Cities: ideas and insights on the cities we live in

Part cultural exhibition, part architectural experiment, part community center, part gathering space, part public forum, part urban think tank and part traveling corporate advertising campaign. ‘The BMW Guggenheim Lab’ is a project that is easy to be enthusiastic about in so many regards, but also leaves me feeling a little conflicted.

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The Concept

The LAB was created by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in collaboration with BMW. It was curated by Maria Nicanor and David Van der Leer, two assistant curators from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a mobile laboratory traveling to nine major cities worldwide over six years. Led by international, interdisciplinary teams of emerging talents in the areas of urbanism, architecture, art, design, science, technology, education, and sustainability, the Lab addresses issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse. Its goal is the exploration of new ideas, experimentation, and ultimately the creation of forward‐thinking solutions for city life.”

One of the lab’s aspects that I strongly believe in, is the idea of bringing cultural and civic resources, and related content and activities out of the city center and into the neighborhoods where people live, work, go to school, etc. This alone makes the Lab an interesting experiment to me. It was accessible geographically for the local community and it was accessible monetarily with a daily offering of activities that were all free of charge. Whether it felt accessible to all the demographic groups living in the community is questionable, but I think as an experiment, its a step in the right direction.

As far as the funding concept for the Lab, I have mixed feelings. With the economies of so many countries struggling, governmental funding and funding by art and cultural foundations is dwindling. The alternatives that are becoming more prevalent are corporate sponsorship and websites like kickstarter that give your project a lot of exposure to potential donors big and small and then take a percentage off the top of your funds raised. In regard to corporate sponsorship, it is great that these private interest companies are focusing efforts on cultural projects like the Lab, but at the same time corporate sponsorship will always have their own interests in mind, and I worry that only those projects that corporations see as beneficial to business will be funded, in addition to the influence these corporations could have in how funded projects are carried out, not to mention the advertising they will demand in return for their compensation. Regardless of whether you are for or against this kind of sponsorship, it is something to think about.

The Architecture

The Lab will travel to nine cities, housed in three different works of architecture, each serving three cities. The first three cities are New York, Berlin and Mumbai.  The architecture that frames the Lab site for the first three cities was designed by Atelier Bow‐Wow, based in Tokyo, Japan. I am always so impressed by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, the two principals of Atelier Bow‐Wow.  Their designs are thoughtful and always involve some twist of thinking that is unexpected. Despite all of the prestige they have garnered, they remain the antithesis to the rock star architect image with their friendly down to earth demeanor.

The design for the lab is a carbon fiber framework (the first building ever built from carbon fiber, I am assuming because it is extremely expensive). Thanks to the corporate sponsorship of BMW, the carbon fiber structure became a reality. The lightweight structure can be disassembled into units manageable for transporting the entire lab and all the accompanying equipment in several shipping containers.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab's mobile structure

video stills and photos above © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

To give the lab the programmatic flexibility it needed within a relatively small space, the lab was conceived as a toolbox that travels. At the scale of a building the toolbox functions like a theater stage with accompanying fly space. Elements can be hoisted up above the main space when not in use, and lowered down when needed. Long and narrow with an open framework and an unassuming black color, the structure of the lab seems perfectly suited to its role of temporarily inhabiting vacant urban lots with minimal disruption to the existing site. The lower level can be completely enclosed by a large white curtain or completely open. In the case of the New York site, you could see from the street through to the back of the site when the curtains are open. The upper level that functions solely as a holding space for equipment and supporting audio, visual and network systems is completely enclosed within a lightweight translucent mesh. The whole structure can be assembled and disassembled on site and then transported in shipping containers to the next destination.

What happens at the Lab?

The Lab has finished its run in New York and Berlin and currently is in transit to Mumbai. The Lab program lasts for about two weeks in each city, with a daily schedule of activities that range from lectures, workshops, movie screenings and presentations to research discussions and community gatherings.

The lab was not without its critics. In Berlin, a group gathered before the opening of the Lab in protest. Some protestors were asking why the Lab program is being supported when other programs supporting the arts and cultural initiatives were slated to lose their funding. Despite the criticism, after the Lab got going in both the New York and Berlin locations, the site was full of people on a daily basis taking part in the activities that were offered from morning to evening.

Its easy to dismiss this kind of project as hipster trendiness and I am critical of the choice of blatant corporate sponsorship, but I am a great supporter of the the underlying concept of the project. Hipster or not, I think the project and the many people involved have achieved great things so far as a generator of activity focused around the topic of cities. The Lab has given many people a common cause to organize around. When the common cause is thinking critically about your own city and generating ideas on how to improve it, I think it’s a good thing. I hope that the Lab will inspire other projects that focus on small scale, distributed models for cultural centers as an alternative to the traditional monumental centralized model, to be able to engage local communities.

Marathon of Making event — photo from the Lab blog where you can read about many of their events.

Making of the Foodscape Map — photo from the Lab blog

Live Feeds Presentation by Spurse — photo © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation