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Two exhibitions worth checking out are now on display in New York City: Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, organized by the Cooper-Hewitt yet exhibited at the United Nations, runs until January 9, 2012; and Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City is on display at the Noguchi Museum until April 22, 2012. The first "features sixty projects, proposals, and solutions that address the complex issues arising from the unprecedented rise of informal settlements in emerging and developing economies," while the second exhibits "new approaches to development in this area of Long Island City [where the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park are located] that [artists Isamu] Noguchi and [Mark] di Suvero helped to shape." In the number of ways that each is different -- in terms of population, geography, diversity, etc. -- they are also very similar, especially in how bottom-up approaches are embraced for urban change. Some thoughts on my visits to each exhibition follow.

Design with the Other 90%: CITIES:
Design with the Other 90%: CITIES

Design with the Other 90%: CITIES is a follow up to the Cooper-Hewitt's 2007 exhibition Design for the Other 90%, which presented "cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for those who most need them." In that exhibition the canvas was broad, looking at design from the small and the personal (the cover of the companion book shows a tool for drinking from standing water) to the large and infrastructural. In the successor it's clear that cities are the focus, yet this does not mean that small interventions are not to be found; instead they are situated within the context of the growing urban population -- over half of the earth's roughly 7 billion people live in cities, close to one billion in informal settlements.

Design with the Other 90%: CITIES

The exhibition is structured into six themes -- Exchange, Reveal, Adapt, Include, Prosper and Access -- which are inserted into the public lobby of the United Nations Visitor Center (the Cooper-Hewitt is closed until 2013 for renovation). Given the efforts of the UN towards transforming informal settlements and their residents, especially through its Habitat and Development entities, it makes perfect sense for the exhibition to be housed at the UN, which is actually undergoing its own renovation. A series of parallel walls sit perpendicular to the flow of traffic, with plenty of room between the walls for models and full-scale prototypes; the latter are some of the best aspects of the exhibition.

Design with the Other 90%: CITIES

A couple architectural projects that are illustrated via full-scale mock-ups include "Make a House Intelligent" by Arturo Ortiz Struck and others (above) and the "10x10 Sandbag House" by architect Luyanda Mpahlwa (below). The first responds to the necessity in parts of Mexico City to occupy a lot within 30 days; the architects designed a flexible system of sand, concrete blocks, gabions, and steel beams, which can be erected by five people in less than a week. The second consist of two-story, wood-frame houses with sandbag infill that are replacing dwellings of corrugated metal and scrap materials in Cape Town, South Africa's Mitchell's Plain township. In each case an understanding of the construction that comes from the mock-ups increases an appreciation of the designs and applications.

Design with the Other 90%: CITIES

On a much larger scale is the "Medellín Metrocable and Northeast Integral Urban Project," which also addresses informal housing but does it differently than the two construction schemes above. Instead of tackling housing, the project focuses on access, such that by improving the connections between informal settlements and other parts of the city, "an inclusive metropolis" is created. While this is a top-down approach requiring government spending to build on a large scale, it has as much merit as bottom-up approaches that enable residents to improve their immediate living conditions. Ultimately the two types of development need to happen -- perhaps converging at some ideal point -- for informal settlements to lift themselves up above their origins. The exhibition implies that even though these and other designs are site specific they offer lessons that can be applied in other places in need.

Design with the Other 90%: CITIES

While Design with the Other 90%: CITIES is closing soon, it is "available for travel" in the US and abroad from February 2012, so it may be coming to a city near you. Regardless, a catalog accompanies the exhibition.

Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City:
Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City

Across the East River, inside the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens, sits the Civic Action exhibition that presents ideas for transforming the neighborhood around the museum and the nearby Socrates Sculpture Park. The two arts institutions collaborated to develop the initiative, in response to new development, rezoning, and an increased residential population. I live nearby in Astoria, but my neighborhood is primarily residential with a little light industry on certain streets; the area around Noguchi and Socrates is much different, marked by more substantial industrial buildings, big box retail, large open spaces, and the Big Allis power generator. The striped stacks of the last are obviously a point of departure for artist Mary Miss and her team's installation, pictured above and below.

Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City

Miss's "City as a Living Laboratory" uses floor-to-ceiling poles and tubes to provide a strong visual image and to structure displays for the various phases of the plan: 1-Using the Big Allis stacks as beacons to display the city's energy usage; 2-Repurposing utility poles and other vertical infrastructure in Big Allis-like banding to let visitors know about the new "Research Zone" in the city; 3-Re-purposing everyday elements in the area, such as scaffolding, blank walls of industrial buildings, and trailer-truck containers for, respectively, green walls, park slices, and incubator studios for developing ideas and projects about the city. I'll admit that this project in particular made me see the context around the Noguchi in a new light, as the trucks and other elements seemed to stand out more than normal after my visit. Miss's ideas are the most digestible, stemming from the striped branding and the simple yet thoughtful graphics and composition of the installation.

Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City

On the other hand, George Trakas's "Shoreline Walk" is a great idea -- bringing the community to the water's edge -- that is varied and sporadic in execution. The installation is a mix of mapping, history, and music (above) that offers suggestions for knitting the various plots along the waterfront, including Big Allis. This is not surprising to me, as Trakas is responsible for the Nature Walk at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (PDF link) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. There Trakas wends the walk past the industrial infrastructure and directly to the water, turning it again 90 degrees to a path planted with native trees. It is a good illustration (and worth a visit) of how connecting to the water can be achieved in a small amount of space and from a point removed from the water.

Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City

Natalie Jeremijenko's "UP_2_U" spreads itself across a couple spaces with a variety of ideas on the walls and on tables (above) as part of her "Environmental Health Clinic Civic Action team." This installation reminded me of the Architectural League's Toward the Sentient City, because both integrate technology into the city in various ways. But Jeremijenko proposes more than "real-time 'smart-city' technologies...to close feedback loops and radically upgrade environmental health;" she also proposes fairly low-tech solutions, like "AgBags," that would hang from buildings to "create arable land for new edibles." In the case of the latter I like how it was presented in front of one of the museum's windows (below). The rest of the installation is also thoughtfully put together, be it the X-shaped tables, wall graphics, or the shadows cast by the solar awnings (above).

Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City

The most minimal installation is easily "GreenWay and Community Kitchen" by Rirkrit Tiravanija and team (below images). Their plan proposes to re-pave Broadway in Queens, which runs from the N/Q elevated station to Socrates Sculpture Park one block south of the Noguchi. This street is documented in the Ed Ruscha-esque photomontage below, but it is presented as a serrated composition instead of flatly, which emphasizes the smaller pockets of space that can then be closed off for special events, such as markets or film screenings.

Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City

Tiravanja's project also features the most overt piece of architecture, a Community Kitchen that would initially be placed in Socrates Sculpture Park. The design (below) is a scaled-up version of Noguchi's YA2 table lamp, a point of reference that links two arts institutions which people might not otherwise see as working together. In that regard it makes sense that Socrates will host the exhibition after it closes at the Noguchi in April next year.

Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City

Conclusion:

These two exhibitions may vary in a number of ways -- 90% is international, Civic is local; 90% presents realized examples, Civic is all speculation; 90% comes from various authors, Civic is only four teams -- but they share many qualities, particularly placing a value on creative design for addressing urban problems and prioritizing bottom-up initiatives for making change. Each exhibition requires slow, in-depth visits to best appreciate and understand the various ways of intervening. The Cooper-Hewitt show benefits from an accompanying catalog, so here's hoping the Noguchi and Socrates assemble the ideas from their show in print form, both as a way to share the projects to a larger audience and to help instigate change in their own backyard.



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