Cooperative Dream

March 5, 2012

The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream is the second of five exhibitions in the Issues in Contemporary Architecture series. MoMA asked five multidisciplinary teams (lead by Studio Gang, MOS, Visible Weather, WORKac, and Zago Architecture) to “explore new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis.” The proposals included in the exhibition have already generated strong reactions for and against them, raising questions about scale, design as spectacle, target audience and even place, but also starting an open debate about alternatives to traditional single-family house developments. Iker Gil interviews Jeanne Gang, founder and principal of Studio Gang, about her team’s proposal, the issues affecting the town of Cicero, Illinois, and a new approach to ownership.


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“The Garden in the Machine” proposal. © Studio Gang Architects.

IG: How did your office become involved in this exhibition / workshop?

JG: The museum put out a call for qualifications, a kind of RFQ. They asked for an interdisciplinary team. I put together a team of people I had always wanted to work with, but had never had the opportunity; each of them brought different viewpoints. They included Roberta M. Feldman, an affordable housing advocate and professor of architecture; Theaster Gates, an artist and cultural planner; Greg Lindsay, an urban observer and journalist; Kate Orff, a landscape architect; Rafi Segal, an urban designer and architect; and a number of other experts on varied subjects, from finance to environmental remediation.

IG: What are the main aspects of your proposal?

JG: The base ingredients of it are remediation of former industrial lands and the reuse of former factory materials for new structures, flexible live/work housing called “Recombinant Houses,” a new form of ownership that decouples the land from the house, and revised zoning.

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Proposed revisions to Cicero’s zoning code. © Studio Gang Architects.

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This collection of mailboxes on a Cicero bungalow provides a clue to the crowded conditions within. © Studio Gang Architects.

IG: What made you look specifically into the town of Cicero, Illinois?

JG: We were interested in the condition of the inner-ring suburb because the stakes are so high in these places. They could move toward transformation and be the site of the next economic recovery, with urbanized blocks, services, and transit options, or they could move toward abandonment and slum conditions as development leapfrogs the inner-ring for greener pastures, sprawling further and further afield.

IG: Besides the architectural aspect, “The Garden in the Machine” proposes revised zoning and a different form of ownership. Can you explain those aspects of your proposal?

JG: We found that many suburbs have restrictive zoning that is putting a stranglehold on entrepreneurship and, frankly, just plain survival. We argue for blending uses, which would allow people to live and work in the same space—“work” extending to making things through cottage industries, not just working on a computer. Many people in Cicero would like to make things or provide services out of their homes or garages, but it’s illegal. We also propose broadening the traditional definition of “family,” which remains a restrictive clause in many suburban zoning codes. Today’s families have many different structures beyond the twentieth-century nuclear definition. Suburban housing should be able to accommodate extended families and different family structures, and even unrelated people should be able to live together. I was surprised to find that suburbs—often in favor of less government—pass laws dictating who can live in a house.

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Over time, Cicero’s bungalows have been subdivided into smaller units residents can afford. Instead of forcing families to fit into the house, what if the house could be rearranged to fit them? © Studio Gang Architects.

IG: Design-wise, did you approach this proposal in a different way from other projects in the office because of the ownership or policy aspects involved? If so, how is it different from other residential projects you have done?

JG: We were definitely interested in the financial models and that influenced our idea for the Recombinant House. We worked with institutes and individuals who are imagining new models. But at the same time, there is a reciprocal influence. Designing a new kind of home can also help advance thinking about financial models.

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20th Century American Dream (Left); 21st Century Cooperative Dream (Right). The high cost of a private home includes the subsidies of public infrastructure. Shared equity trusts and co-ops collect these subsidies, passing them along as increased affordability and flexibility. © Studio Gang Architects.

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Live/work integrates into the alleys of the surrounding neighborhood. © Studio Gang Architects.

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Interior courtyard of vertical live/work neighborhood. © Studio Gang Architects.

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“The Garden in the Machine” proposal organization and overall view. © Studio Gang Architects.

IG: In the proposal, you specifically address the suburban condition and the reuse of vacant industrial buildings. Could there be a similar approach to the urban context, at least in the ownership strategy? With almost 15,000 vacant lots in Chicago, the model of land trust could potentially be implemented there.

JG: Yes, the Town of Cicero and inner-ring suburbs like it call out for a solution to foreclosed industry as much as to foreclosed homes. But with the vacancy we find in the city, I think there is a great opportunity for implementing the land trust model and an architecture designed specifically for the urban block or vacant plot.

IG:In your article “Designing a Fix for Housing” published in the New York Times,1 you mention that “we must go further than money to address issues that have been at the core of the crisis but have been wholly ignored: design and urban planning.” What is the reason that design has not been involved so far? Can architects and urban planners play a bigger role in this discussion by being proactive?

JG: Affordable housing, formerly known as public housing (the politically incorrect word for it), has long been the realm of not-for-profits and for-profit developers. Design is absent and everyone seems to have accepted the notion that no experimentation is allowed. I think a lot has now been learned about the qualities that communities need, and I believe designers can incorporate these qualities, avoid the mistakes of the past, and come up with new, incredible solutions. I think architects and designers are desperately needed to solve some of the issues of housing.

IG: Design, policy, economy and social aspects—how do we engage all the parties involved in these areas and what would be the proper forum to discuss them?

JG: Like any complex problem, the approach needs to be interdisciplinary. Shaun Donovan, Secretary of HUD, gave the keynote address at the end of the workshop phase at MoMA. He said that the best solutions will be found when not-for-profits, who are responsible for most of affordable housing, get together with design architects. I agree—we could start there.

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Proposed ownership model. © Studio Gang Architects.

IG: Other models of ownership, such as cooperatives, have been used in the business world and have proved to be really successful. For example, in Spain, where the current unemployment rate is 23%, Oñati, a town located by the Mondragon Cooperative, has an unemployment rate of 5.4%, being able to avoid the economic crisis. Why hasn’t housing explored other models of ownership before, more flexible, than can address the different ways we live? Is there a model that can go beyond the roles of seller and buyer?

JG: Great point. I think banks found there was a lot to be gained for themselves in the current model. But given the severity of the crisis, I think there is a window of opportunity now to explore other options. We are currently working with others to see how we can take what we learned in Cicero further.

IG:What are the lessons that we can learn from this exhibition at the MoMA?

JG: Barry Bergdoll and Reinhold Martin, who curated and prepared the background for the exhibition, speak about it as a starting point and not the definitive statement on the subject. For me, the number one thing is the importance of architecture reinserting itself into the housing and suburban discussion.

1 Jeanne Gang and Greg Lindsay, “Designing a Fix for Housing,” The New York Times, February 9, 2012.