Architecture Now: New York, New Publics
Museum of Modern Art
Through July 29
An apparatus made of standard plumbing components that screws on to fire hydrants is one of the smallest and most delightfully inventive of the twelve projects represented in Architecture Now: New York, New Publics, a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. These “prosthetic devices,” designed by Agency—Agency and Chris Woebken, in consultation with teens from Brooklyn’s Youth Design Center, would allow ordinary fire hydrants to double as spigots for filling bottles or washing hands, and as cooling sprinkler fountains in New York’s time-honored summertime tradition. The largest work in the show, infinitely more complex and already well known, is Freshkills Park, the ongoing effort led by Field Operations to transform a vast dump on Staten Island into a biodiverse urban destination.
In between the scalar opposites of street furniture and parklands, the show proffers clever designs and colorful new lives for buildings, infrastructures, and public spaces presumed dead. Some are built, and some aren’t. One is an augmented reality app, Kinfolk, that inserts digital monuments of Black and brown figures—Toussaint L’Ouverture or the Young Lords, for example—into places like Columbus Circle. Another is a handsomely crafted, net-zero pavilion by nArchitects which kisses the sand and sky at Jones Beach. A foundry-turned-theater by CO Adaptive exemplifies the art of sustainable modification. All are located in or near New York City, and all are meant to show that, in spite of the dominance of real estate capital in shaping the city, “architecture can serve as a public amenity,” as the exhibition’s introductory text claims.
Yet the show, organized by MoMA curators Evangelos Kotsioris and Martino Stierli with Paula Vilaplana de Miguel, mixes apples and oranges. Works by “emerging” designers are juxtaposed with polished works by preeminent architects. (The former recalls the spirit of the discontinued Young Architects Program, which the Architecture Now series is meant to replace, though its polite gallery display is no match for a 1:1 pavilion and the often wild Warm Up concert series that ended in 2019.) I pondered the amorphous, fugitive nature of contemporary public space as I took in Made With Love, a playful art installation by Olalekan Jeyifous for an elevated subway platform; a scheme for planting obsolete architectural mock-ups in community gardens, by New Affiliates and Samuel Stewart-Halevy; and the monumental 1199SEIU healthcare workers union hall interior by Adjaye Associates.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that Architecture Now is also simply a vehicle to present the curators’ favorite recent design projects, especially those that turn architecture into high art. Perhaps that’s why SO – IL’s Amant Foundation, funded by “mega-collector” and MoMA trustee Lonti Ebers, shows up here. This well-executed, rarified refuge hardly makes the city “more accessible, sustainable, and equitable,” per the show’s manifesto, but it does offer sparkling serenity and superb detailing.
An ingenious set of “scalable solutions,” or retrofit strategies, for NYCHA, the city’s public housing authority, developed by Peterson Rich Office (PRO) operate at the other end of the social spectrum. (This is the only effort related to housing in the show, despite a proliferation of handsome affordable housing complexes across the city by the likes of Bernheimer Architecture, COOKFOX, and Alexander Gorlin Architects, among others.) As previously reported by AN, PRO’s design, informed by workshops with residents, would preserve and transform NYCHA’s desultory brick towers by adding lightweight covered balconies, extending building entrances to the street, activating the ground floor, overhauling HVAC systems, and other strategic moves. NYCHA leaders, if you’re reading this: Please implement these people-friendly, energy-efficient retrofits as part of your maintenance program! No doubt the real estate lobby will growl that you’re making subsidized housing too nice, but smart developers will emulate your example.
And to the parks officials who oversee our city’s 65 public swimming pools: Check out Only If’s big-hearted yet budget-conscious proposal to renovate the dilapidated Kosciuszko Pool, a.k.a. the People’s Pool, in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. The speculative interventions shower love and respect on a humble community magnet—built in 1971, the pool and its stepping terraces were designed by resort architect Morris Lapidus—and envision the facility as a year-round recreation center. Thinking on a citywide scale, the designers also provide a catalogue of public pools across the city, inviting further creative work and, one can dream, capital allocation. Or do civic projects like this now require philanthropic benefactors?
Exhibiting architecture in a gallery is never easy. Helpfully, the curators commissioned twelve new videos, one for each project, from filmmaker Hudson Lines to place the works on equal footing and reveal the context and process behind each one. A handful of full-scale prototypes and one very complicated board game accompany the inevitable photos and models, which unfold at a reasonable pace.
A couple of spectacular urban parks anchor the exhibition’s commitment to public space—and cast doubt on the curators’ argument against “large-scale infrastructure” initiatives in favor of “subtler, restorative interventions.” If you look closely at the construction of Freshkills Park and Hunters Point South Waterfront Park—the 30-acre pleasure ground designed by landscape architects SWA/Balsley and architects Weiss/Manfredi as part of a post-industrial megadevelopment in Long Island City, Queens—you begin to appreciate them as tremendously complex, muscular projects that required acts of Big Planning. That means politicians, technicians, and a lot of bulldozers. These marvels of green infrastructure and public space design are restorative, but they are not mere stitches in the urban fabric. Developed over decades, they are as heroically grand—and, in a good sense, disruptive—as the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway was violent and oppressive. Bold and big do not always break bad.
Gideon Fink Shapiro is a critic and historian who spends a lot of time in public spaces.