Blogs & Comment

BMW and Guggenheim Museum team up to tackle urban issues

New York is the first stop for the collaboration's traveling lab to study city living.

(Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty)

BMW and the Guggenheim Museum have officially launched the aptly named BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York this week. Located on a former empty lot in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the pop-up lab is described as “part urban think tank and part community centre.” The project gathered an international cast of contributors from various disciplines including architecture, art, design, science, technology, education, and sustainability, to address “issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse.”

It’s a temporary structure built and designed by Tokyo architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow as a “traveling toolbox” and is set to travel to two more cities over the next two years. The overall Lab project is a six-year initiative, divided into three two-year cycles, that will ultimately visit nine major world cities. The next stop is Berlin. The first Lab cycle will end with an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 2013.

Luckily, you don’t actually have to live or visit the Lab in those cities to check it all out. The Lab’s work, as well as video and discussions relating to it will all be featured on its site. And if you really want to nerd out on the city, there’s the Lab’s urban planning role-play game Urbanology.

In New York, Canadian writer and urbanist Charles Montgomery is among the five Lab team members leading the project. His upcoming book, “Happy City,” looks at how the science of happiness is being used to improve cities in North America and around the world. I spoke with Montgomery about the BMW Guggenheim Lab on his way home to Vancouver from New York, while he was waiting for his connection flight in Toronto.

How did you get involved in this project?

I got the call out of the blue back in February as I was just finishing my new book. I was invited to join this international team of five collaborators from different disciplines and conceptualize what would happen inside this fantastic lab they built in the Lower East Side.

Did you have a formal assignment?

They threw us together for three weeks back in March and asked us to consider the notion of comfort in the city and think about how we’d like to engage New Yorkers and people around the world. Personally, I took the name of the lab literally and proposed that we conduct some experiments. So I’m going to be working with Colin Ellard, a Canadian who wrote a book called “Where Am I?”, to create an experiment where we will measure the effect public space in New York City has on people’s brains, bodies and behaviour.

It’s not a trivial project by any means. Cities around the world are engaged in battles about how public space should be used. Look at Toronto and Vancouver, for example, where they’re fighting over bike lanes.

What role did BMW play, if any, beyond title sponsor?

It’s a curious pairing, really. One of the world’s big car companies sponsoring a very daring experiment that includes reconsidering the role of cars and modes of transportation in our cities. I’m not sure exactly what the role was but I can say that the curators and our team have had absolute independence. I did get a nice cookie from BMW, but that’s about it.

What do you hope comes out of the Lab’s first iteration?

What we hope to come out of this with are new ways of looking at the city, design ideas, but most of all questions. We just had three months in New York, but we’re hoping to come up with some interesting questions that will be pursued further in subsequent labs.

Is this the kind of initiative from which Canadian cities can take a lesson?

Well, we certainly hope so. The truth is, this isn’t something you need an architect-designed space for. It can and must happen in all our cities as we start to face these challenges of peak oil, resource scarcity, financial crisis and increasing urbanization. We have no choice.