The City as Canvas: Bored With Models and Drawing, Museums Turn Artists and Designers Loose on the Streets

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Long Island City 2.0. (The Noguchi Museum)

Imagine that, in the spring, Long Island City is transformed by the artists who have for decades called the neighborhood home.

Running down Broadway, one of the Long Island City’s main axes, is a green lawn from curb to curb. It stretches from the shore to the elevated subway station three-quarters of a mile away. A High Line at street level, the refashioned road is traversable by cars and trucks, thanks to special pavers installed by Rirkrit Tiravanija. Occasionally, the east-west thoroughfare is closed, for movie nights and flea markets, all the hallmarks of a burgeoning post-bohemian neighborhood.

A few brave souls, rather than ambling along the new grassy causeway, fly over it, suspended in one of Natalie Jeremijenko’s hang-glider like Flightpaths, a project she successfully installed two years ago in Toronto. There are mechanized duck decoys floating in the channel between here and Roosevelt Island, monitoring the biodiverCITY. Visitors take in the East River from a new waterfront esplanade designed by George Trakas, stretching from the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, along the old industrial waterfront and past Socrates Sculpture Park.

From the esplanade, visitors observe the new quality-of-life indicators installed by Mary Miss on the Big Allis stacks. The red-and-white striped chimneys have dominated the Ravenswood skyline since 1965, when the power plant, then the world’s largest, opened. (As a name for the neighborhood, Ravenswood dates back almost two centuries. Ms. Miss and her collaborators are trying to revive it, setting the northern half of the neighborhood off from its condo-covered south.)

Farther inland, construction scaffolds do double duty as hanging gardens; there are tractor-trailer artists studios and design labs, and lamp posts painted red-and-white, which broadcast a new vision for the neighborhood Ms. Miss also likes to call CaLL, short for City as Living Laboratory.

If that sounds like a wild, artistic utopia on the left bank of the East River, it is. But that is how two of its first pioneers, Isamu Noguchi (who died in 1988) and Mark di Suvero, viewed the neighborhood when they moved in 50 years ago. Only now is it being realized on a scale that goes beyond their respective studios, which stood across Vernon Boulevard for decades. A Costco, not quite part of this idyllic vision, lies in between.


For its first show of contemporary artists, Long Island City’s Noguchi Museum has decided to turn to the canvas its late founder and his friend and neighbor had so long explored personally and artistically. Rather than simply install works in the landscape or create ones inspired by it, the museum charged Mr. Tiravanija, Ms. Jeremijenko, Mr. Trakas and Ms. Miss with rethinking Long Island City itself. The artists, working with teams of architects, planners, historians and writers, created new ways of interpreting and enlivening the urban fabric. The goal is to embrace the community that already calls it home as well as those who might soon come—a horrendous 19-story condo tower a block north of the Socrates is the sort of thing the two institutions are guarding against.

“Isamu and Mark really cared about this place, they sought it out as a space apart from the rest of the city,” Noguchi director Jenny Dixon told The Observer in October, at the opening of Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City. “We’ve watched the neighborhood change over the years, and we believed that the right group of artists would be able to continue to help shape its future, as they have in the past.”

Yet the visions housed in the second floor galleries at the Noguchi will probably never get much further than the white walls and tables on which they are arrayed from now until the middle of April. There will be a companion exhibition this summer at Socrates, where, after some workshopping, pieces in the Noguchi show might be realized at full-scale, such as a geodesic shelter designed by Mr. Tiravanija to house one of his signature Community Kitchens. Alongside it might be one of Ms. Miss’s tractor-trailer incubators or a “Multi-Species Crossing“ road sign by Ms. Jeremijenko. But the odds that Broadway will go green or take flight seem slim.

“It could happen,” Ms. Dixon countered.

And in many ways, it already has—in Long Island City, throughout New York and around the world. This is not simply an expression of the neighborly spirit embodied by Noguchi and Mr. di Suvero. This is also part of a fledging cultural movement taking root in institutions big and small, a movement The Observer likes to think of as Museum Urbanism.

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Can MoMA save the world? (MoMA)

At least since 1930, when Philip Johnson founded the Architecture and Design Department at MoMA, museums have been chronicling the latest developments in “the built environment,” as architects and planners like to call the man-made world. From The International Style to Deconstructivist architecture in 1988 to 2008’s Home Delivery—which may soon be on display in Brooklyn if Bruce Ratner can manage to build a 32-story prefab apartment tower at Atlantic Yards—museums have been a guiding force in the shaping of cities.

