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David van der Leer: Thoughts on the Lab

David van der Leer speaks at the Mumbai Lab

A few weeks ago, BMW Guggenheim Lab co-curator David van der Leer announced that after five years at the Guggenheim Museum, and a remarkable run working in tandem with curator Maria Nicanor to bring the Lab from vision to reality, he is moving on to become the director of New York’s historic and prestigious Van Alen Institute.

It’s not very often that the words of Winnie-the-Pooh come to mind in a professional context, but upon hearing the news, it was the sage bear’s lines that lingered in my head: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” It has been a privilege to work with David over the past year and a half. His deeply personal, open-minded, and heartfelt commitment to the project and its mission have been inspirational.

Before David packed up and said his farewells, I caught up with him for one final interview as BMW Guggenheim Lab co-curator. 

You were one of the brain fathers of this project right from the get-go and you’ve seen it come alive and open in three cities. What was the original vision for the Lab, and how was the process of getting that vision into reality?

Architecture programming is often rather dry, and focused on models and drawings and…the same discussions over and over. Especially over the last ten-to-fifteen years, we’ve seen a conversation that is very focused on cities, but it’s not necessarily always leading to new insight. So we wanted to see what would happen if you opened the conversation to the man or woman on the street or living in the city and make them a part of the conversation. Do we learn new things, and secondly, do they begin to speak up about their experiences in the city? I think that is a very important element of the Lab, if not the most important.

Were there things that surprised you throughout the process?

On the content side, I think what surprised me is how willing people are to open up about sometimes very personal things, and sometimes fairly abstract relationships with the city. We had a beautiful moment in New York when we ran an event on a Friday afternoon about aging. Matthias Hollwich was there to speak, and we had a large group of elderly women on hand that afternoon. One of them had been in the Lab before that, and she had organized all of her friends to come. Afterwards, this woman had a long chat with me and Rosanna [Flouty, then the manager of programming for the Lab] about the value of something like this and she said, “As elderly, we’re usually not asked for suggestions or answers.” She said it was a beautiful thing that they were taken seriously in this project and that she would like to see much more of that happening in cities. It was a very nice conversation, but the beauty of it was that while she was saying all these things she started to tear up. I thought this was rather amazing because in a project like this you start something that’s about such big topics, and in the end emotion really becomes a part of it. That, I think, is the beauty of the project.

Did you experience any emotions yourself that you didn’t expect?

I think it was a new realization for me that I’d been moving around so much over the past decade (in terms of where I lived), and particularly since I moved to New York. As a result, I’d never felt a real ownership or sense of belonging in a place that I lived in, so I was always a little skeptical of people who were very, very agitated or passionate about their particular neighborhood. I think that is something that I have learned in the Lab—that it’s not normal to move apartments every year (and I’m not doing that anymore)—but also that people’s direct environments are so incredibly important, and we need to treat that very seriously. It touches on all aspects of your life, so it’s completely logical that people react in a sometimes emotional manner. So for me, that was a very good realization. It somehow made me jealous of people who had such a sense of belonging in a place, so I’ve decided to move less, and enjoy my neighborhood more.

Can you relay three poignant moments from your time with the Lab, and why they’ve stuck with you?

I think there was a really beautiful moment in Mumbai when the two city commissioners decided to be an active part of the jury for the Kala Nagar traffic junction redesign competition, and when they said that they would be interested in implementing elements of these winning designs. That, to me, showed the potential of a project that was going beyond what we had envisioned for it, and I think it showed a completely exciting and very important next phase for that project.

On a very different note, I think one of the beautiful moments in New York was that we had a wedding proposal. This sounds totally silly, but if people feel so comfortable in a space that they pick that spot as the spot to propose to their future wife, I think that’s a very important moment for the project.

My third moment is a little more abstract, but it’s how the project is always allowing different people to become part of a conversation that is usually had at a very high level. My favorite moment in that respect was a program that Charles Montgomery was running—a biking event. Charles had invited ten speakers, and then there was this one kid who was not even twelve, I think. I thought that was amazing because you get all these people who are seriously involved in all of these issues around biking and mobility in cities, and they’re all interesting to listen to and they say all the right things, but somehow things didn’t come home until this kid got up on this chair that was way too big for him. He was so pointed, and a little funny, and just endearing because of his age, but that’s what is so great about this project—that you can learn so much from someone who is basically twenty years younger than the youngest speaker on the panel.

Were there moments where you felt the conversation had become unique—something that genuinely couldn’t have happened in any other environment? If so, are there ways that we can bring that into other realms of dialogue?

I think one of the unique elements of this project is the layering of what is happening around you. There’s this photo that I’m actually looking at right now, where in the front you see there’s a workshop happening, in the middle you see people hanging out on the stadium seating, and in the back you see them playing the Urbanology game.  I think that layering of objectives was really important, and also that you could just walk in and out of it.

I think the key word in this case is messiness. We were always well-organized and professional, but we were always also at the same time providing a very messy environment, and I think that combination was quite key because it makes people feel a little looser or more open-minded.

Another thing is the ping-pong table [at the Mumbai Lab]. I think that was incredibly important, because even if we tried to keep it messy, we often focused strongly on people just hanging out and doing nothing, or being part of our programs . . . Then suddenly there was a ping-pong table, which I’d always wanted to have, and it worked like I hoped it would work. Lots of guys who usually wouldn’t come to see our project or come to programs started coming to play ping-pong. What you would often see is that by them coming and hanging out, some of their friends or relatives would start coming and hanging out and pay attention to a program that they otherwise might not feel like they needed to be a part of. So I think that ping-pong table basically was key to bringing in a diverse audience that wouldn’t usually come in.

What is one idea that came out of the Lab that resonated with you, and that you hope to see take root and move further?

I think here I’d talk about the public/private research that we’ve been doing in Mumbai. That was very much focused on the context of Mumbai and I am very interested in seeing what an interpretation of this could mean for other cities around the world, especially in some Western cities. I think we have a very complex way of dealing with privacy issues—not in terms of ID and social security number, although that’s complex too—but more in terms of, OK, how much privacy do we think we need and how much time alone do we need, and does it always have to be at home or can we be in urban space? What you see quite often in spaces such as in New York, or generally in Western cities, is that we do try to find it at home. I think we can find more of it in the city but it needs a different type of urban design and different types of public spaces.

What will you miss the most about the Lab?

I think I will very much miss those moments where suddenly the Lab is up and running and you see that it’s doing what it should be doing—that there are different types of people walking in and out, different types of people sitting in your programs, and I think those are magical moments. And I love the moment when the project first opens in a city, and there’s that expectation that comes with it. I always love the very first “welcome to the BMW Guggenheim Lab.” I’ll miss saying that.

What will you not miss at all?

The crazy rollercoaster work hours! But I think they’re partly my nutty drive, so that’s probably coming back in future engagements, too.

Three words to describe your experience with the Lab?

Exhilarating, yet exhausting.

From all of us at the Lab, goodbye, David! You will be greatly missed.

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Photo: UnCommonSense © 2012 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York