Public architecture is one of those topics, like seismology or virology, that most people would just as soon leave to the pros until it forces itself into their line of sight. Then some city agency floats a plan to convert a newsstand into an e-bike hub, enlarge a boathouse, renovate a library, delete a few parking spots, put up or take down a statue, or erect new apartments for the homeless. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert. Passions rise over technical details and opinions jell around construction budgets: $126 million for that? To manage this supercharged emotional terrain, the Adams administration has followed the advice of civic groups and appointed a public-realm czar, Ya-Ting Liu, whose first order of business will be to corral restaurant owners, their customers, residents, members of City Council, her boss, and a gang of opportunistic rats into a consensus on the future of outdoor dining.
Living in New York means learning to negotiate with strangers over inches of shared space. The patch of subway platform in front of an open door. The bumpy red square of sidewalk where the curb dips down to meet the crosswalk. A park bench. An elevator. An armrest. Urbanites meet constantly in each of these mini-DMZs and, despite our reputation for scrappiness, we almost always execute such encounters peacefully and without conscious thought. Scarcity breeds cooperation. That’s why people respond so strongly to any changes in public space: It threatens to throw off a precarious equilibrium. It’s why we react to every public-design proposal by positing theories of group psychology, predicting the behavior patterns of strangers as if they were fruit flies in a wind tunnel: This will confuse people, cause them to move faster or slower or more erratically.
Now MoMA has stepped into this juncture of design and civic politics with a vaguely titled and loosely bundled exhibition, “Architecture Now: New York, New Publics.” The show sweeps a dozen projects — tiny and vast, concrete and wishful — under the rubric of “public amenity,” to distinguish them from the trophies of capitalism. True, a billion-dollar skyscraper, too, can foster “collective participation and a sense of belonging,” but curators Martino Stierli and Evangelos Kotsioris have more self-consciously virtuous goals in mind. And so we see the Fresh Kills garbage dump being upgraded into a nature reserve over the course of 30 years by James Corner Field Operations, a fire hydrant with a customized drinking spout courtesy of Agency-Agency and Chris Woebken Studio, a suite of subway-station murals in Sunset Park by Olalekan Jeyifous, and various other urban interventions. All are intended to make the city feel less forbidding.
It’s amusing to envision the museum’s staff sifting through the thousands of mundane and fanciful projects that have swirled around New York in recent years (anyone for a COVID memorial in Central Park? How about one of those 32-foot ear swabs for 5G cell service?) and rejecting virtually all of them. No restaurant sheds, no barriers or bollards, foot bridges, libraries, airports, tunnels, museums, fire stations, transfer stations, subway stations, or railroad stations — almost none of the city’s essential gearworks made the cut. The works that did are mostly by emerging architects who fuse aesthetics and social virtue. Sure, kids could learn about renewable energy in a basic cinderblock shed at Jones Beach, but doing so in a net-zero solar-paneled timber-sided longhouse laboratory designed by ARCHITECTS is much cooler. SO-IL’s Amant arts center in East Williamsburg may affect just a handful of lives at a time, but look at that brickwork!
In a couple of installations, MoMA thumbs its nose at physical fact. Faced with New York’s unwillingness to tear down passé statues, the Kinfolk Foundation developed an app to insert 3-D monuments in parks and plazas virtually. Raise a tablet loaded with the Kinfolk app and a colossal figure of the Haitian revolutionary general Toussaint L’Ouverture replaces the Columbus Circle column topped with its objectionable Italian navigator. I enjoy the idea of overlaying design proposals on the existing city through technological sleight of hand, as if New York were just static backdrop to be animated at will. A VR walking tour, bumping into Walt Whitman on a Broadway omnibus or strolling over the greenswards of the BQE, sounds great.
More fancifully still, the show includes Peterson Rich Office’s “Scalable Solutions for NYCHA,” an eminently logical yet somehow profoundly unrealistic set of tweaks to public housing as it currently exists. Architects naturally treat NYCHA’s problems as architectural challenges, and Peterson Rich has volunteered to improve life for residents by pasting a set of mass-timber balconies onto the buildings’ brick façades, adding a couple of low-rise wings, and re-landscaping open areas. But caveat MoMA: If you endorse a narrowly architectural solution to low-income housing, you’re also setting architects up to take the blame when it fails, as Minoru Yamasaki did for the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe. Stierli’s curatorial team surely knows well that outside the confines of a museum, the obstacles to making public housing safe, stable, and decent have little to do with design and everything to do with money, manpower, and political will. Before you start hanging balconies, fix the boilers.
The most complex of the completed projects is Weiss Manfredi’s park at Hunters Point South, a standout episode in the multi-decade undertaking to reclaim the post-industrial waterfront. It’s a beautiful design, one that would have remained on a sketchpad if not for an improbable chain of policies and circumstances: the Bloomberg-era effort to draw the Olympics to New York, which led to the rezoning of Long Island City and the siting there of a massive affordable-housing campaign; Hurricane Sandy, which reinforced the wisdom of ringing the city with wave-calming wetlands; the deceptive logic of ferry transit; and the city’s crucial decision to pay for parkland outright rather than obliging developers to build it chunk by little chunk. Those givens shaped the design and gave the park its meaning, so it’s a shame that MoMA has scrubbed away all that history and tenacity, all the ways a noble concept might have been bowdlerized and, miraculously, wasn’t. Here, the result looks like a mere formal study.
I understand the impulse to keep things simple and attractive, to exhibit a collection of thoughtful and seemingly unobjectionable projects, prompting viewers to think, Yes, good idea. A canopy over Kosciuszko Pool in Bed-Stuy? Sure, why not. Full-scale architectural mock-ups installed as permanent pavilions in community gardens? Bring them on. A foundry recycled into a theater incubator in Gowanus? Of course! And it’s true that each of these projects, ranging in ambition from modest to generational, contributes to the idiosyncratic richness of New York. Ironically, though, these promoters of social betterment appear in a vacuum of social context. Who wants them, who hates them and why, who pays for them and when, who can be persuaded to support them, and who uses them as intended — these thorny questions lie at the heart of public architecture and distinguish a profoundly elegant project from one that’s merely pretty. Imagine you were an activist who’s spent years chasing down funding and votes to fix up a neglected playground. You’d look around the gallery, breathe in the air of just-do-it cheeriness, and mutter incredulously: “They don’t have a clue.”
“Architecture Now: New York, New Publics” is at the Museum of Modern Art through July 29.