While it is true that these exhibitions have a way of influencing the wider world, they are mostly just spreading the gospel, cataloguing moods and movements already underway. It is not so different from the art hanging on the walls. What is different in the case of Museum Urbanism is that the city’s cultural institutions are reaching beyond those walls in an effort to proactively shape and remake the city surrounding them.

“I believe firmly that it is vital to show that architectural and design thinking are integral to confronting many of the most vital challenges of the world today—from issues of the environment, to social justice, to transportation, to demographic shifts,” said Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA. “In most cases in this country it is thought that these are policy issues, and that the role of architects and designers is to make beautiful what has been solved in other realms. Rather, design thinking is a fundamental way of framing problems, not simply decorating them.”

The reasons museums are interested in designers in this way are myriad, and not simply because they have exhausted every other form of art. If painting, sculpture, design, performance, photography and conceptual art have run their course, what is left for a canvas but the cities and streets and the buildings themselves, not to mention the people inside? Alanna Heiss, founding director of PS1 and initiator of those delightful designer pavilions the museum’s courtyard plays home to every summer, thought that planning might somehow strike institutions as less commercial than their overpriced art and increasingly commodified design objets. “Is it filling an elitist mold, or is it what an audience would really like?” she said.

The economy is a factor in other ways. In the midst of a recession that was largely the result of overbuilding, artists, designers and the general public are all taking a fresh look at what we build and how we build it, and museums are a natural place to do so. “It is a great moment to parse and reflect, like the 1970s,” Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, said.

Other upheavals have influenced the interest in planning and urbanism, most notably 9/11 and the indelible impact it left on New York. Who has ever looked at a building and what surrounds it the same way since? Certainly not the thousands of New Yorkers who piled into the Javits within months of the attacks to dream up a new World Trade Center, nor the millions more who passed around the designs in newspapers, magazines and online.

Kate Levin, the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs from the start of the Bloomberg administration–who also happens to be Mr. di Suvero’s wife–gives a great deal of credit to the mayor for not only getting museums but most New Yorkers interested in the minutia of the city. “It’s a virtuous circle,” she said. “We happen to be living in a time when people are increasingly interested in planning, but we’re also living in a moment, at least in New York, where there’s a sense that people in government realize there are a lot of decisions that have to be made really responsibly.”

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The New Museum takes it to the streets. (Urban Omnibus)

Still, this doesn’t fully explain why museums are creating plans, not simply cataloguing them, as had been their wont in the past. Bruce Altshuler, director of N.Y.U.’s museum studies program and the former director of the Noguchi, sees this new interest as an outgrowth of two major movements from the past two decades, one American, the other European.

The U.S. gave us an emphasis on museums being not just places in which to view art but also venues in which to consume other forms of culture, maybe even a five-star meal. The museum as community center, tourist attraction, civic commodity. As Ms. Heiss put it, “People don’t simply want to go to the museum to look at art anymore.” The other driving force, from Europe, is what could be called biennialism, the desire not only to showcase art but to commission it, to be a cultural creator, not just a cultural cataloguer.

“I think urbanism is a natural interest coming out of these influences,” Mr. Altshuler said. “It relates to communities in the social concerns and it even relates to the arts, through architecture. And there is no more permanent cultural change than influencing the city.”

Mr. Bergdoll puts a good deal of blame on the rise of starchitecture, which it should be said museums (along with the media) are largely responsible for the creation, promotion and consumption of. “The Starchitect phenomenon effectively hid from view for a while the diminishing role of architects in shaping and defining the daily environment outside museums and the commercial sector,” he said. Now, he and his colleagues hope the win some of that back.

There is also the simple fact of competition—if one museum starts doing something, so must others. And they must do it bigger, and better.

Yet the simplest explanation for this newfound interest in cities is that they are where the cultural consumer, the museumgoer, indeed the world, now finds itself. At some point in 2008, more humans began residing in cities than outside of them, making questions of urban sustainability more crucial than ever. Think of these shows as gentrification come full-circle. The artists made the cities safe for everyone else, and now it has finally filtered up to the museums themselves. Museums have a stake, as well. A safer city means more patrons means more tickets and gift shop receipts. Indeed, many of New York’s cultural institutions are enjoying record attendance.

