Fact & Fiction: The Buell Hypothesis

In this article, I introduce The Buell Hypothesis, an experiment that mixes fact and fiction, art and architecture.

[Originally published in viz. (February 2012).]

A few days ago, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) unveiled its newest exhibition, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream. A collection of five architectural plans that reimagine how five different suburbs in America could have benefitted significantly from Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, Foreclosed is an amazing exhibition that melds art and architecture, politics and place. Today, I’m going to discuss the impetus of this exhibition—The Buell Hypothesis. The Hypothesis is an amazing hybrid publication created by Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. According to the publication’s graphic designers, The Buell Hypothesis is “part socratic dialogue, part contemporary screenplay, part media scape and part power point slide presentation.” This hybrid production, with its emphasis on collaboration and reinterpretation, is an appropriate point of genesis for Foreclosed.

A page from The Buell Hypothesis
A page from The Buell Hypothesis, courtesy of Experiments in Architecture and Research

As its creators—Buell Center colleagues Reinhold Martin, Leah Meisterlin, and Anna Kenoff—proudly proclaim in their preface to The Buell Hypothesis, the document is “both documentary and imaginary. It describes a world in which fiction informs fact just as much as fact informs fiction.” The structure of the Hypothesis reflects this collaborative process between the real and the fictional, as the document (interestingly described as “a screenplay” for “a film” by Martin et al. in their preface) is interspersed with such disparate elements as: descriptions of montaged images (of empty living rooms, of suburban houses) if the screenplay were to be made into a film; imagined dialogues between Socrates and Glaucon about the status of suburbs as they’re stuck in traffic on Interstate Highway 95 en route to a symposium organized by Diotima; clippings from real-world newspaper articles about public housing development and building policy since the New Deal Era; and case studies of a number of suburbs presented by Diotima in an imaginary PowerPoint presentation at an imaginary symposium.

A page from The Buell Hypothesis
A page from The Buell Hypothesis, courtesy of Experiments in Architecture and Research

The ultimate goal of this hybrid between the real and the imaginary is to get readers of the Hypothesis—likely urban planners, architects, and even art curators—to rethink our preconceived notions and preconceptualized images of suburban development. Again Martin et al. use their preface to explain the goals of their project—“The Buell Hypothesis, at its most basic, is as follows: change the dream and you change the city. The single-family house, and the city or suburb in which it is situated, share a common destiny. Hence, change the narratives guiding suburban housing and the priorities they imply, including spatial arrangements, ownership patterns, the balance between public and private interests, and the mixtures of activities and services that any town or city entails, and you begin the process of redirecting suburban sprawl.”

A page from The Buell Hypothesis
A page from The Buell Hypothesis, courtesy of Metropolis Mag

It’s interesting that the very form of the Hypothesis—with its genre-crossing use of various tropes from screenwriting, classic dialogue, PowerPoint presentations, and scrapbooking—informs the ultimate goal of the project. Martin et al.’s text asks us to rethink our beliefs about what scientific or architectural reports look like (we’re used to seeing drab reports, of the “Title/Abstract/Introduction/Materials and Methods/Results/Discussion/Literature Cited” variety) with a baby-blue covered publication (one reviewer hilariously said that the Hypothesis “looks like it was retroactively leaked from the RAND Corporation in the 1960s”) full of both fact and fiction. In reimagining the report form to include dialogues and diversions, The Buell Hypothesis opens avenues for hybrid, user-centered projects to profoundly affect the future of urban planning and design.

The Hypothesis has already affected the real world with MoMA’s Foreclosed exhibition, an art/architecture exhibition which takes Diotima’s PowerPoint case studies of a few suburbs around the United States and imagines alternate futures for five of them. Read Foreclosed‘s inspiration, The Buell Hypothesis, in its entirety at the Buell Center’s site.