleagues, an institution with reduced budgets, eroded endowments and a smaller staff. Happily — with the Mies van der Rohe archive as one of our greatest assets — we were well positioned to face a new age of “less is more” — and to do so not with the idea that the challenges represented so many problems to solve, but rather that they must be embraced as opportunities to think unconventionally.

From the start, I gave myself the mandate of making the museum a platform for architecture as it is practiced now, a platform where the public and professionals alike could confront the process of design thinking rather than merely observe the end results. The display of beautiful buildings divorced from the contextual framework of their genesis is an old art museum paradigm — one that runs ever the risk of reducing works of architecture to so many consumer or media objects, no matter the intent of their makers or clients. This focus on process as much as product was the goal of the 2008 MoMA exhibition, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, with its complex presentation of the stakes of digital fabrication, viewed in the context of the pursuit of prefabrication that began with the Industrial Revolution, and also of the larger history of multiple architectural solutions that have followed this pursuit. This was also the goal of my former colleague Andres Lepik’s 2010 exhibition, Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, which presented the work of architects around the world who are inventing ways of getting it done for the betterment of local populations, rather than waiting for a competition or a commission that might serve as the occasion for such innovation. The coupling of superb, innovative architecture with wholly new ways of transforming an urban or social situation was a revelation for many.

Top and bottom: Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, October 3, 2010 through January 3, 2011. [Photos courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art]

In these exhibitions museum visitors were shown a profile of the architect who functions not simply as an artist who can give brilliant form to briefs written by others but more broadly as an interdisciplinary artistic and intellectual entrepreneur. In avoiding monographic displays, we are determined to promote not individual architects, but rather architecture, landscape, and design as such. We also aim to foreground the full gravitas of the central role of designers in creating and maintaining our public realm — which is more crucial than ever in a period in which the public posting of private wish lists on social media sites often passes as a form of public discourse.

Design Is Central

The intensifying challenges of shelter, poverty, disaster and climate change require rigorous design thinking. This conviction was the genesis for our 2010 exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, which focused on how established and emerging design talents might respond to the long-term challenges of global warming, especially to the likelihood of rising sea levels and to scientists’ predictions that the largest U.S. metropolis, New York City, can expect from two to six feet more water on a daily basis. For the most part design has not often been seen as central to the solving of this challenge, but our self-given mandate at MoMA was to reveal exactly that design is central. The approach is glocal — an attitude that underscores the importance of local action in response to global issues and that has gained traction in the face of the uncritical acceptance of globalizing normalization. Today, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lives in large cities; and of the twenty largest metropolises on the planet, fifteen lie substantially in floodable zones that will be remodeled by climate change even without design intervention.

Even as the Rising Currents workshops were underway in the fall of 2009, at MoMA’s transformed schoolhouse, PS1, the estimates of sea level rise were adjusted radically upward, with evidence of more rapid polar ice melt. The specific challenge posed to the five interdisciplinary teams of architects, landscape designers, ecologists, engineers and artists who participated in our PS1 residency was to respond to the AIA College of Fellows Latrobe Research Prize team; led by engineer Guy Nordenson, landscape designer Catherine Seavitt, and architect Adam Yarinsky, this team is itself emblematic of the new interdisciplinarity. The five teams argued for a radical expansion of the palette of techniques for intervention; ultimately their work constituted an implicit critique of both the ruling doctrine of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic flooding that followed — and the mentality of real estate developers. The diverse proposals for the New York City waterfront and harbor incorporated not only conventional hard infrastructure approaches, but also a whole range of “soft” infrastructure techniques and ecological interventions which are multifunctional and protective as well as energy producing.

Rising Currents aimed to generate not only specific ideas for New York City but also to emphasize the proactive potential of design practice. At a time when the national debate on infrastructure and energy was focused on “shovel-ready” projects that would stimulate the economy, it seemed to me vital to demonstrate — even on the modest scale of a small set of case studies, or “soundings” — that we have an important opportunity to foster new research and fresh thinking about the use of urban coastlines, about the collaborative prospects for architects and landscape designers, and about the fact that design can be a forum for imagining new solutions rather than a means of decorating solutions found by others. Rather than running from the challenge of rising sea levels and letting engineers handle the problem-solving, we sought to harness the collaborative energy that has been emerging in practice and academia — an energy that aims to mediate environmental problems and to provide performance-based solutions as well as provocative images. Indeed, the production of images that can actually motivate public discourse is critical if we are to strategically re-imagine 21st-century urban life.

