After two years of urban investigations in three cities, the BMW Guggenheim Lab has put its findings on display at the Guggenheim's New York home. 'Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab' signals both the ambition of the project and the difficulties of communicating its results in a (admittedly small) physical space in the age of the internet, social media and 'big data'.
The investigations began in August 2011 when an odd looking metal box landed on a rat-infested patch of land between two five-storey brick buildings in Manhattan's East Village. Described as 'part urban think tank, part community center and public gathering space', for ten weeks the BMW Guggenmheim Lab became the locus of a unique experiment in urban problem solving. It was manned by a Canadian writer on urbanism, two Dutch architects, a Nigerian microbiologist and a Bronx-based community and environmental activist who between them developed a programme of workshops, talks and other social experiments, all aimed at identifying useful truths about the contemporary urban experience.
The box, designed by Japanese architects Atelier Bow-Wow (opens in new tab), was then packed up and shipped over to Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin (initial plans to install it in Kreuzberg were derailed by fierce opposition from some locals who feared the box carried in it a deadly gentrification virus), where a fresh team did their own ten-week stint. And then on to Mumbai where, given that city's extreme traffic management problems, a number of satelite bamboo pop-ups popped up in various sites around the city instead of just one location.
The new exhibition was curated by the Guggenheim's Maria Nicanor. As the title suggests, Nicanor and her research teams have crunched the results of the lab work into 100 urban trends for each city, though there is of course, some cross over. These range from 'Participatory Urbanism', evident in all three cities, to the 'Ostrich Effect', a Mumbai-specific phenomena to 'collaborative urban mapping', a particular favourite of Berliners. A global collection of architects, academics, designers and artists, were then asked to comment on these trends (opens in new tab).
In the exhibition, these trends are mapped out and video screens play footage of related talks and workshops but the small space at the Guggenheim struggles with the weight of information. This is a project built for the drill-baby-drill possibilities of the internet and there is a lot of information to dig at. The Guggenheim insists though that the exhibition is a way of introducing a massive new audience to the project.
Nor does the exhibition really answer the inevitable 'what next?' questions. But for Nicanor, the Urban Lab project was not about prescriptive forecasting or producing public policy programmes, but simply coming back with 'reports from three cities at a particular point of time'. There is little perhaps in the way of concrete legacy, though it has seen the introduction of the Water Bench, part water collector, part public seating to Mumbai, while the site of New York lab is now a brand new park and it has birthed community-based initiatives in all three cities.
For BMW, it is perhaps the bravest and most controversial element of its 'cultural engagement' programme. And certainly one of the more interesting examples of the increasing interconnectness of powerful corporate and cultural brands.
For Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, the project and the exhibition are conversation starters. 'The Lab ignited an important conversation about the differences and commonalities of urban environments and the power of cities as idea-makers.' Armstrong, appointed in 2008, also pointed out that the Guggenheim was housed in a temporary building way back in 1953 and that this initiative might suggest a more mobile and sustainable way for the Guggenheim to reach new audiences, an alternative to big-budget 'franchised' mega-museums. 'With the BMW Guggenheim Lab, we have extended our mission beyond the walls of the museum, providing the Guggenheim with new ways to engage directly with the public,' he says.
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