Case Study: The Buell Hypothesis / Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream

The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Columbia University GSAPP, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Project Title
The Buell Hypothesis / Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
1.5 years

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2012 “Justified” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.

This project consists of two publications: The Buell Hypothesis, a research document which served as the brief for the workshop process of the MoMA exhibition “Foreclosed,” and Foreclosed: Rehousing The American Dream, the resulting exhibition’s catalogue.

The Buell Hypothesis
The Buell Hypothesis calls into question the cultural assumptions underlying the “American Dream” in the context of the foreclosure crisis and the demise of the American suburb. The book uses a screenplay format to weave together three types of content: a Socratic dialogue that unearths the underlying premises of the current housing crisis, a visual history of public housing in America as told through the media and a statistical analysis of several American suburbs ripe for radical transformation.

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
In order to encourage discussion, Foreclosed: Rehousing The American Dream lays its process bare, presenting research, workshop process, the five resulting proposals, as well public discussion and criticism of those proposals. The proposals are the work of five teams of architects, urban planners, landscape architects, economists, ecologists and engineers led by the principals of the architecture firms MOS, Visible Weather, Studio Gang Architects, WORKac and Zago Architecture.


$75,000 plus printing


There were three collections we found helpful in contextualizing and then developing the design for both The Buell Hypothesis and Foreclosed: Rehousing The American Dream. The first collection was a visual history of public housing in America, as told through the media—compiled by The Buell Center—that comprises the second chapter of The Buell Hypothesis. Reviewing, discussing and organizing this collection helped us understand the public tone that the publication needed to have. The second was a collection of MoMA architecture catalogues that The Buell Center graciously made available to us, which helped us understand “Foreclosed" as an extension of MoMA’s original Modernist project. The third was a collection of MoMA’s recent publications—in particular, the Department of Architecture and Design’s recent publications—which helped us understand the approach and priorities of the team with whom we worked.


The Buell Hypothesis
The main challenge was to find a way to present the book’s extremely varied content in a cohesive way without seeming to resolve the contradictions or conflicts within it.

Foreclosed: Rehousing The American Dream
The main challenge was to find a way to give equal weight to the architectural proposals and to the research and criticism that fueled the process.


The Buell Hypothesis
We took the conventions of a printed 8.5-x-11-inch screenplay as our point of departure, and developed each section of the book as an extension of that format. While the content of each section is distinct, the screenplay format connects them into a single narrative. For example, chapter two, a collection of media images, is a dream sequence in the screenplay. Chapter three is a jump cut to an academic symposium where housing experts are presenting their findings as slideshows. The presenter’s slides become storyboards. The client team and design team worked together to develop this unusual narrative approach in order provoke discussion.

Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
We used different production values to distinguish The Buell Center’s research from MoMA’s exhibition content in order to make the discursive structure of the content more evident. Another design strategy we employed was to use large, medium-weight text settings throughout the book so that the textual sections would be as visually substantial as the image sections.


From the client (The Buell Center):

The Buell Hypothesis
The Buell Hypothesis had to accomplish a two-fold mission, delivering both scientific research and a cultural critique in a way that would be radical enough to challenge the most entrenched underpinnings of the American Dream, while still maintaining scholarly objectivity with respect to the facts and figures presented as on-the-ground evidence of a crisis. The screenplay format and highly inventive graphic devices provide entry to a very complex set of ideas while stimulating the reader’s imagination to conjure personal references to the cultural, historical, physical, social and economic phenomena described. The design strikes a balance between the urgency and seriousness of an official and timely “report” and a beauty that was essential in its role as a design brief.

Foreclosed: Rehousing The American Dream
A chief interest of The Buell Center in partnering with MoMA on the “Foreclosed” exhibition was to catalyze a new and urgently-needed public conversation about current political and social issues as they relate to the built environment. The catalogue successfully frames the design projects as one piece of a much larger design process that involved research, activism, cross-disciplinary collaboration and public and scholarly debate. The catalogue propels this conversation forward to a new audience, making the ideas accessible while still broadening assumptions about what architects and designers might speculate on, and how they might go about it.

Additional information

Read more about  the “Foreclosed” exhibition and The Buell Hypothesis.