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

Partying at the BMW Guggenheim Lab downtown. (Guggenheim)

The rise of Museum Urbanism in the past two years has been striking, especially in its curatorial popularity and variety.

As usual, MoMA was an early adopter, launching a designers-in-residence program two years ago. Its first foray was Rising Currents, where up-and-coming firms were given sites around New York Harbor, from Buttermilk Channel to Bayonne, and charged with creating solutions to protect against both creeping sea levels and the perfect storm. This year, the program has expanded its scope even further with Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, where five new designers are tackling suburbs across the nation, including Rialto, Calif., Salem, Ore., and the Oranges in New Jersey.

“This is a period in which architectural talent is remarkably underutilized, so the museum cannot confine itself to its traditional role of showcasing the best of what is being created in the normal economy of building,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “We are not in a normal economy of building and also we have seen a remarkable retrenchment of the tasks that are confided to architects over the past few generations.”

The MoMA projects are still very much rooted within the confines of the museum, even as the museum looks beyond for its subjects. Other institutions have decided to venture even further outside their walls.

The New Museum held its Festival of Ideas for the New City this spring. It was stocked with high wattage panels and keynotes from Vito Acconci, Elizabeth Diller and Google’s Jaron Lanier. Titles included “The Sustainable City,” “The Reconfigured City” and “The Networked City.” Rem Koolhaas created an installation in the museum’s new Studio 231, a gallery housed in an old restaurant supply store next door to the aluminum jenga. There he basically demolished the modern ideas of historic preservation as progress-busting Disneyification.

But the main event was the StreetFest that overtook the Bowery for two days, along with more than 100 projects scattered across venues downtown. In a way, it was a celebration of everything the New Museum represented on the New Bowery: progressive thought, art in action, gentrification. But it also got disparate art and community groups within the neighborhood talking about ways to improve and preserve it.

“It’s an expression of the museum’s mission, but we also felt very strongly that artists and art were a powerful force for change,” Lisa Philips said. “Artists belong at the table with politicians and planners. They have unconventional ways of thinking that expand the typical approaches for solving urban problems. Their notion of creative place-making is totally different.” If the museum had created some problems for the neighborhood, here it was trying to fix them. Ms. Phillips said the staff is already hard at work on planning for an even bigger festival for next year, and will continue to do so each spring.

Meanwhile, the Guggenheim is looking well beyond the leafy confines of the Upper East Side. On a vacant lot on Houston Street, it launched the BMW Guggenheim Lab, which ran for 10 weeks from August through October. Tokyo design stars Atelier Bow Wow created a hefty steel scaffolding encasing screens and spotlights that allowed for a think tank, community center and dance hall. Urban thinkers local and international converged on the space to dream up new visions for the city.

More innovative than the ideas they created is what will happen to them. The Lab is on its way to Berlin, where it will open an exhibition in May for another 10 weeks before being shipped off to Mumbai. Six other cities will follow in the next four years. Three themes will be discussed by the three cities in succession, the current discourse being Confronting Comfort. The idea itself, of scouring the globe for new urban forms, is, regardless the outcome, certainly intellectually confrontational.

And there are the smaller shows, too, as the movement continues to seep out across the cultural landscape. The Noguchi and Socrates have their show, as does the august Museum of the City of New York. A long-standing champion of urbanism, that museum has hosted almost as many shows on planning as it has on past mayoral administrations. From Big & Green:Towards Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century to Radicals in the Bronx and Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program, the museum has taken a long look at planning issues. Yet most of its exhibitions have been descriptive, rather than proscriptive. The current show breaks that mold.

The Greatest Grid not only explores the Governors Plan that laid out New York’s famous road network, now celebrating its bicentennial, but it is paired with The Unfinished Grid, a presentation of eight proposals gathered from an architectural open call that offers new visions for our city and the streets that weave it together. Among the ideas are avenues given over to park space and a sky grid housing whole new neighborhoods.

Even the PS1 pavilions, which were historically little more than follies that kept the sun off during those summer concerts, have taken on a social bent. Three years ago, it was an urban farm and the following summer a cheap-chic organic structure meant to evoke post-bubble austerity. This year, Interboro Partners, a firm that does more planning than design, polled the neighborhood to see what it would want in its pavilion, with the items dispersed to the public after it closed. Daybeds, planters, a bike and foosball and ping-pong tables were among the installations-turned-gifts.

“Everyone is exploding the notions of the museum, particularly the ways in which museums can be socially responsible and conscious,” Mr. Altshuler said.

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