Fitful Sleep

Introductory panel to Episode 3: The Tower (The Fall), 1980, Bernard Tschumi.
Courtesy MoMA

Dreamland: Architectural Experiments Since the 1970s
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through March 2, 2009

After viewing Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling at MoMA, do not overlook Dreamland: Architectural Experiments Since the 1970s, on exhibit a couple of flights down in the architecture and design galleries. Drawn primarily from the permanent collection, the show focuses on visionary architecture from the seventies that reckoned with New York, including works by Rem Koolhaas, Steven Holl, Raimund Abraham, Superstudio, and others, and culminates with contemporary works influenced or inflected by these visionary ideas.

Many of the early works are large, meticulously rendered drawings of the city altered by radical architectural interventions, which, though some are iconic, such as Superstudio’s Continuous Monument (1969), seem remarkably fresh. Most involve superstructures inserted into a dense and chaotic urban fabric. For all these works’ radicalism, a nostalgic atmosphere pervades much of the 1970s work: Koolhaas’ Plan of Dreamland, Coney Island, New York, New York (1977), for which the show is named, is a plan for the historic amusement park, a place filled with real and invented memories.


Plan of Dreamland, 1977, Rem Koolhaas (top); Church of Solitude, transverse section, 1974-1977, Gaetano Pesce (above).

This somewhat paradoxical backward-looking atmosphere is underscored by the old-timey music playing in the gallery tracked to Madelon Vriesendorp, Teri When-Damisch, and Jean-Pierre Jacquet’s animated film Caught in the Act (1979), depicting the seduction of the Chrysler Building by the Empire State Building. Stills from the film, which until recently was thought to be lost, illustrate Koolhaas’ book Delirious New York, which curator Andres Lepik uses as the intellectual frame for the show.

“Many Europeans were coming to New York, seeing it as a field for experimentation,” Lepik told AN while walking through the exhibition. The city was then in a period of decline and crisis, so perhaps these architects saw their visions as redemptive forces, or at least saw the city’s degraded condition as rife with potential. Gaetano Pesce’s astonishing Church of Solitude, New York, New York, transverse section (1974–77) project includes tiny classical ruins at the mouth of his enormous church, hollowed out of the ground like a geometric cave. Interestingly, much of the 1970s work seems to reject a tabula rasa approach, signaling that though these architects were still thinking big, they had internalized the problems of large-scale urban renewal without lapsing into historicist recreations or capitalist capitulations—there isn’t a festival marketplace in sight.

The show loses steam as it moves toward the present and as its geographic range widens. Non-Cartesian formal investigation becomes a stand-in for the visionary. A large table of models fills the center of the room, and while they are a joy to see, many also feel like filler (Steven Holl’s Bridge Houses Project, Melbourne Australia [1979–82] is a notable exception). Most of the contemporary projects are houses, which Lepik argues are expressions of the persistent architectural fantasy of bringing urbanity to the countryside. But is Lindy Roy’s Sagaponack House really all that visionary? Many of the recent specimens included seem more like fashion, vestiges of the previous chief curator’s enthusiasms.

New York, it seems, is no longer the petri dish of architectural experimentation it once was. But though China and the Middle East may hold out the promise of endless possibility, a tabula rasa view of urbanism also seems to have returned to the work of many practitioners, including some included in the first part of the exhibition. Though absent from the show, these locales are hinted at, perhaps inadvertently. A model of Peter Eisenman’s Max Reinhardt House, Berlin (1992–93), prescient of the CCTV Tower with its contorted loop form, sits in the center of the room, prompting the question: Has Koolhaas’ dreamland evolved into a contemporary nightmare?

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