Exhibition Review: Letters to the Mayor
Dear Mayors (and All Other Inhabitants of Cities),
Last week, the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City opened an exhibition called Letters to the Mayor. It consists of 50 letters to mayors of various cities by an invited group of architects, critics and curators. It’s not much to look at—just some notes typed on white paper and pinned to the wall—but it aggregates and articulates important points about contemporary architecture and urban development.
The letters hang opposite wallpaper designed by George Venson that remixes the traditional symbols of the architect/mayor relationship—hard hat, shovel, etc.—into a kaleidoscopic pattern. (Newsprint booklets hanging on that wall show proposals for a Storefront contest called the Competition of Competitions.) At the base of the triangular gallery, a desk, made of dissolvable foam, by artist and designer Piotr Chizinski provides visitors with a place to pen their own notes.
The participants in the project—all but two of whom are women—took different approaches to the prompt. Some are very specific, including architect Sarah M. Whiting, who asks about Houston, “How can a city that is so worldly, so vibrant, and so savvy be so shortsighted (not to mention so damn ugly) when it comes to contemporary architecture and infrastructure?” Architect Ana Maria León, while preparing her letter to the mayor of Guayaquil, Ecuador, put up a website and started a hashtag (#CartaNebot) to ask the public what she should include. The finished product delivers a long, practically oriented yet utopian list of desired civic improvements. Then there is designer V. Mitch McEwen, who asks succinctly, “How can New York City Housing Authority really become the Pride of Our City?” Yet, many acute problems pinned to distinct locations crop up in multiple letters across the wall, articulating a common sentiment: our cities are becoming increasingly globalized, increasingly corporatized, and increasingly stratified in processes that don’t benefit most of their inhabitants.
Some writers make the point with humor. It sometimes works wonderfully. Architecture student Daniela Fabricius proposes NYC 2.0, “another New York City, for the city’s millionaires,” exiling the uppermost classes to their own replica city, perhaps to be located on the Greek island of Thasos. Other attempts at wit confuse. Architect Rocío Pina Isla simply asks the mayor of Madrid if she’s ever eaten a banana, below which is a diagram and instructions for eating the fruit in question. Still others, like architectural researcher Pia Ednie-Brown and architect Esther Sperber, have written to imaginary mayors, or mayors of the future, using the conceit to express transformative ambitions for cities. In fact, a good majority of the writers make passionately profound pronouncements that one could collage into a progressive architecture manifesto.
• “Let us not be blind to the dangers of banality.” —Designer Ellie Abrons, writing to the mayor of Ann Arbor, Michigan
• “As an architect, I’ve always been struck by the discrepancies between the ideas about urbanism I’ve learned in school and the realities of the cities I’ve known best.” —Architect Meredith Miller, writing to the recently deceased mayor of Jackson, Mississippi
• “Architecture matters.” —Architect and curator Zahra Ali Baba, writing to the mayor of Kuwait City
• “The city should not be simply a container for the activities of capital, or a formal backdrop to existence, but the very stuff of existence itself, supporting use, and evolving through it.” —Architect Daisy Froud, writing to the mayor of London
• “Design is not the icing on the cake, or the tourist attraction, but the solving of problems.” —Critic Alexandra Lange, writing to the mayor of New York
• “The task of architecture is to expand the range of human experiences and activities, to invent and nurture spatial pathways for robust living.” —Esther Sperber, writing to an unspecified mayor
It sounds dreamy. But why does it feel so distant from the way things are? If there’s one thing Letters to the Mayor makes tangible, it’s the distance between contemporary architecture and politics; time after time, the letter writers implore, ask, invite mayors to call, email, meet with them. One gets the sense that two ruinous disconnects are happening: one that cuts off architects from the machinations of government and another that severs politicians from the realities of civic life.
As I was standing and reading architect Alessandra Cianchetta’s letter to the mayor of Paris, a man turned to me and asked, “It’s a good letter, yes?” I agreed—it was a great letter, beseeching the mayor to open up the city to experimentation and change. “Paris deserves to be more than a pretty, lifeless, frozen place,” she writes. The man explained that he was a friend of Cianchetta’s, took a photo with his smartphone, and said, “but there is no hope. Paris is closed.” I looked at him, and we shared a resigned pause. Then I offered the little I could, inspired by our optimistic surroundings, “Well, we can dream.” He agreed. And mayors of the world, when you see the exhibition, I hope you will too.
All my best,