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Partying at the BMW Guggenheim Lab downtown. (Guggenheim)

The rise of Museum Urbanism in the past two years has been striking, especially in its curatorial popularity and variety.

As usual, MoMA was an early adopter, launching a designers-in-residence program two years ago. Its first foray was Rising Currents, where up-and-coming firms were given sites around New York Harbor, from Buttermilk Channel to Bayonne, and charged with creating solutions to protect against both creeping sea levels and the perfect storm. This year, the program has expanded its scope even further with Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, where five new designers are tackling suburbs across the nation, including Rialto, Calif., Salem, Ore., and the Oranges in New Jersey.

“This is a period in which architectural talent is remarkably underutilized, so the museum cannot confine itself to its traditional role of showcasing the best of what is being created in the normal economy of building,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “We are not in a normal economy of building and also we have seen a remarkable retrenchment of the tasks that are confided to architects over the past few generations.”

The MoMA projects are still very much rooted within the confines of the museum, even as the museum looks beyond for its subjects. Other institutions have decided to venture even further outside their walls.

The New Museum held its Festival of Ideas for the New City this spring. It was stocked with high wattage panels and keynotes from Vito Acconci, Elizabeth Diller and Google’s Jaron Lanier. Titles included “The Sustainable City,” “The Reconfigured City” and “The Networked City.” Rem Koolhaas created an installation in the museum’s new Studio 231, a gallery housed in an old restaurant supply store next door to the aluminum jenga. There he basically demolished the modern ideas of historic preservation as progress-busting Disneyification.

But the main event was the StreetFest that overtook the Bowery for two days, along with more than 100 projects scattered across venues downtown. In a way, it was a celebration of everything the New Museum represented on the New Bowery: progressive thought, art in action, gentrification. But it also got disparate art and community groups within the neighborhood talking about ways to improve and preserve it.

“It’s an expression of the museum’s mission, but we also felt very strongly that artists and art were a powerful force for change,” Lisa Philips said. “Artists belong at the table with politicians and planners. They have unconventional ways of thinking that expand the typical approaches for solving urban problems. Their notion of creative place-making is totally different.” If the museum had created some problems for the neighborhood, here it was trying to fix them. Ms. Phillips said the staff is already hard at work on planning for an even bigger festival for next year, and will continue to do so each spring.

Meanwhile, the Guggenheim is looking well beyond the leafy confines of the Upper East Side. On a vacant lot on Houston Street, it launched the BMW Guggenheim Lab, which ran for 10 weeks from August through October. Tokyo design stars Atelier Bow Wow created a hefty steel scaffolding encasing screens and spotlights that allowed for a think tank, community center and dance hall. Urban thinkers local and international converged on the space to dream up new visions for the city.

More innovative than the ideas they created is what will happen to them. The Lab is on its way to Berlin, where it will open an exhibition in May for another 10 weeks before being shipped off to Mumbai. Six other cities will follow in the next four years. Three themes will be discussed by the three cities in succession, the current discourse being Confronting Comfort. The idea itself, of scouring the globe for new urban forms, is, regardless the outcome, certainly intellectually confrontational.

And there are the smaller shows, too, as the movement continues to seep out across the cultural landscape. The Noguchi and Socrates have their show, as does the august Museum of the City of New York. A long-standing champion of urbanism, that museum has hosted almost as many shows on planning as it has on past mayoral administrations. From Big & Green:Towards Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century to Radicals in the Bronx and Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program, the museum has taken a long look at planning issues. Yet most of its exhibitions have been descriptive, rather than proscriptive. The current show breaks that mold.

The Greatest Grid not only explores the Governors Plan that laid out New York’s famous road network, now celebrating its bicentennial, but it is paired with The Unfinished Grid, a presentation of eight proposals gathered from an architectural open call that offers new visions for our city and the streets that weave it together. Among the ideas are avenues given over to park space and a sky grid housing whole new neighborhoods.

Even the PS1 pavilions, which were historically little more than follies that kept the sun off during those summer concerts, have taken on a social bent. Three years ago, it was an urban farm and the following summer a cheap-chic organic structure meant to evoke post-bubble austerity. This year, Interboro Partners, a firm that does more planning than design, polled the neighborhood to see what it would want in its pavilion, with the items dispersed to the public after it closed. Daybeds, planters, a bike and foosball and ping-pong tables were among the installations-turned-gifts.

