At MOMA, Tinkering With the Machinery Underneath the House

Sometimes the most important things are not the easiest things to display. This can be particularly apparent in attempts at presenting economic or social policy ideas in a museum exhibit, an inherently visual venue.

Such thoughts come to mind after touring "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through August 13. For the show, five architectural firms, working with economists, ecologist, civil engineers and others, developed proposals based on a 2011 Columbia University manifesto calling for the reinvention of the now stereotypical American dream of a home in the suburbs. Each team took on a different site across America, which varied widely in geography but had common characteristics. All were suburban locales, in proximity to potential high-speed rail lines, and had housing in foreclosure because of the current real estate crisis.

What strikes many visitors to the exhibit are the arresting architectural acrobatics of each team. Most teams found ways to increase density within often-conventional suburban or industrial contexts, something inherently dramatic. One project, "Nature City," set in Keizer, Ore., shows a giant beehive of compost set amid "towers of houses" and other new architectural forms.

But beyond the architecture, landscaping and infrastructure, which were all inventive, it's more in the fine print of the exhibits and in the catalog that gets to the more radical reimagining of the American dream. Many teams experimented with altering the standard system of home ownership through a bill of sale for land and a home, with a conventional bank-financed mortgage. The teams called for "portable mortgages," a "public real estate investment trust," a "community land bank," a "public-private partnership," and a "limited equity cooperative." These alternative ownership systems take a clear cue from the Columbia University manifesto, and strive to give alternatives to individual homeownership by emphasizing the public and long-term ownership of housing by a given community or government. This is real change.

Unfortunately this aspect of the show is only given a few sentences in the exhibit catalog, as well as the website and physical exhibit. A more detailed description of ideas such as "portable mortgages" or "public real estate investment trusts" would have taken the conversation further into the intersection of buildings and the communities that inhabit them. More than changing zoning or the physical walls around people's kitchens and bedrooms, expanding more the possibilities of new types of housing tenure would have been helpful. This would have provided a clearer path to showing how they propose we ground these new American dreams financially and legally.