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Straight Talk

September 14, 2011 | by

BMW Guggenheim Lab. Courtesy of Atelier Bow-Wow.

Readers of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities will recall the “Collateral Campaign,” a fictional initiative to commemorate the seventieth anniversary, in 1918, of the ascent of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef to the throne. As the novel progresses, so too does the campaign: it will be a whole year of festivities, it will be The Austrian Year, The Austrian Peace Year. The planning draws in prominent personages who introduce more and more ambitious proposals; it launches scores of dinner evenings, plenipotentiary committees, and public debates.

Musil’s subject, and the admixture of sympathy and satire he brought to it, seems awfully familiar in 2011. Nowadays, we are fairly encircled by Collateral Campaigns—by artistic enterprises whose intentions, intellectual and social, are unimpeachable, yet which seem always to hover between event and discourse, between process and product. Example: the new BMW Guggenehim Lab in the East Village, which opened last month.

Like Musil’s, this enterprise is ambitious. The project, born of a collaboration between the Guggenehim Museum and the BMW car company, has a lofty goal: nothing less than the search for new responses to the urban condition in the twenty-first century. As Guggeneheim Assistant Curator Maria Nicanor puts it, the Lab is meant as a “think tank, a community center, and a gathering space.” That translates to an abundance of designers, artists, techies, politicians, and other worthies presenting a grab bag of quality cultural programming, from films to lectures to games. It’s all free to the public, and it all takes place in a long-neglected marginal plot at the corner of Houston Street and Second Avenue, outfitted with an ingenious moveable shelter by the forward-thinking Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow.

BMW Guggenheim Lab. Courtesy of Atelier Bow-Wow.

The Lab was preceded (by only a few months and a few blocks) by the New Museum’s “Festival of Ideas for the New City,” an arty fair that overran the Bowery for one weekend in May. That was preceded, in turn, by a one-day function in April organized by Dutch design retailer Droog, which took a group of New Yorkers on a field trip to Levittown, Long Island, for a conceptual open-house tour. But the Guggenheim’s party is larger in scale than either of these, and grander. It lasts a full ten weeks, after which the whole picnic picks up and removes to Mumbai and then Berlin. It’s also more earnest: of three thematic cycles that will mark the lifespan of the project—it will ultimately visit nine cities in all—the first is “Confronting Comfort,” “exploring notions of individual and collective comfort and the urgent need for environmental and social responsibility.” Sincerity, they’ve got.

They’ve also got a spectacular array of events and accompaniments. They’ve got  an elaborate website featuring multimedia content, user-driven interactive features, and a searchable calendar of events. They’ve got architect Elizabeth Diller talking about privacy, they’ve got a design duo from Rotterdam declaring a strategy for “glocalization,” and they’ve got urban meditaters who will lead exercises in social connectedness. They’ve got hip-hop movies and The Wire creator David Simon. Best of all, they’ve got a pop-up café from Brooklyn eatery Roberta’s. (The iced coffee truly exhausts superlatives.)

But what result is meant to issue from this concentration of intellectual and institutional power? Says urbanist Charles Montgomery, “The idea is that you take a range of people, from wildly different disciplines, throw them together, and see if they can come up with new ideas, experiments, and solutions for this problem of the city.” Montgomery is a member of the first “BGL Team,” four thinkers who devised the programming. They, in turn, were selected by “BGL Advisory Committee,” comprising eight cultural figures of slightly older vintage. The chain of command continues: these groups were all convened at the behest of the Guggenheim’s enterprising Assistant Curator for Architecture and Urban Studies, David van der Leer, and his colleague Ms. Nicanor, in conjunction with members of the communications and marketing divisions at the Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. And this spiral of discussion telescopes out the other end: the anticipated users of the Lab will participate in talks with the team members, the invited speakers, and each other.

BMW Guggenheim Lab. Courtesy of Atelier Bow-Wow.

Dialogue, then, is the objective. The BMW Guggenheim Lab is not really a lab, in the sense that it is not expected to develop anything: either a particular mode of living, a particular service, or a system that will create healthier, wealthier, more livable cities. It is intended to be, in itself, a vision of the urban life of the future, one in which we all talk constantly and go to the movies constantly and talk about what movies we saw and what we talked about earlier.

If that seems a strange vision of the perfect city, it might be worthwhile to set the Lab in the broader context of the Guggenheim’s history. From its inception, the Gugg—originally known as The Museum of Non-Objective Painting—sought to further a model of modern art as a variety of religious experience. Exemplified in the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, this new approach called upon vital energies to bring about a union of Life and Art. The Guggenheim, in later years, has never quite shaken this attitude, as evidenced by its various (and sometimes ill-considered) expansion plans for Lower Manhattan, Las Vegas, and beyond. As compared, for example, to the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim is more about revelation than analysis, less pedagogy and more evangel. MoMA is a child of the Bauhaus. The Solomon R. Guggeneheim Museum is the child of a wealthy patriarch and his eccentric mistress, an art-loving Alsatian spiritualist named Hilla von Rebay. It was she who wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright, as he was preparing the design of the museum’s now-famous Fifth Avenue spiral, “With infinity and sacred depth create the dome of spirit: expression of the cosmic breath itself—bring light to light! ... let us create a shrine ... ”

Seen in this numinous light, the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s interrogation of the city can be understood as part of that broader project of spiritual enrichment. The museum seeks to involve the whole urban community in a reflection on its own circumstances—and to be thereby ennobled, and to go forth boldly into the future. The poignancy, as well as the irony, of this kind of endless, reflexive discourse were ably captured by Musil over eighty years ago; the writer would have recognized in the Lab—as in so many aspect of our arts-festival-crazed age—the essence of his own Collateral Campaign.

He would have recognized something else, too. In the novel, one of the characters is revealed to have been using the campaign all along as an opportunity to extend his commercial contacts and make a quick krone. Even as they foster the union of art and life, the good people at the BMW Group may care to reflect on the way life may imitate art.

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and urbanism to New York Magazine, Architectural Record, Interior Design, and Time Out New York, among other publications. He lives in Manhattan.

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