BMW Guggenheim Lab: An Outdoor Workshop For Fixing City Life

In New York, BMW and the Guggenheim Museum unveiled a traveling pavilion that will host workshops aiming to solve the problems of living in the city.



Tuesday night, as a crowd of toffs celebrated the opening of BMW Guggenheim Lab‘s first installation in the East Village, a drunken man passed out on the sidewalk, lying in a heap within sight of the revelers on the other side of the gated enclosure.

But for the fact that the poor guy barely seemed to be breathing, it might have been a clever bit of street theater to illustrate the Lab’s provocative theme: comfort — and discomfort — in the city. There was the line, with party-goers queuing up to get green wristbands qualifying them to choose between the Soave and bubbly rose, while next to them, a local resident lay sprawled on the pavement.

The tableau could also have been a question in the project’s signature game, Urbanology, which asks players to confront uncomfortable questions. In this case, “Should you leave a party, where you’re talking to somebody who could be important to your career, to help an inebriated man collapsed in the street?”

To their credit, a number of attendees were clearly agitated by the scene, passing bottled water through the fence, and frantically dialing 911 until FDNY’s rescue team finally showed up (Those guys were clearly perplexed, not by the man on the ground, but why a bunch of up-towners were partying on a site that until last month was nothing but rats and rubble.) As a final act, the FDNY righted the man, and he staggered off to an ambulance. Party on, dudes!

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a curious initiative for a museum ? part sociology, part theater (presumably not the kind that transpired opening night), part research project, part community center — conceived to explore the challenges of an increasingly urbanized global population.


Housed in an Atelier Bow-Wow-designed structure in a pocket park at E. Houston and Second Avenue, it will exist for the next two and a half months, then fold its billowing draperies and carbon fiber beams and trundle off to Berlin, and eventually Mumbai.

In addition to hosting lectures by such urban luminaries as Saskia Sassen, Nicholas Humphrey and Liz Diller, it will be home base for Urbanology, a group game (designed by Local Projects) that allows participants to be city planners for a day, lobbying for various education, transportation, health care, infrastructure, and sustainability initiatives.

A game by Local Project allows visitors to be city planners for a day.

In his introductory remarks Tuesday morning, Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong cited mythic New York Parks titan Robert Moses, who, he said, believed that social behavior can be changed in the company of great art. “We wondered what our role could be to further that social cause,” Armstrong said. “Our younger curators said, ‘Take it to the street!’ I?m embarrassed to say where I wanted this project to be located (reportedly, Park Avenue!). Fortunately, they found this spot, a perfect place in the East Village that’s emblematic of New York. It’s like the collision of the 19th and 20th centuries, surrounded by traffic.”

Which raises another uncomfortable question: ?Would the party-goers have been more alarmed had the man on the street been a soused investment banker?”

We asked some of the project’s key players to explain the background of the project, and its key elements.


The Lab’s first theme is “Confronting Comfort.” That seems like a weird place for a project on urban living to begin.

“We wanted to begin with a theme that was taboo,” said David van der Leer, Assistant Curator, Architecture and Urban Studies at the Guggenheim, and one of the project’s creators (with Maria Nicanor). ‘In a city, everyone is looking for comfort, but with different approaches. The topic can be very emotional. What does “comfort’ mean in a city, where it’s not a private subject” It has political and economic implications. We’ll look at what comfort means in three cities, then bring the research findings back to New York for a summary show. ?

What was the design brief for this project?

Even though it was the Guggenheim, the brief said “Can we please get a non-iconic building?” says the project’s architect, Momoyo Kaijima, of Japan’s Atelier Bow-Wow. “We like to create micro-public spaces. For this project, we wanted to create a building where the people are the center and the building is just the skin. In Tokyo, for example, we created a pod for manga reading. We like to reactivate existing behaviors. ”

How does the Urbanology game relate to the theme of comfort?


“The idea is to present players with questions that will catalyze conversations about competing interests in a city, and then force the players to make tough decisions,” says Local Project’s founder, Jake Barton. ‘For example, one question asks if a guard in a city museum should be fired for insisting on calling a transgendered woman a “Mister.’ Another asks if a beer company should be allowed to be the ?official” sponsor of the city’s buskers. Once the answers are tallied, you get a profile of how you compare on various measures with other global cities. You can play online. You can even add questions of your own!?

Where did you get the idea for the form of this game?

“This game was inspired by New Yorkers” fondness for playing chess in the street,? says Kristian Koreman, of ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles). “Instead of kings and pawns, our pieces are money (wooden credit cards and dollar bills), mobility (little taxis), sustainability. The sustainability pieces are little bathtubs and toilets. They show that your comfort in the bath or on the john eventually becomes the discomfort of somebody in Brooklyn or the Bronx when the result gets dumped in the river. “

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.