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

Building a better world, or at least a better party? (GelatoBaby)

What is the real impact of these recent projects? Whereas The International Style might have had indirect effects on the shape of architecture to come, it did not make specific prescriptions for a neighborhood or a city, as many of the newer projects do. If the very point of urbanism is to reshape the environments in which we live, doing anything less must be judged, to some degree, as a failure. Otherwise these are the same old catalogues simply expressed in new, man-on-the-street ways.

It is not like Museum Urbanism is the first curatorial movement that has sought to reshap the world.“There are all kinds of art exhibitions that do the same thing,” she continued. “You walk out and you see color differently, you see space differently, ideally you’re much more conscious of the environment around you as a series of choices, etc. But I do think these shows are then pushing urbanism so people are looking at materials, they’re looking at light and air, they are much more conscious, I think, of both public and private spaces. Why does something have to be ugly and unadorned?”

Museums have been here before. In 1967, MoMA, at the behest of John Lindsay, launched the New City exhibition, which took Harlem as a salvage point. This was at the start of the decline, not Mayor Bloomberg bright, big new New York, though. Everything is shiny and new again, if you can afford it. With hundreds of thousands of new people flooding New York City’s streets over the past two decades, not to mention 50 million tourists, everyone is trying to figure out what to do with them.

Even if the museums cannot create specific projects to reshape the city, they can hope to influence those who do. City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden attended a number of Rising Currents events, and a waterfront plan issued earlier this year seems to bear some of its hallmarks, if in far less extreme forms—no floating houses, but maybe some oyster beds some day. Meanwhile, in September, at a Foreclosed open house, former city housing commissioner and current HUD director Shaun Donovan was rubbing elbows with designers and theorists. The ideas just might rub off. Mr. Bergdoll said he saw students studying the Rising Currents proposal at an architecture school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a trend no doubt taking place elsewhere.

The projects themselves are not realized, yet the museum can serve as an important proving ground for the ideas behind them. “If I can present, as I did at PS1, temporary architecture as a subject for discussion and enjoyment, that meant that ideas could be tried out and then incorporated if they worked,” Ms. Heiss said. “I know that that skips the final question, is it good or is it not, does it work or does it not? But during those summers, we found out a lot about the architects, and they found out a lot about us.”

Influential planner and Bloomberg soothsayer Alex Garvin remains skeptical, and he used Mr. Tiravanija’s project as an example. “When the designers deal with the public realm, such as replacing the paving on Broadway with ‘drivable grass,’ they lack an understanding of how such a regional artery works,” he said. “The grass would turn to mud from the truck traffic that supports the lively retail stores along Broadway and the heavy regional automobile traffic on Broadway going to and from the big boxes on Northern Boulevard and the Costco on Vernon Boulevard.

“It’s fun to dream,” he added, “but let’s not confuse that with creating a better life for the residents of our city.”

Others dismissed the idea that any of these exhibitions should be taken literally. “None of these projects is proscriptive.” Mr. Bergdoll said. “They are about changing the boundaries of what it is possible to talk about, and engaging public interest in issues. So the impact is not that easily measured, and also not in the very short term.”


Maybe art is just getting back to its roots. “If you look at Michelango, DaVinci, a lot of those amazing artists were also architects,” Commissioner Levin pointed out. “In fact in the past, it was probably a lot more organic than it’s been for a while. You know, Brunalesci, whatever. You still very much have a tension with architects, who, like Frank Gehry, is an artist. So I think  you have a kind of practice that, increasingly, crosses over.”

Maybe this is nothing new at all.

“Art has always been about community,” Mr. Tiravanija said. “This is just another form of that.”

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

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