A Tale of Two Colonies

A Tale of Two Colonies

Reviews: Exhibits

A Tale of Two Colonies

MoMA PS1
May 12September 2, 2013
By Gregory Marinic
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One deploys while another packs up to leave…

MoMA PS1, the cultural heart of the increasingly gentrified neighborhood of Long Island City, played host to a museum-wide EXPO I: New York in a summer-long series exploring environmental challenges and possible futures evidenced through installations, exhibitions, and events.  Creative endeavors ranging from the experiential to the socially relevant and ecologically engaged rethought the museum from the ground-up by presenting simultaneous solo installations, group exhibits, and built interventions that transformed the MoMA PS1 campus and outlying locations throughout the city.

EXPO I: New York emerged in the shadow of twin challenges facing architects and society. Buenos Aires-based architecture firm a77 acknowledged the inevitability of economic uncertainties and natural disasters with a temporal and self-sufficient installation, Colony, where several members actually lived for its duration.(fig. 1) Envisioned as a communal utopia and model for future living, Colony served as a platform for researching alternative uses of public space.  Yet, a77’s projective approach to the civic realm as postulation rather than  formal response shares striking similarities with MoMA’s iconic Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition of 1972 currently being revisited in an exhibition at the Graham Foundation in Chicago.  That exhibit was intermingled within various indoor and outdoor areas of MoMA’s building in midtown Manhattan, where architects and designers engaged in conceptually driven and ideologically substantive work. Various environments were framed through postulation, commentary, and counter-design, while the term “environment” itself implied diverse connotations ranging from the environmental design movement to its more current relationship with ecology.  Most similar to Colony, a proposal for a mobile living unit by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper challenged domesticity in relation to emergency conditions and disaster relief.  Their scenario responded to earthquakes, cyclones, floods, and fires, while suggesting a more subversive role relative to post-apocalyptic survival.

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Separated by forty years, but sharing a similar narrative of destruction and economic volatility, a77 mobilized to reconsider building within an unstable world. Partners Gustavo Diéguez and Lucas Gilardi designed Colonyin the MoMA PS1 outdoor courtyard as a stage set where artists, architects, designers, and scholars were invited to communally live and work. For PS1, the architects reimagined such challenges to find new alternatives to the conventional house (fig. 2). The installation incorporated recycled and salvaged materials to create temporary housing which privileged economy, practicality, and improvisation (fig. 3).

It was raining on Colony when I visited, but it was hard not to sense the optimism and in some sense, the fantasy, that it evoked.  Most notably, the installation focused on process rather than product and preferenced nuance, rather than form. Here, past utopias were re-tuned to reigning paradigms with updated values that trace their origins to the 1960s counter-culture and its back-to-the-earth simplicity. While the first ecological movement resisted Space Age modernism and technological advancement at all costs, Colony embraced a shared sensibility through a renewed and less naïve filter. Installed like a vignette from a Summer of Love campsite in Woodstock, Colony offered a decidedly un-monumental view of future living as the utopian vision for society. Trailers, tents, solar-powered showers, hydroponic gardens, and a low-tech kitchen were blended together to engage both the social and the sustainable parameters of performance.(fig. 4) Sunscreen curtains were hung atmospherically over this makeshift refugee art camp, focusing a narrative while shielding the space from the elements.(fig. 5)  The ensemble evoked the performance-based shop windows commissioned for Barney’s and designed by fashion icon Daphne Guinness

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Colony felt vulnerable and temporal, as if it could be packed up quickly and hauled off to the countryside, yet its portability felt perfectly tuned to a world in which disaster looms just around the corner. Acting as a backdrop for various events and a window on new ways of living, this light-mobile-architecture was both participatory and informal—a vernacular as well as a future vision. However, the irony of Colony is not lost on its Long Island City context, a place where an unconventional, thrifty, and communal lifestyle is increasingly impossible amidst continual gentrification and escalating costs. 

The colony’s artist-residents seemed strangely out-of-place—more akin to theme park performers than authentic artists acting out a bohemian future. However, a77’s narrative was once quite relevant to the vicinity of PS1. In the late 1990s, artists, architects, and designers embraced Long Island City as an affordable alternative to Williamsburg, yet over the last ten years, high-rise commercial development and luxury apartment towers have squeezed the community to near extinction. So, much like the “Real Housewives of New York City” , a77’s edited and packaged “Colony ” is not very real, nor is it very relevant to its context.

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The real "colony" of Long Island City, 5Pointz, thrives just across Jackson Avenue from the PS1 in a former water meter factory turned artist colony that supports 1,000 artists per year.(fig. 6)  Now threatened with demolition, this world-renowned studio warehouse and outdoor graffiti exhibition will soon be forced to pack up and leave.  Its philosophy of light-living, adaptation, and appropriation—the very values supposedly espoused by Colony as timeless and resilient— have become increasingly obsolete in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood across the river from midtown Manhattan.  G & M Realty intends to tear down this landmark and iconic structure to build two luxury residential high-rises—at 41 and 47 stories—complete with amenities such as an indoor rock-climbing wall, simulated golf course, and barbecue areas. But G & M Realty needs a zoning change to do it. In place of incrementalism, adaptive reuse, and an authentic community—another faceless and anonymous tower will further erode the values espoused in the make-believe Colony. The developers have promised a public plaza, gallery, artist spaces, and retail shops, and recently modified plans to include 75 affordable housing units. Retailer CB2’s chairman claims that the project makes sense since Long Island City’s industrial buildings are being converted into offices and luxury waterfront high-rises.  5Pointz residents have responded in revolt and have mobilized through Community Board 2.  

The real impact of Colony and its relevance to the virtues of incrementalism and adaptation are more authentically found at 5Pointz.  Sadly, PS1 appears generally aloof to the plight of 5Pointz. As Colony idealized a utopian though generally sterilized view of the future—the daily rituals and very real lives of artists, architects, and designers were being lived just across the street—if only for a little while longer.

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