New York

The phrase “political architecture” evokes the idea of architecture for and by politicians: a blank-faced Ministry of Truth; a giant Mussolini head on a wedding cake; or just the sullen civic compromises which remove anything distinctive because it might be offensive. And “architecture for the people” has mostly meant architecture imposed on the people, with the government as landlord. You’ll live in my future and you’ll like it!

This show at the Museum of Modern Art is an attempt to acknowledge, but get beyond, these criticisms. It opens with a critique: Gunter Rambow’s poster “Utopie Dynamit.” A giant blockbuster building blows open, and the shards form a border of tiny portraits, presumably showing the former inhabitants of the project. They hold chalkboards with their names and short messages. As the museum’s caption states:

What had begun as a utopian vision ended in architecture—large-scale housing projects, for instance—often perceived as impersonal, formulaic, and insensitive to the needs of everyday people.

MoMA takes its definitions lightly. There are 10 segments of the show, but the boundary between “Occupying Social Borders” (#8) and “Interrogating Shelter” (#9) is pretty fuzzy. And a good half of the pieces on display could have fit under #2, “Fiction and Dystopia.” The show tries to group artworks—including video of people actually building and using things, architectural blueprints, propaganda posters, and scale models—simultaneously by theme and by time period, which doesn’t quite work. The chronological narrative is strong, telling a story of repeated chastening of utopianism followed by a revival of smaller-scale hope; but the thematic grouping is forced.

Even in the show’s earliest installments there’s a sense that actual existing people need more control of their landscape, rather than having to change to fit the dreams of the architects. Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace” design (1959-61), which the show notes was “fully intended to be built,” is a giant industrial funfair with tons of scaffolding and lights, a kind of Soviet McDonald’s playland. Yet this imposing thing is meant to be constantly redesigned by its users. It’s a “flexible framework into which programmable spaces can be plugged.”

And in these earliest segments there is already a science-fictional sense of time: We’re always looking back on the beautiful future that never was. The aesthetic of decay and fading (familiar to us from Instagram) can be seen in Bernard Tschumi’s “Manhattan Transcripts,” which show blurred, degraded newsprint photographs of buildings. Arata Isozaki contributes an image of skyways among the ruins. There are also decaying space cities, a punk-influenced 1980 poster showing an enormous undefeated tree emerging from a tangle of highways, and a series of huge green landscapes in boxes, which tell the story of a utopian/dystopian future world in which the ceiling of your box comes down and crushes you if you rebel against the planners!

In Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Conical Intersect,” from 1975, the artist cut holes through two 17th-century buildings scheduled to be torn down in advance of the construction of the Centre Georges Pompidou. In a video, the holes’ outlines create powerful, jagged lines through which we see sky and birds. The images are reminiscent of the Surrealists: Magritte and—maybe especially—Lee Miller, the Surrealists’ war correspondent. And politically, the piece is fairly reactionary, concerned solely with the destruction of the small old things in the face of the big beautiful schemes. It’s startling to go from this piece to the video advertising Bradford, England’s city beautification scheme, which was crowdsourced to a certain extent, but which still imposes a “collective ambition” on actual inhabitants.

This is not to say that big ideas in architecture can never succeed. But MoMA doesn’t give us any examples of big success in action. We get lovely scale models of a proposed design for a public space in Seville, in which gentle, curving “mushroom-shaped growths” shade a plaza with open spaces for performance and commerce. It was launched before the financial crash but opened, incongruously, after it, in 2011. We never see how it was received. Even the hilltop library of Medellín, Colombia—a heartbreaking statement of hope in the face of violence, something anybody would want to applaud—is only seen from afar. We get photos of slum dwellers in the hills below, shadowed by their new library, but no pictures of people actually walking in and borrowing books.

What we see in action are the marginal uses, the repurposings. In “Occupying Social Borders,” we see David Goldblatt’s color photos of Johannesburg in 2001 and 2003. Here are people using the spaces—but not using them as they were envisioned. Instead they sit on the curb reading the newspaper while waiting to wash cars. They set up a tent tied down with rocks and construction debris, sitting on mismatched stools and chairs to make a barbershop out of broken things.

The most purely satisfying piece might be Didier Faustino’s 2002 photo and scale model, “Stairway to Heaven.” Faustino took a creepy, zigzagging concrete stairway from a public housing project—the thing is recognizable from across the room, it looks so exactly like what it is—and removed it from its depressing setting. He stood it by itself, with a single basketball court at the top in a kind of cage. You can watch someone shoot hoops, as he looks down and watches you. It’s the fantasy of escape through play. It’s a revolt against the housing-project aesthetic; it’s subversive and, in a sad way, hopeful.

We also see one smaller project go from start to finish, in raumlabor-berlin’s 2011 “Centiere Barca (Boat Yard).” In this video we see a German political art collective go to a poor Turin neighborhood and, through “a building workshop with the underprivileged population,” using a “bottom-up design process and recycling tactics,” transform a depressing public space with vulgar graffiti into a bright, pretty place with nice art. The sequence showing the actual building of the wooden artworks and structures is exciting and inspiring: There’s music, dancing, lots of kids playing, the joy of creation and of neighborhood solidarity.

The sequences showing what happened after the art collective left are much too short. It’s impossible to tell from this video whether the new structures were actually accepted by the community, or whether they were abandoned and graffitied in their turn. The construction sequences show so much energy and optimism; but why don’t the videomakers let us hear more of what the people are saying? There’s a fast construction montage using lots of closeups of hands, which is pleasingly cinematic but serves to obscure faces and thereby hide any conflicts, discussions, or undisciplined emotions. Even in this ideologically human-scale project, the individual gets lost.

The opposite occurs in the powerful video that closes the show, Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley’s 2002 “Burn.” This is part of the “+1” segment, which gets the title “Politics of the Domestic.” It’s an emotionally intense video of several people living in a house on fire. The colors are dirty, reddish, and grimy. The people’s expressions are recognizable from our own moments of willful self-defeat: the angry half-smile of a man, the messy bun of a woman who leafs through charred and burning notebooks. A man pours gas over a sleeping woman in a bed, then over his own head. When the burning man flails into the living room and falls on the coffee table, right in front of a couple seated on the couch—they just loll back and look at each other wearily. On the couch, her thumb strokes the back of his hand, and their heads touch tenderly, or exhaustedly, as they sit in a snowstorm of plaster and ash.

That’s domestic, all right; but the only political message I can discern is “This is who you’re designing for. This is human nature and you can roll with it or you can reject it, but it isn’t going to change.”

There’s a contradiction near the heart of secular, postmodern leftism. If our understandings of the world are created and imposed by power in the service of power, then change only represents the triumph of one power structure over another. A new, gentler, more egalitarian understanding of the world can itself only succeed when it’s imposed by a powerful elite on the ungentle masses.

9 + 1 Ways of Being Political is a heartening attempt to recognize and evade that trap. Its most hopeful work suggests a low-rent, humanist kind of anarchism. In these works the small dreams—a library, music, work and ownership, freedom to play and imagine, knowing your neighbors—are the most beautiful ones.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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