Imagining the Future of New York’s Civic Spaces

A new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art highlights a dozen public architecture projects that paint an idealized picture of New York’s post-pandemic future.

Scalable Solutions for NYCHA by Peterson Rich Office

The way New Yorkers approach public space has shifted dramatically since the pandemic. Restaurants built dining sheds outside to survive, angering some cantankerous locals who view them as unsightly rat magnets. Office towers, once emblematic of the city’s economic dominance, still sit eerily deserted. In a city where every inch of space comes at a premium, issues of public space garner an impassioned response from locals, yet are saddled with bureaucracy—which may explain why the mayor recently appointed the city’s first chief public realm officer. 

In the aftermath of these shifts, architects are grappling with the public realm’s newfound significance—and are tailoring their latest projects as such. Twelve examples are highlighted in “Architecture Now: New York, New Publics,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that explores how local firms are redrawing our relationship with metropolitan architecture. “Can this context catalyze the transformation of civic space and the public realm in New York?” asks Martino Stierli, who curated the exhibition alongside Evangelos Kotsioris and Paula Vilaplana de Miguel. “How can innovative architecture attempt to redress structural inequities and foster social transformation?”

The Monuments Projct by Kinfolk Foundation

The projects on view offer a decent starting point. Ranging in scale from tiny to giant and conceptual to concrete, each seeks to prioritize “inclusion and participation in the daily life of the city,” according to a press release. There’s the Kinfolk Foundation’s Monuments Project, which uses augmented reality to superimpose virtual monuments of overlooked Black leaders over the city’s most notorious statues of slaveholders. Agency–Agency and Chris Woebken Studio recast the city’s inaccessible fire hydrants as whimsical watering holes and sprinkler playgrounds thanks to “prosthetic devices” made from plumbing components. There’s no denying the delights in reimagining public amenities for everyone to enjoy. 

Yet there’s room for improvement. Many such projects are positioned as benefiting loosely defined “local communities” yet ignore the perils of the city’s relentless gentrification and accessibility issues. Mariana Mogilevich questions who stands to benefit from constructing a retractable roof over the dilapidated “People’s Pool” in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood that reportedly lost 22,000 Black residents and gained 30,000 white ones per the 2020 census. Olalekan Jeyifous’s subway station murals offer a kind gesture to the melting pot of communities in Sunset Park, one of New York’s most ethnically diverse locales, but the system’s poor track record with accessibility suggests more urgent interventions. Ditto for Peterson Rich Office’s well-intentioned proposal to tack on balconies to public housing structures, many of which lack heat and functioning elevators.

New Public Hydrant by Agency–Agency and Chris Woebken Studio. Photography by Tei Carpenter and Chris Woebken

While the projects on view are seemingly unobjectionable and in the public interest, the exhibition seems to ignore the harsh reality of public realm improvements: years of seeking funding, navigating red tape, and enduring political squabbles with NIMBYs. In other words, they’re presented in a vacuum of social context that ignores matters of who wants them, who hates them, who pays for them, who will use them, and how stakeholders will ultimately overcome these obstacles. “These thorny questions lie at the heart of public architecture and distinguish a profoundly elegant project from one that’s merely pretty,” critic Justin Davidson writes in Curbed. Then again, should museums be expected to reveal how the painting was made? 

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