Social Ambitions on the Lower East Side


Sometimes, an event on the Bowery has the capacity to attract an art historian of the reputation of Hal Foster, allegedly dragged in by Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong, scenesters Glenn O’Brien and Leo Fitzpatrick—and a slew of bums. Such was the case this week, as BMW and the Guggenheim launched the first cycle of their Lab, a freewheeling, multi-platform urban study program, in a vacant lot on Houston just off Second Ave.

The Lab, which will soon embark on a six-year, nine-city tour, has lofty aspirations to “address issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse,” according to press materials. Clearly, it is impossible to judge the project’s success at this juncture, but given the title of this cycle, “Confronting Comfort,” the gentrified Lower East Side seemed like a suitable place to start.

Momoyo Kaijima, a principal of Atelier Bow-Wow, the architecture firm that designed the rectangular, skeletal construction wrapped in carbon-fiber mesh, explained, “The basic idea was to formulate a city loggia [an elevated open-sided ground-floor gallery, an in-between space open to the public without a distinct entrance or exit.” Atelier Bow-Wow’s sleek, minimal design settles unobtrusively into the urban landscape, nestled in far from the sidewalk.

The Lab has an extensive schedule of programming, which will address issues from public transportation to the dissipation of cultural identity and hosting film screenings and panels that will include notables like writer-photographer Teju Cole and architect Elizabeth Diller.

Lab curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer hope the program will foster participation and, ideally, intervention. For Nicanor, the project came about as a means to “bring the architecture and urban programming out of the Guggenheim quite literally with a new model of engagement seeking and relying on active participation with visitors.” The risk of this sprawling and vague venture is the broad scope and reliance on outside participation.

BMW Guggenheim Lab Team member Charles Montgomery specified the goal as “using the lab’s resources to conduct experiments on how configurations of public space alter the way we feel, our body language, our brains and even our behavior.” They’ve engaged a psychologist and equipment, including a heat map, to measure Biofeedback and illustrate a “rollercoaster of comfort and discomfort, anxiety and calm” as people move through the neighborhood in hopes of informing “designers and urban planners” down the road.