The audiences for Rising Currents were diverse, as they must be for an architectural gallery in one of the world’s most popular art museums: visitors included members of the general public and government policy makers as well as a range of design professionals. Attendance exceeded our wildest hopes, even if the level of dialogue on the accompanying website revealed that we all still have a long way to go to bridge the gap between speaking among ourselves as designers, on the one hand, and, on the other, claiming a central place in the national public debate about infrastructure, energy, climate change, post-crisis housing development, the aging of the population and similarly pressing issues.

Top: Michael Bell of Visible Weather presents at the Foreclosed Open Studios at PS 1, June 18, 2011. [Photo by Don Pollard, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art] Bottom: Andrew Zago of Zago Architecture presents at the Foreclosed Open Studios at PS 1, June 18, 2011. [Photo by Don Pollard, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art]

Some observers have been bewildered by this new use of the museum not as a sanctuary for continually re-launching a battle in a war I believe won long ago — namely the status of architecture as art — but rather as a public forum for advocacy. But this is not really a new program for the museum. The Museum of Modern Art opened its doors to the public in November 1929, just days after the big stock market crash, and it came of age in the Great Depression. From the first its agenda was multifold. Most architectural histories have preferred to emphasize the aesthetic manifesto of Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s seminal International Style exhibition of 1932; but in fact the most sustained activity of the architecture department’s first decade consisted of exhibitions and programs advocating for better public housing. Exhibitions such as America Can’t Have Housing, of 1934, and Architecture in Government Housing, of 1936, had direct impacts on the creation of the New York City Housing Authority in 1934, and on the passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1937, with significant credit due to the activism of the young Catherine Bauer, who contributed to both shows, and the advocacy of Lewis Mumford.

Right now the Department of Architecture and Design is midway through a second design laboratory/exhibition experiment that picks up that tradition of exploring new design paradigms and new public policy approaches regarding the relationship of housing to infrastructure. In the wake of the ongoing foreclosure crisis — that symptom of the global financial crisis which most directly effects a large percentage of the U.S. population as well as the future of our national landscape — the department has joined forces with the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University; we have challenged five interdisciplinary teams of architects, landscape architects, economists, and policy specialists to propose alternative physical and even financial and legislative models for the redevelopment of American suburbia. As with Rising Currents, the teams are working in public view and spurring public debate at MoMA PS1, and updating their progress weekly on a website; and once again the open-house events — the final will take place on Saturday September 17, 2011 — will bring together designers, public officials and the general public. The aim is to sponsor projects that inspire alternative visions — not blueprints for quick adoption but springboards for debate and further design, for new alliances of forces in shaping the environment. The resulting exhibition, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, will open at MoMA in early February 2012, against, alas, a background of increasing financial uncertainty. But perhaps the silver lining in the multilayered crisis will be a more sustainable way of building housing and densifying the urban edge for the next generation. As curators we are eager to jumpstart these debates, as well as to assert the primacy of the design professions in envisioning new solutions and visualizing new ways of imagining the everyday.

It is the renewal of this advocacy role that seems to me increasingly urgent in defining the program of the Department of Architecture and Design — not only as a mirror of the innovation and artistry that characterize the design professions but also as an instrument, even agent, for the engagement of the professions in today’s most pressing issues. I hope that we might agree that this form of engagement is the most viable posture for a design professional in the 21st century — that is, in an era with a palpable sense of anxiety that makes such relatively recent systemic threats as Y2K seem almost quaint. Since then, for instance, we have learned too well that global digital forces can cause radical destruction and shifts of wealth in automatically programmed sales and purchases of stocks by mega-computers malfunctioning for a nanosecond, even as computer-driven armaments often fail to reach their real targets. While there is indeed real cause for anxiety, and new crises continue to emerge, the most pertinent stance young (and for that matter, established) designers can take is to translate the wealth of research emerging from design schools into further activist engagement and new research opportunities — and to advocate for that central role for designers in solving the profound dilemmas that define our time. This will require us, individually and as a discipline, to calibrate our ethical compass, to set a standard for what it means to act as a designer. The architecture of the future will not be a new set of formal experiments, but rather a new approach to working together to craft a meaningful public realm resilient to the manifest challenges we face.

Editors' Note

“The Art of Advocacy” is adapted from an essay that will appear in Dirt, an installment of Via Books, forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and MIT Press; it originated as a commencement address delivered at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in May 2010.

Barry Bergdoll, “The Art of Advocacy: The Museum as Design Laboratory,” Places Journal, September 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • 09.17.2011 at 04:55

    Strong wisdom, encouraging: félicitations.

  • 09.17.2011 at 13:50

    Thank you, Barry, for helping us learn from architecture's past and enabling us to benefit from great minds working to solve the new problems we face today. Your thought-provoking exhibitions are a serve to all who are grappling with the environmental, social, financial and other issues that keep us awake at night. Thanks for providing us with forum for discussion to discover a range of solutions.