Foreclosed: Architecture Center Reimagines Suburbia After Housing Crisis

Fred A. Bernstein
February 21, 2012

The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, founded in 1982, has never shied away from examining important social issues.

So after the housing bubble collapsed in 2007, leading to millions of home foreclosures across the U.S., the center’s director, Reinhold Martin, saw an opportunity to look at how America’s housing stock could move beyond the suburban, single-family home that dominates the “American dream” but presents real-life economic and environmental problems.

It seemed like the perfect topic to work on with his Art History and Archaeology colleague Barry Bergdoll, who became chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007 and was encouraging links between the University and the museum. His issues-based architecture exhibitions at MoMA have included "Rising Currents," a 2009 show featuring designers’ responses to changes in sea level caused by global warming.

Together, Bergdoll and Martin transformed the Buell Center’s inquiry into "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," which runs at MoMA through July 30. The centerpiece of the show is a series of proposals for five American suburbs, created over more than a year by architects chosen by Martin and Bergdoll.

The show’s underpinning is The Buell Hypothesis, a book written by Martin and center colleagues Leah Meisterlin and Anna Kenoff. In the Hypothesis, which is available on the center’s website, Socrates and Glaucon, protagonists of Plato’s The Republic, are stuck in traffic on Interstate 95, where they have no choice but to contemplate the nature of the suburb and begin imagining alternatives. Who better to realize those alternatives than architects?

According to Bergdoll, the mandate of "Foreclosed" is “to reveal that design is central to solving” America’s housing crisis. The architects he and Martin chose—three of them Columbia faculty members—formed teams with economists, ecologists, activists and engineers to develop new ideas for America’s declining suburbs.

Last year, the architect-led teams presented their ideas at a series of workshops. In September, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan reviewed the proposals at one such workshop, where he praised the participants for thinking about “what should these places look like, and how do we begin, if tentatively, to grasp those opportunities.”

MOS, a firm headed by Columbia faculty member Hilary Sample and her husband, Michael Meredith, focused on East Orange, N.J., outside Newark, where they proposed reclaiming streets as sites for long narrow buildings mixing residential and commercial uses.

The buildings are intended to reduce the tax burden on a financially struggling city and redevelop the street as an engine of economic growth. A new financial model would give residents 50 percent ownership of their homes; the other 50 percent would be held by a cooperative.

WORKac, a firm run by Amale Andraos, also a Columbia faculty member, and her husband, Dan Wood, developed a proposal for Keizer, Ore., that would house several thousand people on 220 acres. The new buildings would be five times as dense as the surrounding suburbs, but with three times the amount of open space. The reinvented suburb of Salem, the state capital, would include a facility to process organic waste into compost while generating methane that would power fuel cells.

The firm Visible Weather, a collaboration between Michael Bell, director of Columbia’s Master of Architecture Program Core Design Studios, and Eunjeong Song, focused its attention on Temple Terrace outside Tampa, Fla., where the architects designed a series of large buildings with spaces set aside for city government, municipally owned “incubator” offices for business start-ups and housing.

The team headed by Jeanne Gang, a prominent Chicago architect, worked to help Cicero, Ill., strengthen its identity as a haven for immigrant families, or “arrival city.” Modular housing would allow residents to add and subtract rooms as families change over time.

Andrew Zago of Zago Architecture salvaged a largely abandoned subdivision in Rialto, Calif., near San Bernardino, offering a variety of housing types including apartments and two-family homes instead of the rows of detached houses that had been planned before the real estate collapse.

The show helped kick off the 30th anniversary of the center, which was endowed by Buell, a renowned Colorado architect (M.Arch’17) who died in 1990. Based at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, the center sponsors research projects, workshops, public programs, publications and awards.

Martin, director of the center since 2008, sees the show as one of the center’s triumphs, pairing its research capabilities with MoMA’s ability to mount large public exhibitions. "Foreclosed," he said, “has demonstrated that we can do together what neither of us can do independently.”