As you may have heard, the American housing crisis has hit New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a big way.
At turns fantastical and sobering, "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," a new exhibition that opened at MoMA late last month, is a Levittown-reimagining fever dream come to life. The exhibition in a nutshell: This past summer, five architect-headed interdisciplinary teams were invited to conjure up “Buell Hypothesis”-guided visions of a new suburbia in five areas around the country with high foreclosure rates and an abundant amount of publicly held land ripe for development: Rialto, Calif., Temple Terrace, Fla., the Oranges, N.J., Cicero, Ill., and Keizer, Ore.
Explains the "Foreclosed" website:
This exhibition proposes that these crises [the financial and housing crises] have a silver lining: they have created opportunities for radically rethinking the building blocks of the United States' fast-growing urban fringe and developing a new national conversation on issues of housing, transportation, and public space.
The resulting projects, including one from a team headed by 2011 MacArthur Fellow/eco-architect extraordinaire Jeanne Gang, all respond to the “Foreclosed” challenge in their own uniquely compelling ways. None, however, address the issue of sustainability quite like Nature-City, New York-based Work Architecture Company’s vision for the Portland/Salem bedroom community of Keizer. The proposal itself is a response to the question, "what if we could live close to nature and sustainably" posed by WORKac's team leaders.
An audacious, 21st-century take on British urbanist Ebenezer Howard’s 1899 concept of the Town-Country, this back-to-nature, mixed-used fantasyland located along a planned high-speed rail route connecting Eugene, Ore., and Seattle marries large swaths of restored natural habitats (oak savannahs, fir forests, marshes) and public green spaces (gardens, urban farms, parks, playgrounds) with an eclectic assortment of housing options (high-rise towers, townhouses, courtyard homes, mini-McMansions) and urbanite-friendly amenities (public transit station, farmers market, library, community centers).
The whole city-living-in-the-country concept is packed into an extremely dense (13,000 residents on a proposed 225-acre site that's currently slated to be the future home of a bunch of big-box stores) yet wide-open package. Essentially, it’s the kind of set-up where both Oliver and Lisa Douglas could live in harmony; the kind of place where one can "live where you work, play, grow, make, compost, shop, eat, providing a local mindset combined with the density — and creativity — of a metropolitan center;" the kind of place where the word "compost" is thrown around a lot.
Of course, Nature-City is heavy on ecological infrastructure. Electricity for the entire development is generated by an on-site methane fuel cell; drinking water is extracted from airborne humidity using atmospheric water generators; home heating is provided by three geothermal wells; and wastewater is cleaned and reused through some truly inventive natural water filtration methods.
And although the development's wildlife “pass-throughs,” brewery, and mushroom factory/canning facility are mighty impressive, without a doubt the pièce de résistance of car-free Nature-City is “Compost Hill,” a massive organic waste heap that combines terraced housing and a spiraling park with an interior methane dome where residents are encouraged/required to toss their organic waste (“everyone in Nature-City helps produce power by composting vegetable peelings and other waste”). Methane collected from the dome is used at the nearby pollution-free power plant while compost is put to good use at Nature-City's extensive network of farms and gardens. And then there's this: the public swimming pools located on the roof of the dome (!) are heated by leftover biogas.
Affordability is also an important aspect of Nature-City with 30 percent of the 4,850 units designated as affordable housing (20 percent middle-income and 10 percent low-income). It’s also worth noting that Nature-City’s apartments, both market-rate and affordable, measure an average of 1,300 square feet which is 10 percent larger than the national average.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to Nature-City than what I've described. One of my favorite aspects of the project aside from the truly awe-inspiring housing typologies, is a series of promotional commercials for the development created by Wieden+Kennedy (I've embedded a couple of the ads, below). Great stuff. And a huge kudos goes out to the Nature-City team, which includes WORKac principles Amale Andraos and Dan Wood along with Eric Sanderson, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Gerald Frug, a local government law expert at Harvard Law School, and others.
If you’re in the New York City area or plan on visiting in the near future, I highly recommend a trip to MoMA to learn more about WORKac's Nature-City and the rest of the “Foreclosed” projects (fans of scale architectural models are in for a real treat). The exhibition runs through July 30 in the museum's Robert Menschel Architecture and Design Gallery. If you can't make it in person, there’s also a robust, interactive “Foreclosed" website where you can learn more about each of the five projects and the proposed towns in more detail. Needless to say, you may never look at humdrum, car-dependent suburban tract housing in the same way again.