Design at MoMA

By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, Principal

I went to MoMA last week to see their show “Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities” and it was, well, uneven. With so many venues around New York for speculative exhibits on architecture, why would MOMA show something this rough? As with many examples of this type of offering, the title itself is purposely jargonized. And while the immediacy of the problems being addressed are well established at the beginning of the exhibit, and the point is clearly made that the ‘strategies’ proposed are intended to spark discussion rather than pose solutions, this only reinforced the sense of mystery as to why MOMA thought it was in their wheelhouse to mount this kind of show. After all, although this is not the first time they have positioned themselves as a process-oriented program, we have usually looked to MOMA to present the best of design, not to present such highly particular, yet not quite cooked ideas. And goodness knows we already have The Storefront for Art and Architecture, The Van Alen Institute, The Municipal Art Society, The Architectural League, and all the fine design schools around New York for this kind of academic and speculative presentation.





And then I realized, or was reminded: Architecture is finally moving beyond the object. For so many years, including during my own education, the physical result was in the end what was regarded as paramount. And it tended toward conventional, even if cutting edge notions of visual beauty. But of late architects are re-examining and tackling broader issues of urbanism, population density, sustainability and economic and social justice. And they are doing so in ways very different from the utopian visions and prescriptions of Early Modernism. Processes are messy and inclusive. Strategies may be highly situational and localized. And, yes, they may be unresolved, open-ended and organic.

These are qualities that we were not permitted to aim for in previous decades. We were expected to conjure and represent polished, elegantly conceived and designed finished products. But now, except among developers hawking brand name ‘starchitects’ for their mega condo and mixed use projects and certain large institutional and corporate buildings, the issue of stylistic currency is rarely held up as the standard. And even beauty has had to be re-evaluated if it indeed it is discussed at all. We have bigger concerns to tackle, and through the efforts of our creative problem solving, new notions of beauty will emerge and evolve.




So it was that I had to re-calibrate my perspective as I experienced “Uneven Growth” at MOMA. For starters, the work took on a variety of scales and forms of analysis and presentation. From target city to target city, the issues addressed spanned a range of locally specific concerns. The creation of new, almost mythic islands for Hong Kong; the unused airspace above Mumbai; the power and particularity of the Carioca spirit in Rio; a new building and infrastructure paradigm for Lagos; and the familiar problem of income and housing inequality in New York, to name a few.

Each project/city was presented by its team in its own unique manner; some very process oriented, others through the creation of a signature graphic and/or media display. The result was a sporadic, and highly heterogeneous visitor experience that spoke strongly of the numerous ways we can view and address the challenges of our expanding megalopolises. While there were some clear attempts by the designers to strike a note of visual consistency in some of the color and graphic choices, and most notably with the effective introductory exhibit, in the end it wasn’t really necessary. The world is not homogeneous and this experience didn’t need to be either.



As an interesting counter-balance to the provocative visual and conceptual foundations of “Uneven Growth”,  it was with a certain relief and much delight that I stumbled upon the other show on the same floor, “This Is For Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good”. Here is exactly what we have come to expect from MOMA and what they have always been so good at – a survey of how design permeates our lives and how designers are rising to the occasion of a whole host of current issues and letting those concerns spur them on to creative explorations and solutions that DO take a physical form. And these objects, owing to their utility and their aesthetic and intellectual finesse, are indeed in their own way ground breaking and often quite beautiful.

The final message that I took from my visit was that there is certainly room for design to affect our lives in many ways and on many levels. Perhaps that is its ultimate beauty.