The City as Canvas: Bored With Models and Drawing, Museums Turn Artists and Designers Loose on the Streets

Can MoMA save the world? (MoMA)

At least since 1930, when Philip Johnson founded the Architecture and Design Department at MoMA, museums have been chronicling the latest developments in “the built environment,” as architects and planners like to call the man-made world. From The International Style to Deconstructivist architecture in 1988 to 2008’s Home Delivery—which may soon be on display in Brooklyn if Bruce Ratner can manage to build a 32-story prefab apartment tower at Atlantic Yards—museums have been a guiding force in the shaping of cities.

While it is true that these exhibitions have a way of influencing the wider world, they are mostly just spreading the gospel, cataloguing moods and movements already underway. It is not so different from the art hanging on the walls. What is different in the case of Museum Urbanism is that the city’s cultural institutions are reaching beyond those walls in an effort to proactively shape and remake the city surrounding them.

“I believe firmly that it is vital to show that architectural and design thinking are integral to confronting many of the most vital challenges of the world today—from issues of the environment, to social justice, to transportation, to demographic shifts,” said Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA. “In most cases in this country it is thought that these are policy issues, and that the role of architects and designers is to make beautiful what has been solved in other realms. Rather, design thinking is a fundamental way of framing problems, not simply decorating them.”

The reasons museums are interested in designers in this way are myriad, and not simply because they have exhausted every other form of art. If painting, sculpture, design, performance, photography and conceptual art have run their course, what is left for a canvas but the cities and streets and the buildings themselves, not to mention the people inside? Alanna Heiss, founding director of PS1 and initiator of those delightful designer pavilions the museum’s courtyard plays home to every summer, thought that planning might somehow strike institutions as less commercial than their overpriced art and increasingly commodified design objets. “Is it filling an elitist mold, or is it what an audience would really like?” she said.

The economy is a factor in other ways. In the midst of a recession that was largely the result of overbuilding, artists, designers and the general public are all taking a fresh look at what we build and how we build it, and museums are a natural place to do so. “It is a great moment to parse and reflect, like the 1970s,” Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, said.

Other upheavals have influenced the interest in planning and urbanism, most notably 9/11 and the indelible impact it left on New York. Who has ever looked at a building and what surrounds it the same way since? Certainly not the thousands of New Yorkers who piled into the Javits within months of the attacks to dream up a new World Trade Center, nor the millions more who passed around the designs in newspapers, magazines and online.

Kate Levin, the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs from the start of the Bloomberg administration–who also happens to be Mr. di Suvero’s wife–gives a great deal of credit to the mayor for not only getting museums but most New Yorkers interested in the minutia of the city. “It’s a virtuous circle,” she said. “We happen to be living in a time when people are increasingly interested in planning, but we’re also living in a moment, at least in New York, where there’s a sense that people in government realize there are a lot of decisions that have to be made really responsibly.”