It was winter in New York, and Joseph Grima was thinking about change. Along with plans to renovate the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the Vito Acconci/Steven Holl-designed sliver of a gallery Gima runs on Kenmare Street, he also announced a contest to redesign the White House.
Storefront reopened on October 3, and its façade of fold-out concrete panels, cleaned of fifteen years of downtown dust, opened onto a selection of the entries Grima received—more than 500, from 42 countries. An architectural supergroup (Beatriz Colomina, Liz Diller, John Maeda, Geoff Manaugh, Mark Wigley, Laetitia Wolff) picked the winners.
Grima came to Storefront in 2007 from Milan, where he edited Domus magazine. A graduate of the Architectural Association in London, he’s now working on a PhD at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His first show at Storefront was in April 2007—photos of Soviet modernist relics—and since then Grima has overseen a blogger lecture series, a citywide bike-sharing project, and the construction of a 250,000-piece Lego tower, among other shows.
White House Redux, up through November 8, is a bit of a throwback to early Storefront design contests. Past shows have rethought everything from the Korean DMZ to Brooklyn’s own strip of wasteland, the Gowanus Canal. Still, Grima says, it raises up-to-the-minute questions about centralized power in a globalized world and about how politics and architecture interact for better and for worse.
William Bostwick: Why the White House, why now, and why a competition like this?
Joseph Grima: It was inspired by early Storefront competitions in the ’80s that dealt with the relationship between architecture and power. One example is a competition that looked at the contemporary relevance of the statue of liberty. Another dealt with possible uses for missile silos that were being dismantled after the Cold War. Because this is such a big election, we were interested in the parallel realties of the White House and the intellectual subtexts of architecture as a manifestation of power.
WB: The entries you got are all over the place—video animations, books, websites, some of them aren’t even architecture. Did you find any themes that tied the projects together? Do architects think about the White House in similar ways?
JG: There are a number of themes. One is pure political commentary—there was a whole subset of black houses, for example. Another was more formalist. This is the most revered building in the world, so no amount of money would be spared on it. Why not just go for it and make something extraordinary? Then there’s the idea of architecture as a facilitator of the democratic process—almost like a machine. One project thought of the building as a server, tapped in a global network of power.
WB: In an exhibition at least in part about democracy, why didn’t the entry with the most popular votes on your website win?
JG: We had that idea after the jury made their selections. We wanted to put the entries online, and we had a cash prize generated by the revenue of banner ads on the pages. So it wasn’t related. But we weren’t really trying to hunt down the one, best approach. What interests us is the multiplicity of ideas. The beauty of a competition that calls for ideas is that they remain ideas. It’s difficult to remain faithful to ideas in reality.
WB: With the White Houses of the world already built, and not about to be redesigned, has the link between architecture and politics gotten fainter?
JG: Architecture is more political today than ever before—the most recent example is Ground Zero. But politics have changed. It’s much more ephemeral than it was in the past. We aren’t going to be presented with the opportunity to realize something as significant as the White House any time soon, but I’m sure that when it was first built, it didn’t have all the relevance it has today.
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