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Design for thought

What exactly is the BMW Guggenheim Lab? This 3-plus minute YouTube video will fill in the details.

At approximately 2:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, two house-of-cards-like structures composed of pieces of colorful pieces of Styrofoam stood at about two-feet-high inside the BMW Guggenheim Lab at the corner of Houston Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village. Two hours later the creations were soaring close to eight feet, with each piece adorned with words and drawings composed from markers.

 “A place to… EXPRESS + EMBRACE a place for all people,” read one. “Electronic Recycling,” proclaimed another.

And as the “visioning wall” continued to climb inside of the 2,200-square-foot lab, so did the spirits of Ann Shostrom. “We just want to get as many ideas as possible,” she said. The wall represented a microcosm of the lab’s mission: to cultivate feedback, ideas and thoughts from the community on sustainability and related matters through an array of more than 100 free programs, most of which are green-oriented. The lab opened on Aug. 3.

The lab is a specially designed mobile structure, which you can visit free of charge Wednesdays through Sundays through Oct 16. Then it moves on, first to Berlin, Germany in the spring of 2012 and later Mumbai, India. And that's just round one: Two more cycles will take the lab to a toal of nine major urban centers around the world in the next six years. All the information, observations and submitted ideas collected as it travels the planet will be displayed in a permanent exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in 2013.

Two "visioning walls" consisted of pieces of Styrafoam took shape on the afternoon of Sept. 10 inside the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

On Saturday afternoon, Shostrom was at the lab -- what has been billed as a “combination of think tank, public forum, and community center” -- as part of an event called First Street Green Day. She was there with other members of First Street Green, a grassroots organization who have been trying to beautify a once rat-infested lot. She and the rest of the group could never have imagined all of this.

It was only in early January that First Street Green, who had been having conservations with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation since 2008, first met with representatives from the Guggenheim about the possibility of building the lab on the lot that sits adjacent to the house where Shostrom has lived for 27 years. At the time, First Street Green was looking to add a metal sculpture to the space. When news became official about housing the lab on the spot, “we were kind of over the moon,” she said the structure that first started taking shape in early May.

An exterior view from East First Street of the BMW Guggenheim Lab. The 2,200-square-foot structure is the first building designed with a structural framework composed of carbon fiber. Photo courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

David van der Leer (featured in the video above), the assistant curator of architecture and urban studies at the Guggenheim, co-wrote the original plans for the lab in May 2009 with fellow curator, Maria Nicanor. It was BMW who first approached the Guggenheim about such a project after having a previous working relationship through "The Art of the Motrorcyle" exhibit in 1998. Van der Leer said his vision of the lab came largely out of response of a trend over the past 10-15 years of projects and exhibitions devoted to cities tending to only feature maps and photos -- with no connection to the people living in them.

“My issue with maps as well as photography is that it gives a sense of truth or a sense of reality where as a map or a photo is both as subjective as any other medium,” said Van der Leer, who has given lectures all over the word on architectural theory. “But they both give a different story. So you can look at that and it seems like everything is under control in cities, which is not all the case… Cities are incredibly complex and by so openly using photography and data or maps you run the risk of oversimplifying stories and also taking the people factor out of the city.

“So what we wanted to do was develop was a project about cities that would address people in a different way where people would become the main actors in the project. And it shows that it’s not a black and white story… that it’s a very complex system, and I think that’s what this project does quite nicely.”

A great example of such shades of gray tend to come from one of the more popular attractions: "Urbanology," an interactive group game that can be played either on-site or online, in which participants ask a series of eight questions to determine what kind of city they would best be suited for based on how they answer the questions.  

An intervior view of the community space inside the BMW Guggenheim Lab as guests play "Urbanology." Photo courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

In each city the lab visits, a team of urban planners, architects, professors, sociologists, innovators, entrepreneurs  and environmentalists are in charge of organizing and programming -- along with Van der Leer and Nicanor. Every team has at least one person from the city itself. In New York’s case it is Omar Freilla, a Bronx-based environmental justice activist, cooperative developer, and founder and coordinator of Green Worker Cooperatives.

Although the lab will move eastward in about a month, it is the hope of First Green Street and other community organizations to keep the ideas and the energy that have sprung forth from its presence alive and well. On Saturday, Sept. 24, First Green Street will host a block party from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. where people can vote on their favorite ideas that have come forth from the visioning wall -- add on to them.

“What’ve they've did was, in one fell swoop, they’ve given us our stage one,” said John Bowman, Shostrom’s husband who has worked in tandem with his wife on the initiative. “Clearly we don’t have the funding that the Guggenheim and BMW can offer, but if we can do a slightly smaller, more neighborhood kind of cheaper version of this, something that can sustain the spirit of the movement -- that’s what I want. Our key is to nurture here… We can keep it a lab, a lab for ideas and about dealing with urban problems.”

Those interested can follow the Lab on Twitter (@BMWGuggLab and using hashtag #BGLab) or on Facebook. Have you been by the lab? If so, what events did you attend? What are your overall thoughts on this initiative? Do you will think it will give birth to the fundamental change that its organizers seek? We'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

A glimpse of the BMW Guggenheim Lab's cafe. It can seat 42 guests and features food from Roberta's in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.


Donna Cicale

I thought this was very interesting, but I was a little concerned about the messages being put on styrofoam...is that really green?

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