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The BMW Guggenheim Lab Opens in New York

The inaugural BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile public think tank designed to serve as a temporary community center for a participatory exchange of ideas about the city, opens today (Wednesday, August 3) near the crossroads of Second Avenue and Houston Street. The high-tech modernist structure itself, designed by Tokyo-based Atelier Bow-Wow, is airy, long and structurally lofty, wedged rather uncannily between two tenement structures that front 1st Street to the immediate north. State-of-the-art theatrical lights line the skeletal structure overhead, while sheer white movable tracked curtains function as the walls. These can be pulled and swirled in circles, designed to improvise shifting boundaries among different groups in various modes of conversation and interaction. Flat screens affixed overhead project the agenda and game plan.

BMW Guggenheim Lab
exterior of the lab as seen from the sidewalk on E. Houston Street near Second Avenue


For the next ten weeks, the Lab has scheduled over 100 programs that focus on the idea of urban comfort, inviting members of the public to participate in workshops, hear lectures, attend film screenings, venture to other locations, or to stay and play an interactive game called Urbanology. A core goal is soliciting ideas from individuals as to how they would improve the city. As with any inaugural venture - after New York City the mobile structure will be disassembled and then reassembled for future dates in Berlin and Mumbai - there's some uncertainty as to exactly how this social experiment in urban brainstorming will play out. At first glance, the Lab looks good and the programs intellectually stimulating, but the measure of success, of course, will depend on all of us lab rats.

BMW Guggenheim Lab
members of the press awaiting formal remarks at a preview on Tuesday

Ok, so we're not lab rats, but we are denizens of a complex mega-city, one famous for fostering an opinionated, active, and creative citizenry. Many of us are engaged with the city in one form or another in obvious politicized ways, whether through signing petitions about term limits, fighting encroachment of big universities on the neighborhood, or advocating for more green spaces and bicycle lanes. Many more of us, I suspect, regularly engage the city on more personal and artistic levels - walking a favorite route to work, photographing the sunset over the skyline, or taking pleasures in discovering a new favorite place.

BMW Guggenheim Lab
awaiting the results of a game of Urbanology, created by Local Projects


The zeitgeist now favors the sharing of our personal discoveries and opinions through location-based social media, as exemplified in the many apps and review sites that encourage crowdsourcing the city. So, it should not come as a surprise that the city's cultural institutions should reflect and build on this keen interest. The New Museum's Festival of Ideas for the New City in May, launched on the same day as Guggenheim's announcement of the BMW Guggenheim Lab (see related post on this website), similarly offered lectures and programs. Their street fair gathered together over a hundred organizations that have been working in their own way to improve urban life. In addition, Urban Omnibus, a project of the Architectural League of New York, takes on the generation of specific urban change ideas as one of its core missions. (see their 50 Ideas for the New City). The Institute for Urban Design and the Project for Public Places teamed up this year for a public ideas competition, By The City/For the City. And many great urban ideas can be born elsewhere, of course. New Orleans-based artist and urban planner Candy Chang came up with a particularly inspiring project, "I Wish This Was," making fill-in-the-blank stickers for citizens to suggest better uses for abandoned buildings.

BMW Guggenheim Lab
"Your city may be the future of all cities." - from the game Urbanology


Beyond being a well-funded project with ample resources to rally publicity, the BMW Guggenheim Lab does possess the potential to continue these sorts of conversations with the novelty of its physical lab and an interactive website. The group game designed by Local Projects, Urbanology, while rather artsy on first glance, gradually reveals the important ideological layer implicit in urban planning choices. Answering tough questions about potential tradeoffs in areas of infrastructure, transportation, education, and so forth leads to a smart on-screen correlation between the outcomes and the world cities that have made comparable choices. The lectures kick off today, with a talk at 1 p.m. by BMW Guggenheim Lab Team members Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman of the Rotterdam-based architecture firm ZUS. Upcoming lectures, many focused on the Lab's inaugural theme of comfort, include architect Elizabeth Diller (August 5 at 7 p.m.), I Meditate NY (August 6 at 10 a.m.), Columbia University sociology professor Saskia Sassen (August 12 at 7 p.m.), and David Simon of The Wire and Theme discussing capturing the city on film (August 31 at 7 p.m.)

A walk around the immediate geographical location of the Lab may prove one of the most useful experiments in revealing the outcomes of urban choices - the recently closed Mars Bar, a luxury condo development, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, Whole Foods on the Bowery, a gas station, Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery, a subway station, and the old offices of The Catholic Worker, just to name a few of the many local signifiers of a city at the crossroads.


View Location of BMW Guggenheim Lab in a larger map

The Lab is free and open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays from August 3, 2011 to October 16, 2011. The game Urbanology is open from 1-5 p.m. on those days. See the official website at bmwguggenheimlab.org for complete schedule of lectures, workshops, screenings, and tours.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from August 2, 2011. More images in this set on Flickr WOTBA.





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