“Everyone is exploding the notions of the museum, particularly the ways in which museums can be socially responsible and conscious,” Mr. Altshuler said.

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Building a better world, or at least a better party? (GelatoBaby)

What is the real impact of these recent projects? Whereas The International Style might have had indirect effects on the shape of architecture to come, it did not make specific prescriptions for a neighborhood or a city, as many of the newer projects do. If the very point of urbanism is to reshape the environments in which we live, doing anything less must be judged, to some degree, as a failure. Otherwise these are the same old catalogues simply expressed in new, man-on-the-street ways.

It is not like Museum Urbanism is the first curatorial movement that has sought to reshap the world.“There are all kinds of art exhibitions that do the same thing,” she continued. “You walk out and you see color differently, you see space differently, ideally you’re much more conscious of the environment around you as a series of choices, etc. But I do think these shows are then pushing urbanism so people are looking at materials, they’re looking at light and air, they are much more conscious, I think, of both public and private spaces. Why does something have to be ugly and unadorned?”

Museums have been here before. In 1967, MoMA, at the behest of John Lindsay, launched the New City exhibition, which took Harlem as a salvage point. This was at the start of the decline, not Mayor Bloomberg bright, big new New York, though. Everything is shiny and new again, if you can afford it. With hundreds of thousands of new people flooding New York City’s streets over the past two decades, not to mention 50 million tourists, everyone is trying to figure out what to do with them.

Even if the museums cannot create specific projects to reshape the city, they can hope to influence those who do. City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden attended a number of Rising Currents events, and a waterfront plan issued earlier this year seems to bear some of its hallmarks, if in far less extreme forms—no floating houses, but maybe some oyster beds some day. Meanwhile, in September, at a Foreclosed open house, former city housing commissioner and current HUD director Shaun Donovan was rubbing elbows with designers and theorists. The ideas just might rub off. Mr. Bergdoll said he saw students studying the Rising Currents proposal at an architecture school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a trend no doubt taking place elsewhere.

The projects themselves are not realized, yet the museum can serve as an important proving ground for the ideas behind them. “If I can present, as I did at PS1, temporary architecture as a subject for discussion and enjoyment, that meant that ideas could be tried out and then incorporated if they worked,” Ms. Heiss said. “I know that that skips the final question, is it good or is it not, does it work or does it not? But during those summers, we found out a lot about the architects, and they found out a lot about us.”

Influential planner and Bloomberg soothsayer Alex Garvin remains skeptical, and he used Mr. Tiravanija’s project as an example. “When the designers deal with the public realm, such as replacing the paving on Broadway with ‘drivable grass,’ they lack an understanding of how such a regional artery works,” he said. “The grass would turn to mud from the truck traffic that supports the lively retail stores along Broadway and the heavy regional automobile traffic on Broadway going to and from the big boxes on Northern Boulevard and the Costco on Vernon Boulevard.

“It’s fun to dream,” he added, “but let’s not confuse that with creating a better life for the residents of our city.”

Others dismissed the idea that any of these exhibitions should be taken literally. “None of these projects is proscriptive.” Mr. Bergdoll said. “They are about changing the boundaries of what it is possible to talk about, and engaging public interest in issues. So the impact is not that easily measured, and also not in the very short term.”


Maybe art is just getting back to its roots. “If you look at Michelango, DaVinci, a lot of those amazing artists were also architects,” Commissioner Levin pointed out. “In fact in the past, it was probably a lot more organic than it’s been for a while. You know, Brunalesci, whatever. You still very much have a tension with architects, who, like Frank Gehry, is an artist. So I think  you have a kind of practice that, increasingly, crosses over.”

Maybe this is nothing new at all.

“Art has always been about community,” Mr. Tiravanija said. “This is just another form of that.”

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

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  1. You get the sense that these people are actually rather conservative when it comes to growth – I mean, god forbid someone wants to build a 19-story condo tower in the most transit-oriented part of Queens! – and actually just want NYC to stay exactly as it is, but with grassy surfaces. In any case, good article – I especially liked the critical quotes towards the end (grass roads?? really??).

    But, one correction: it’s Brunelleschi, not Brunalesci.

  2. We love the idea of “Museum Urbanism!” Seeing the streets of Long Island City decorated by local artists.

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