Lab | Log

Endings and Beginnings

Photo: Paul Warchol © 2011 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Photo: Paul Warchol © 2011 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

The Oxford Dictionary defines a laboratory as a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, or teaching. It has two definitions for “experiment.” First, “a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact,” and second, “a course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the outcome.”

The BMW Guggenheim Lab combined those two definitions. The Lab itself—a place for experiments, research, teaching, and much more—was also the experiment whose outcome was not prescribed, and whose goal was discovery.

The Guggenheim has been associated with bold forays in architecture for decades: when it opened in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum building in New York set the standard for the institution’s risk-taking designs and daring spaces. The Lab project carried that enterprising spirit outside the galleries and into urban space. When we began the project with our team—from its inception together with my former co-curator David van der Leer, and later with former curatorial assistants Johanna Vandemoortele, Stephanie Kwai, and Amara Antilla—we knew it was time to initiate a dialogue about the role played by architecture and public space in the everyday life of contemporary citizens. That conversation needed to be broader and go beyond just the more traditional infrastructural discourse, moving into matters of public life and the use of our public space, with the person at the very center of the dialogue; and it needed to expand to include new voices from nontraditional disciplines, schools of thought, and walks of life. From these ideas, the Lab was born.

Our multidisciplinary experiment entailed some big leaps: in three cities, we invited microbiologists, psychologists, architects, neuroeconomists, television directors, athletes, engineers, photographers, medical technology innovators, environmental justice activists, journalists, tourism directors, tech geeks, anthropologists, chefs, florists, and many more supporters and collaborators to join us in our ongoing conversation about the future of urban life. Together, we addressed controversial urban issues like gentrification and urban equity while at the same time embarking on prototyping new urban furniture, offering programs that ranged from laughter yoga to urban sound workshops, and scientifically testing the reactions of city dwellers to their surroundings. By creating a platform where all of this could take place—where experts and non-experts came together—we hoped to contribute to the larger conversation about urban issues; but never could we have predicted just how much that conversation would be enriched by bringing together this diverse multitude of voices.

The conclusion of the BMW Guggenheim Lab does not, in fact, mark an ending: the Lab has set the stage for further engagement with urban issues. How we live our lives in urban centers has become one of the pivotal questions of the 21st century. The Guggenheim will continue to explore that crucial topic raised by the Lab through new formats and programs and to engage with the importance of social urban dynamics in the context of architecture and urbanism.

Some experiments start with a hypothesis and end with a conclusion. Ours began with important questions and will go on to raise more in the months and years ahead. In a sense, the Lab’s journey has just begun.

  • Christoph Riebling

    Congrats, Maria!

  • Kindall Stephens

    Is there anyone I can get in touch with about the development of this new type of space? I am a graduate student studying architecture and would like to use the Lab as a case study for a project I am working on. Thank you.

    • Caitlin Dover

      Thanks for your interest, Kindall! I will be in touch with you directly with some ideas about how you can learn more about the BMW Guggenheim Lab project.

  • Fabien Clavier

    Hi! I’m a French urbanist very interested in your approach and your focus on social dynamics. How could I get in touch with you?

  • ksefore

    Raising questions is important, but to have raised awareness is a fuzzy claim–are there outcomes? I’ve played the Urbanology ‘game’ many times now, and have responded to over one hundred different questions (yes, I’ve logged each one), yet my responses never led to anything like a representation of the city I imagined–only to a non-transparent matching of my binary responses to an existing city based on criteria and assessment completely hidden from view. I can’t claim to have learned anything from this experience except that Toronto’s highest priority is either sustainability, or lifestyle, or innovation, and its lowest priority is either wealth, or lifestyle, or health, depending (somehow) on what questions are asked. But how does this relate to the actual city and what can be verified about it? This isn’t a ‘game’ by even the barest standards of game design, and what is the take-away, or the cumulative effect? Where is the evidence of others learning or gaining, or of any of us actually contributing to some outcome, and how am I to learn from others in this enterprise? The Lab provided either a tool or a one-trick pony; all I see is the pony.

    • Caitlin Dover

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, ksefore, and for engaging so deeply with “Urbanology.” I think you’ve brought up some important points here, and I’d like to share a little background about the game and the BMW Guggenheim Lab in response.

      “Urbanology” started life as a game that was played within the physical setting of the BMW Guggenheim Lab space in New York. The goal in bringing it online was to extend its existence and allow a larger audience to consider the ideas that underpinned the Lab in its three locations. Along with “100 Urban Trends” and “Public/Private”—two other interactives created by and for the Lab—and many other projects both online and on-site, “Urbanology” was one piece among many intended to inspire
      people to think about cities and city life.

      A multi-year project, the Lab generated many tangible outcomes. Among them was an in-depth study of emotional, mental, and physiological reactions to urban environments; a “safe space” for women in Mumbai that was the direct result of one of the Lab’s workshops; an initiative to promote community gardens in Berlin; and an arts-oriented park in New York that grew out of the Lab’s space and

      I hope you will explore these and other Lab projects on, where the wide array of the Lab’s activities are documented. Included below are links to information on the projects mentioned here. Many thanks, again, for your interest in the BMW Guggenheim Lab.