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Urban Soup
BMW Guggenheim Lab provides a traveling space to think about cities.
The BMW Guggenheim Lab views from Second Street.
Courtesy Guggenheim

Among the multitude of cultural offerings available to New Yorkers this summer, one will offer denizens of this fair metropolis an opportunity to ponder and weigh in on one of their favorite subjects: What would make the city a better place? Today marks the opening of the first leg of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a roving exhibition that will travel to nine cities in the next six years, providing free programs that explore the challenges of today’s urban environments.

The Lab will develop in three distinct cycles, each cycle traversing three cities over the course of two years with its own theme and dedicated mobile structure. The first cycle, Confronting Comfort, will travel from New York to Berlin and then to Mumbai before concluding in 2013. The itineraries of the following two cycles will be announced at a later date.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab's interior can be arranged for a variety of needs.

Located at First Park, on Houston at 2nd Ave., the New York segment of Confronting Comfort will run from August 3 to October 16. Housed in a lightweight carbon-fiber pavilion designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, the Lab seeks to explore how urban environments can be made more responsive to people’s needs through a diverse array of programs that run the gamut from workshops to discussions, screenings, and off-site tours. These real-world happenings will be backed up and supported by the BMW Guggenheim Lab website and blog, which will offer global audiences a means to get involved.

One noteworthy program is Urbanology, a large-scale interactive group game developed by Local Projects and designed by ZUS. It can be played both on-site and online. In the game, participants role-play scenarios for city transformation through a series of provocative scenarios geared toward instigating enlightening conversation. Here’s a sample scenario: “A security guard at a city-funded museum insists on calling a transgendered woman ‘Mister.’ Should the guard be fired?”

A cafe in the courtyard of the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

There will also be public talks from both academics and professionals whose work connects them closely to urban issues. Check the Lab’s website for dates on lectures from the likes of Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (co-principal of Atelier Bow-Wow), Elizabeth Diller (founding principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro), Nicholas Humphrey (professor of psychology at the London School of Economics), Juliet Schor (professor of sociology at Boston College), Saskia Sassen (Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University), and Gabrielle Hamilton (chef and owner of the restaurant Prune).

Atelier Bow-Wow describes their design for the first cycle of the Lab as a “traveling toolbox.” The 25-foot wide by 100-foot long lightweight carbon fiber structure fits handily within the ¾-acre T-shaped space left between two East Village tenement buildings—its current home. The Lab team has already selected a similarly cramped site in Berlin and is on the look out for a suitable location in Mumbai.

Left to right: Inside the BMW Guggenheim Lab, lighting at night, and the vacant lot before construction.

The lower half of the two-story structure is an open space featuring custom-designed furniture that can be easily reconfigured to fit the needs of the various programs, shifting smoothly from a formal lecture setting with a stage and seating to a free-for-all rumpus room for a mix-‘em-up workshop. The upper section of the structure is Bow-Wow’s “toolbox,” a sort of fly space much like you would find in a theater that houses color-changing LED spot lighting, hanging screens, and the bulk of the black-painted structural members. This upper portion is wrapped loosely in two layers of semitransparent mesh—the outer black, the inner white—which creates a shimmering moiré effect as it wafts in the breeze. The pavilion is capped by a translucent white fiberglass roof that lets controlled daylight into the space while shedding rainwater to two gutters.

“Rather than architects educating the public on how to behave within spaces, it is the public who should have the autonomy of spatial practice in their cities,” said Atelier Bow-Wow’s Momoyo Kaijima. “We always conceived the Lab as a public space without enclosure.”

Aaron Seward