In 1967, the Museum of Modern Art inaugurated the exhibition The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal to coincide with the launch of the museum’s new education initiatives: to teach urban planning by assigning “real” projects. In the era of renewal and riots, Drexler reflected on the broad currency of urban riots and the racial politics informing American cities. Evident in the exhibition catalog, Drexler claimed the problem of American ghettos as the “newest and most publicized sources of pressures.”
The exhibit displayed project proposals by faculty teams of four prominent architecture schools (reproductions presented on the bottom row), each who were asked to reimagine future Harlem. Common in all the proposals was their decidedly formal approach to Harlem, a site that historically endured racial tension and urban riots first in 1943, and again in 1964.
It is unsurprising then that Architectural Forum, in their review of the exhibition, claimed the profession had “lost its credibility at present both with the social scientist-planners and with the public.” The quote is telling on two fronts. For one, it revealed popular reliance on social science methodology to tackle to urban issues, but it also indicated how the discipline was struggling to distinguish itself precisely from such methods. What AF failed to recognize was that the content/drawings in the show only revealed one component of each of the four school's methodology—to employ a critical approach to urban form. The rest of the story: how the era's disciplinary anxiety prompted the participants to respond to growing political demands for pluralism, to engage in contemporary issues of urbanism and study the urban environment in an entirely different way, is lost.
With this in mind, copies of the correspondences are displayed as exhibitable architectural objects to be read alongside the project proposals. The language in each of the letters indicate a degree of uncertainty over how the discipline will remain relevant at a historical moment when the field was criticized for losing both its 'credibility' and agency to define the changing landscape of American cities. Included are letters from figures such as Philip Johnson who refused to tackle urban issues in favor of façades, and remained steadfast in his unrelenting faith in the Modernist project. And Peter Eisenman’s apologetic letter reveals his nervous confrontation with the social milieu that was increasingly celebrating Johnson’s modernity in crisis. Each indicate how architects engaged the city in 1967 and are presented here as historical evidence worthy of reconsideration.
1. Princeton: “Building the Waterfront”
2. Cornell: “Opening the Grid Plan”
3. Columbia: “Housing without Relocation”
4. MIT: “Design New Land”
Reproductions displayed are for study purposes only. Materials: Museum of Modern Art Archives, MoMA Exhs. 818.1-818.30
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