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Assistant curator of architecture and urban studies Guggenheim Museum. | Photograph by Trujillo + Paumier

How David van der Leer Curates the Guggenheim—and Our Cities

Assistant curator of architecture and urban studies, Guggenheim Museum

To use his platform as a curator at the Guggenheim Museum for exploring what cities could and should be like in the coming years. "Our lives are mainly taking place in cities," van der Leer, 31, says, "and this will increase in the coming decades." His most ambitious project, which launches later this year, is a six-year touring research platform called BMW Guggenheim Labs, created with collaborator Maria Nicanor. Led by two curators from the Guggenheim, each 5,000-foot lab is a mashup of think tank, community center, and gallery space. It will be staffed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers and emerging talents from architecture and art to economics, as well as other scientists charged with finding ways in which cities can become more comfortable, economical, and sustainable. Three different concepts will hit a total of nine cities around the world. For its first two year cycle, the lab will visit Asia, Europe and North America. Between the cycles, each lab will send its research back to the Guggenheim for an exhibit.

Background: After focusing on urban and architectural theory in graduate school, van der Leer worked in publishing for two years, spent a few months biking around New Zealand, did a stint with Rem Koolhaas at OMA, and moved to New York to work with award-winning architect Steven Holl in 2006. He joined the Guggenheim in October 2008.

City Mouse in the burbs: "I grew up in Rotterdam's suburbs, but I was always interested in urban issues. My thesis topic was urban photography. I was frustrated by artists' photos in my course books: They were about beauty, not urban theory."

What's in a name: Van der Leer arrived at the Guggenheim as assistant curator of architecture and design but successfully lobbied last December for a title change to assistant curator of architecture and urban studies. "Urban studies is not very common among museum curators, but I do feel we are at a turning point. We're starting to pay more attention to this topic."

Meaning in the metrics: Van der Leer wants to launch a series of projects that add expressionist elements to the recent mania for viewing cities through the lens of data. "These projects do not always need to be pretty or beautiful; they can also be ugly and dirty. But more poetic is an important alternative to how we have been looking at cities."

On jet-pack proposals: "It is important that all of the BMW Guggenheim Labs' ideas come with a sense of reality. We are not looking for utopian proposals here; we all know that most of those never materialize."

Discomfort zone: The first lab, built by the hip Japanese design firm Atelier Bow Wow, will explore the idea of "Confronting Comfort: The City and You." Van der Leer concedes that comfort in a city is a slightly controversial topic. What Westerners consider indispensable may well pass as luxury in other parts of the world, he says.

Up close with an icon: Before the Guggenheim, van der Leer worked one-on-one with Steven Holl, famous for his Linked Hybrid building project in Beijing. "I learned how Steven's brain worked. He's a very sensitive personality, so it was quite beautiful."

Favorite book: Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit will write one of the "Sole/Soul Sermons" the Guggenheim is doing this spring with the San Francisco art collective FutureFarmers. "It explores the relationship between the soul and the sole, beginning in a shoemaker's workshop at the museum, then venturing out into the streets. Transcripts of the sermons will be printed with ink made from sidewalk soot," says van der Leer.

New York vs. Europe: "I came thinking European cities were more pleasant, but I've changed my mind. Here, you're always on the sidewalk or the train and you see people. In Holland, you're on a bike and in your own space; that has social implications."

Favorite city outside of New York: Tokyo. "It has a combination of low-rise residential urban villages and high-rise energy. And great food."

Why the Dutch are so creative: "Designers in Holland had a very generous subsidy system. But as the politics get more right wing, that's changing. The creative scene is shifting to Belgium."

Van Gogh or Vermeer? "Vermeer, for the skies."

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