In The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2007), Michael Pollan traces with devastating clarity the ways in which much of our food is produced and how these industrialized processes are damaging our bodies and our planet. Partly due to research like Pollan’s, however, some heartening changes are taking place. The New York Times has recently run a flurry of articles on subjects including visionary proposals to provide urbanites with local crops through vertical farming and the movement to grow produce on vacant lots in American cities. The latter development is particularly startling in New York, where during the 1990s the Giuliani administration made seizing community gardens and auctioning off the land to developers a top priority.
The winning entry in the ninth Young Architects Program competition, for which architects are invited to design settings for the ‘Warm Up’ music series in P.S.1’s courtyard, provided further evidence of the burgeoning urban-gardening trend. Created by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WORK Architecture Company, P.F.1 (Public Farm One) was a working farm ingeniously constructed of recyclable-cardboard tubes bolted together in daisy-shaped clusters (the ‘petals’ were filled with soil, while empty centres allowed the gardeners’ access) to form a sloping ‘magic carpet’ of suspended greenery that spanned two courtyards and rose thirty feet in the air. Since the assignment was to create an outdoor party environment, with shade, seating, and a bar area, P.F.1 included such features as a wading pool and solar-powered, motion-sensitive fans that kicked on when partiers stood below, providing a cooling breeze and distributing the scents of potted herbs.
Andraos and Wood see P.F.1 as a manifesto calling for playful reinvention of the urban environment, as well as, more powerfully, a way to encourage the public to get involved in producing its own food supply. They grew over 50 varieties of plants, vegetables and flowers, including herbs, lavender, tomatoes and peppers – all blooming in sequence – and set up an open-air chicken coop. Organic cocktails were served at a juice bar, and visitors were allowed to pick produce. WORK Architecture Company’s influences include the socially and environmentally conscious Italian design group Superstudio’s 1969 Continuous Monument photocollages and Rem Koolhaas’s 1972 project Exodus or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture. In creating P.F.1 they also drew inspiration from the 40th anniversary of the uprisings of 1968 – updating the rallying cry ‘Sous les pavés, la plage’ (Under the pavement, the beach) as ‘Sur les pavés, la ferme’ (Over the pavement, the farm).
Incorporated into the project were ‘experiential columns’ for ‘play and interaction’, including one for solar-powered phone charging and another that played barnyard sounds. A long, supine tube was embellished with graffiti and could be crawled into as if it were a tunnel. In a corner of the same outdoor gallery, off the main courtyard, appeared a cardboard-tube tribute to Vladimir Tatlin inspired by his Monument to the Third International (1919–20). This conjured an exuberant Utopianism while it also, intentionally or not, served as a reminder that the Soviet Union’s dire food-supply problems began when it replaced millions of small farms with a centralized system, a point that Pollan makes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
But a playful mood prevailed. One of the ‘experiential columns’ was outfitted for ‘star-gazing’, which involved poking your head inside and turning your eyes upward (presumably after seeing the sign that read ‘look up’) to glimpse an array of tiny lights placed at the top. Although this mini-sky, which was accompanied by a recording of singing crickets, had an innocuous charm, it was hard to forget that in outer-borough neighborhoods like Long Island City where P.S.1 is located – sometimes jokingly called ‘big-sky country’ – the degree to which light pollution veils real stars in the nighttime firmament is only more obvious than it is in Manhattan. Surely the architects could have come up with something better than this puny surrogate and its erasure of context?
In the same column, however, several openings allowed one to peer, as if through a slim telescope, at placid, crystal-clear barnyard scenes filmed at the Queens County Farm Museum (which dates back to 1697 and is the longest continuously farmed site in the state). A goat gazed back meditatively at the viewer, a goose slowly turned its snowy head as if observed through a keyhole, pigs milled about in the distance like fish swimming in a tiny bowl. This was far more memorable than the ersatz night sky, evoking, as with Alice’s glimpse of a refreshing garden in Alice in Wonderland, a pastoral landscape seemingly near enough to touch but frustratingly out of reach. In doing so, it underlined the serious challenge posed by the fragrant green carpet undulating overhead.